Sabeen Mahmud’s Murder Cannot Silence Her Voice

Sabeen Mahmud’s Murder Cannot Silence Her VoiceSabeen Mahmud’s Murder Cannot Silence Her Voice

Several days before she was murdered by unidentified gunmen, Sabeen Mahmud received a death threat. This, among numerous other threats, did not deter the Pakistani political activist and director of Karachi’s progressive community center T2F from hosting an event about the repressed region of Balochistan. As she drove home from the event with her mother on the evening of April 24th, Mahmud was shot dead, Eman Elshaikh wrote for Muftah.

The event was initially scheduled to be held at a university in Lahore, but it was canceled after the hosts received threats from Pakistani intelligence. Instead, Sabeen Mahmud hosted the event at T2F. Billed as “Unsilencing Balochistan Take 2,” the event brought together Balochi activists including Mama Qadeer Baloch and Farzana Majeed to facilitate discussion about a part of Pakistan that has suffered under repeated Pakistani military operations for several years.

Pakistan is a precarious and unsafe space for political dissidents, activists, and journalists. The military stifles dissent and fails to investigate death threats or other incitements to violence. The country’s urban bourgeois class is complicit in discouraging opposition to the military’s control over Pakistan. This has created an oppressive atmosphere of fear and forced silence in the face of political repression.

Against this backdrop, Sabeen Mahmud tried to cultivate an open, inclusive space where fear did not dictate conversations. “Fear is just a line in your head. You can choose what side of that line you want to be on,” Mahmud said in a 2013 interview.

In the bustling community spaces she created, Sabeen Mahmud encouraged a vibrant counterculture. As writer Saim Saeed wrote in his tribute to Mahmud on, “Sabeen gave a lifeline to the kind of public activity that was endangered all over the country, but was on the brink of extinction in Karachi.”

Mahmud believed passionately in the transformative power of community and conversations. “People talk about conflict resolution through dialogue, but you have to create those enabling environments and frameworks for those conversations to happen,” said Mahmud in an interview with the Asia Society. Through these environments, she fostered discussions on contested issues and encouraged dialogue on “whatever we can get away with.”

  Fight for Civil Society

As Mahmud’s childhood friend and novelist Kamila Shamsie wrote in the Guardian, Mahmud was “fighting to make civil society matter–whether the issue was minority rights, opposition to religious extremism or freedom of expression– [and] she brought these issues into T2F.

Reflecting on her journey with T2F, Sabeen Mahmud wrote, “I started fantasizing about creating a public space for free speech and creative expression. I had long conversations with myself: How could we become agents of social change if our theater practitioners had no rehearsal spaces? How could creative dissidents even learn of each other’s existence, let alone build and cultivate a community, without physical spaces where people could talk politics? In fact, years of military rule, terrible violence, and a range of other events had stripped people of their political will and the desire to be the change they wished to see. I had grown up hearing stories about Pakistan’s teahouses where poets and revolutionaries would gather, and I had seen countless photographs of inspirational leaders from the women’s movement being tear-gassed for demanding their rights. I wondered if I could create a safe haven for artists, musicians, writers, poets, activists, and thinkers—essentially anyone who wanted to escape the relentless tyranny of the city for a little while. If I built it, would anyone come?”

People did. She hosted hundreds of events after T2F was founded in 2007. Mahmud felt this to be her responsibility to the younger generation. She opened the space to everyone, and refused to employ armed guards, insisting that “public spaces should not carry the fear of violence.”

She said that whenever she felt helpless or frustrated, she drew strength from her fellow community members, who were building things and taking real action by working towards “developing political will.” In the face of death threats and hateful messages, Mahmud was intrepid, saying “I thrive on disruption.” She embodied a resilience and sense of commitment that will doubtlessly live on in the communities she created and sustained.

 “Sometimes it just feels fragile and ridiculous, but then the next day you think, okay at least this exists, it’s real,” Mahmud said of T2F in an interview in March. Despite the difficulties and setbacks, she felt T2F was the “respite that we need from the violence and anguish that sometimes you can’t help but feel” and hoped it would become a model for others. “People don’t feel safe. I have a very cavalier attitude to fear, so maybe I just don’t care. I just feel when the time comes, the time will come.”