By Mehr Tarar
1 May 2015
I did not know Sabeen Mahmud. The first time I heard Sabeen’s name was in a tweet about her death. On April 24, 2015, she was killed when five bullets entered her face, neck and chest.
Almost a week later my mind’s still trying to come to terms with her death, her very violent death.
Her mother survived the two bullets that pierced her body, but she lost her beloved, very, very brave daughter.
There’s shock; there’s wordless grief; there’s anger at the sheer brutality of her killing; and there’s helplessness knowing that a fearless woman was murdered simply because she refused to acquiesce to the fear that permeates the world she marched in, and challenged.
Pakistani activists wear masks depicting the face of Sabeen Mahmud, the rights campaigner who was shot dead a week ago today
Sabeen Mahmud was killed for speaking up for those whose voices no one heard.
Uttering a rest-in-peace for Sabeen seems superfluous to me. For Sabeen’s eulogy that one caption in a memorial at the Lahore University of Management Sciences suffices… Rest in power, Sabeen…
Sabeen’s murder has provoked a flurry of reactions, both in Pakistan and globally.
The killing of a human rights activist is the bloodying of the line that differentiates dialogue from disorder, common sense from chaos, and debate from diatribe.
While many like me did not know who Sabeen was, there is a categorical condemnation of her killing across Pakistan. And like in most such cases, the ifs and buts abound.
That is human nature, and in this case how things work in a country where there is much to be said about the right to speak freely, and the right to exist without fear.
Remembering Sabeen’s words, “Fear is just a line in your head,” I wonder as I write this quiet April morning how that fear became the overwhelming justification for those for whom Sabeen represented all who had to be silenced.
Threats did not work on her. Bullets silenced her when she spoke when no one else did.
Who killed Sabeen? I have no answer to that. Is the culprit some radical organisation whose raison d’etre is the distortion of religious teachings, the threat of “azaab” on the “disobedient”, the Fatwas against those who they think “err”, or bullets for those who wish to breathe freely without being forced to tow the line of the clergy-ordained do’s and don’t’s?
Is the culprit some power-hungry cabal that maintains its hegemony through a warped narrative of fear and exploitation?
Is the culprit the agencies whose power remains unchecked, and accountability negligible?
Or is the culprit the state of Pakistan that has failed, time and again, to provide that basic right for all its citizens: safety of life?
There is no one answer and there may never be any justice for Sabeen and all those like her who simply exercised their right to speak, and the others’ right to be heard.
Sabeen’s The Second Floor -- T2F – in her own words to Innovations magazine, was a platform for those who thought they had something different to tell or do: “I wondered if I could create a minuscule postmodern hippie outpost, 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.”
And this is what the T2F remained: a platform. How did this platform become a must-remove “annoyance” for those who think the mere act of speaking out loud is tantamount to rebellion, pointing out the ills of a society is crossing the line, and standing up against tyranny – be it mental or other – is a crime?
The questions are aplenty, and the answers fail to encompass the horror unleashed for the mere provision of a platform to talk, discuss, debate and argue the dichotomies of a country called Pakistan circa 2015.
To me Sabeen’s work speaks at a very personal level. There’s nothing that she stood up for I couldn’t relate to. There’s no fight that she took head on that I’d shy away from.
There’s no cause that meant a great deal to her that I couldn’t raise my voice for.
But without knowing Sabeen and of her work while she lived, there’s that one difference that makes her stand apart from me, and many like me who feel the pain of others, and condemn the power to curb people’s voices: Sabeen walked the talk.
Sabeen stood up for the causes she believed in, and Sabeen provided a platform for all those who felt isolated, persecuted and alienated in their own homeland.
Sabeen is their hero. Sabeen is Pakistan’s hero. And Sabeen is my hero. Sabeen turned ideas, feelings, views and thoughts into words, slogans and actions.
With her death, Sabeen has opened a Pandora’s box. Of uneasy truths, of uncomfortable realities.
It is time for that much needed introspection, that deep soul-searching. When you protest for people’s right to celebrate love on the Valentine’s Day, it is not a validation of hate for the traditions of your society.
When you protest against the extremist narratives of a section of the clergy, it is in no way the negation of the true tenets of the religion that strengthens your core and empowers your faith.
When you protest against the extremes of the agencies in Balochistan against the so-called “dissenters”, it is not a promulgation of the anti-or-divide-Pakistan narrative.
And when you hold a debate at the T2F giving a podium to the long-suffering Pakistanis like Mama Qadeer, it is not an endorsement of treason to Pakistan.
All you are doing is: letting people speak. All you are doing is: letting people be heard. There are no rants against the country you call home, and there is no announcement of war.
There is simply an outlet for the expression of your dilemmas, your pain, and of others, and an effort to delineate a narrative to have those dilemmas sorted out, that pain heeded to.