In April of this year I was alarmed and saddened by the assassination of a well-known social worker, Sabeen Mahmud, in Pakistan. You see, I’m studying social work and my mother just happens to be from Pakistan, so this story was of particular interest to me and raised many questions like “why would ‘they’ assassinate a social worker?” “Who are these ‘they’?” And most importantly “why are so many women activists being targeted?” As educated people (the ones who can make a difference) are fleeing Pakistan for opportunity elsewhere or are becoming silenced (like Mahmud) one can only wonder who will then help the marginalized, the invisible, and the oppressed. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that finding the answer to my questions would be a bigger bite than I could chew, so as a small step, I took the time to learn about Mahmud’s life. As a result, I also learned about the tremendous social work efforts taken by other Pakistani women who risk their lives, literally, trying to improve underserved communities in Pakistan.
So who was Sabeen Mahmud? Mahmud was a “techy,” a human rights and social activist. In a place like Pakistan, where people, especially women, don’t question authority, Mahmud made it a mission to challenge discrimination and injustice for the common people. In a country where women barely drive, Mahmud openly rode her motorcycle because that’s the kind of person she was. She believed in making the world a better place through the internet and technology and her list of accomplishments in the tech industry were a testimony of that. After working for Solutions Unlimited in Karachi, Pakistan she went on to establish her own tech company, Beyond Information and Technology Solutions, which served as an interactive consulting firm. She even served as the president of The Indus Entrepreneurs, Karachi Branch. She went on to establishing, Peace Niche, a nonprofit umbrella under which she established T2F, otherwise known as The Second Floor.
The Second Floor opened up in 2007 and it served as a place for people to discuss ideas, have political discussions, exhibitions, and even events such as Pakistan’s first hackathon in 2013 – a weekend where people brain stormed ideas to make Karachi a better place on a civic level. T2F was also home to stand-up comedy, theater, poetry slams and served as a venue to see prominent local and international artists, musicians and to meet writers and activists, who are rather controversial such as Ayesha Siddique who wrote a book researching Pakistan’s military finances, a rather taboo subject in the country. Mahmud’s efforts were to create a social platform for the public in order to improve the lives of citizens and she paid the ultimate price.
The night she was assassinated she hosted a panel of social activists to discuss the tragedies and disappearances of Balochi nationalists (that are in the thousands) in Balochistan, a province in Pakistan that is rich in resources but underdeveloped. For whatever political reasons and fear, many folks don’t feel safe talking about the tensions in Balochistan and that’s why The Second Floor was such a special place, it served as a safe haven to discuss issues and solutions to problems various communities are afraid to discuss. After leaving the event on that April night, she was stopped at a traffic light in her car with her mother in the passenger seat. According to witnesses, armed men on motorcycles allegedly circled Mahmud’s car and opened fire directly on Mahmud. With two shots in the chest and one in the neck, Mahmud most likely died on the spot as she was unresponsive to her mother in the moments following afterwards. Police investigations deemed this a targeted killing leaving lots of loved ones and supporters stunned and in mourning. Unfortunately, Sabeen Mahmud is not alone in suffering this type of fate. Many social workers were and are at the risk of losing their lives at any moment.
A Tribute Video to Sabeen Mahmud, with a Narrative from based on speech by the late great Steve Jobs of Apple.
Parveen Rehman, was also gunned down in her car by unknown assassins in March of 2013, at the age of 57, right outside the gates of Orangi Town, the very town she served. Rehman moved from Dhaka to Karachi as a teenager and earned a degree in architecture. In 1983 she became the joint director of the Orangi Pilot Project, an initiative to alleviate Orangi’s poverty. The OPP is now considered one of Pakistan’s most successful non-profit organizations. The OPP’s initial goal was to solve sanitation problems squatters faced in Orangi, home of one of Pakistan’s largest slum areas. The OPP eventually grew into an organization that still carries out sanitation policies, housing and microcredit projects for those in need. This organization till today firmly believes in the partnership between the government and its people in order to improve the quality of life for impoverished communities. In 1989 Rehman started managing the OPP- Research and Training Institute that focused on programs in education, youth training, water supply and securing housing for the homeless. By the time of her ruthless assassination in 2013 she made a career in establishing land rights and basic human rights for the poorest of Pakistan’s poor.
Sabeen Mahmud and Parveen Rehman were examples of many human rights activists that are constantly under siege in Pakistan.
Watch: The story of Malala Yousafzai by cnn.com
Fortunately, an assassination attempt on the young Malala Yusufzai, a women’s education rights activist, failed in 2012 but others like two female polio workers in Balochistan in 2015 were not so lucky. These tragedies makes me think of what will happen to other social activists such as Syeda Ghulam Fatima, a human right’s activist working against forced and bonded labor, whose courageous attempts to save lives was recently highlighted by Humans of New York photo journalist Bryan Stanton. As the general secretary of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front- Pakistan, her story also includes several occasions on which she faced death threats and attempts on her life for simply doing the work she does- helping people free themselves from modern-day slavery in brick kilns. One can only pray that she doesn’t suffer the same fate as Mahmud and Rehman because clearly the thousands in bonded slavery still need rescuing from their horrific plight.
In my search regarding Mahmud’s life I’ve found role models that have given up their lives for the causes they believe in and work for. I realized that my studies in social work, my belief to give back to the community and passion can truly make a difference. However, this brings me back to the question I don’t know how to answer or how to even begin to find an answer. Why are the lives of so many social workers, particularly women, targeted in Pakistan? What will have to happen in Pakistan in order for the Sabeens, Parveens and Malalas of the country to thrive and improve society without having to face gun shots? What can you and I do to help? In my humble opinion the key to protecting all social workers, especially women in Pakistan, is basic economic stability, some social order and education in Pakistan. All of which the country severely lacks at this moment. With these things, especially education, I believe the safety of all social workers will increase exponentially. Once people understand the benefits of the work social and human rights activists are doing, understand that challenging and questioning people in power is indeed a citizen’s right, and that this work will ultimately improve their own society and well-being, it will be the beginning of insuring the safety of those trying to do good. I know that this kind solution cannot happen overnight but it has to start somewhere right? Since I believe in education and the power of information, I’ve started by reading and writing about these amazing women who did and do defy the odds every day helping people improve their lives in Pakistan. I can only hope that this tidbit inspires others to inform and support not only these women, but leaders in their own community who struggle every day to do the right thing for the most vulnerable people.
By: Rabiya Wasi