Why another Sabeen must not rise


Most of us never had the chance to meet Sabeen. Yet she managed to enrich our lives immeasurably, including the lives of the many who had never even heard of her.

It may seem only half a decade ago but there was no bustling theatre scene in Karachi back then. Only the biggest corporations could afford to put up shows at the Arts Council. I tried competing with them for turf space, and failed. As a complete stranger, [I asked her] to use her space to put up socially relevant plays. She said yes. And for eight weeks, we put up theatre workshops and [different] performances. [I had to] pay nothing to do all of this – Shehzad Ghias, Brooklyn, 25th April 2015

She will continue to enrich our lives now that she is gone, even if we still don’t realize it. This is just how her war was. It was not a war that could be won or lost through bullets. It spread organically through nurturing word and considerate deed, and it asked for no more than a little thoughtful engagement in return.

The last time I saw her was at a poetry event a friend and I had organized. She had to shush people constantly. All she wanted was for people to take something meaningful away from the event – Amna Chaudhry, Lahore, 26th April, 2015

The facts of her murder have shattered the faith many still placed in God and humanity. And for some, it is clear where the blame lies. For others – even after pinning the blame on the State, the media, and the kangaroo court of public opinion, for actions and omissions various – the burden is no lighter still.

For years, people have mocked us and laughed at us for our small numbers…doubted our motives…questioned our agendas. If you had joined us, we wouldn’t have been so pitiable. We would have had strength in numbers – Sabeen Mahmud, Karachi, 29th March, 2015

Sabeen stuck her neck out to fight the good fight while most of the rest of us reclined in comfortable surrender. She personally gained little from this devotion and had to repeatedly confront the nightmarish forces of our times, forces that most of us still cannot name.

Even after her killing, segments of the media are blind to what she gave us, with most either actively maligning her or, at best, remaining criminally silent on the significance of her life and death. Understandably so, her well-wishers are afraid that she died in vain.

She deserved a million people to see her off, she deserved front page stories in every newspaper, but it didn’t happen because we as a nation don’t deserve people like Sabeen – Shahjahan Chaudhry, Karachi, 25th April 2015

In fact, naysayers explain her killing by either calling her a foreign agent or at least someone playing into the hands of one. This has made her well-wishers even more cynical about continuing her struggle. But maybe in thinking this, they ignore the purpose of her activism, just like those who callously misrepresent her and the facts of her death.

Most forms of activism are symbolic protests. Going and standing outside a church is not going to end violence against minorities or sectarianism, but it is about getting involved, and playing your part in public life – Sabeen Mahmud, Karachi, February 2014

The value of Sabeen’s life and activism was not in the size of crowds she reached or the amount of relief packages she disbursed among the poor. The value of Sabeen’s life and activism lies in the ideas that it embodied.

She was a grown woman without a husband and children who had instead chosen a path described by grownups as murky and frightening. But all we kids saw was a woman who had the drive to make things happen despite the odds – Amna Chaudhry, Lahore, 26th April, 2015

She campaigned tirelessly for issues as wide-ranging as land rights, peace and development in Lyari and Orangi, inter-faith harmony and ethnic tolerance, human rights, and state accountability.

Her activism drew on a politics of inclusivity, much-needed in a country that has only known the politics of division.

She wrote back to one of [the people threatening her] and said, “Why’re you so angry? Come, let’s have chai together and we’ll talk”. She manage[d] to get that person to have chai with her, [and become his friend]- Rabeea Arif, Karachi, 25th April 2015

In another country, scores of individuals would have unknowingly shared Sabeen’s burden. But, because this is Pakistan, Sabeen had no choice but to campaign largely alone and on multiple fronts.

She may still have been murdered, even with greater public support. But at least her ideas would not be in danger of dying out with her. This is why we must never let another Sabeen rise again. After all, heroes like her can never prevail in today’s Pakistan. They will be taken away prematurely, tragically, repeatedly.

We [need to] ‘spread the risk’ of progressive activism around instead of leaving our most outspoken friends vulnerable.  Instead of safely ensconcing ourselves in our separate ‘dedh-eenth ki masjidain’, progressive people [need to] connect with each other en-mass, [otherwise] they shall soon become an extinct species in the land of the pure – Ali Jan, Lahore, 25th April, 2015

To preserve the values and ideas people like Sabeen stood for, we need to share Sabeen’s burden after today. Maybe then we will finally reclaim our forgotten freedoms.

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