Pakistan’s Radical Feminists Are Fighting Violence with Activism and Art
We met the Pakistani women who dare to fight for free speech. One of them was Sabeen Mahmud, a woman who created a countercultural haven for thinkers in Karachi and, in April, paid for it with her life.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
For nearly a decade, Pakistani human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud was the centerpiece of a flourishing counterculture in Karachi, Pakistan. In opening the doors of DIY community space T2F (formerly known as the Second Floor) in 2007, she provided a place for women and men to unfold their creative selves regardless of income, class, or age. But on the night of Friday, April 24, Sabeen was brutally silenced. After hosting a seminar with Baluch political activist Mama Qadeer, she was shot dead on the street outside T2F by two unidentified gunmen. Mahenaz Mahmud—Sabeen's mother, who was with her that night—survived the attack with minimal injuries.
I had originally traveled to Karachi to visit friends and document the underground music scene there. But when I first walked into the T2F conference room in mid April and saw Sabeen surrounded by female associates who all seemed to hang on her every word, in that moment I realized what my story was actually about—the women who make alternative art publicly accessible and freedom of speech possible in Pakistan. In fact, it seemed that much of the underground culture was made possible by the efforts of Sabeen Mahmud.
T2F is situated in a busy pocket of Karachi neighborhood Defense Housing Authorities Phase-II. In the eight years since T2F first opened its doors, it has hosted around 100 events annually, including Pakistan's first civic hackathon in April 2013. Talking with Sabeen in the café that afternoon, I spotted a group of art-school girls sipping on their green smoothies and a middle-aged man browsing piles of international newspapers and feminist zines on the bookshelf. AC units buzzed over quite chatter in English and Urdu. On the wall, a poster of a traffic sign read, "Always keep left."
Sabeen rarely moved out of her signature crossed-arm position as she talked eagerly with co-workers Sana Nasir and Reem Khurshid. "At large, our population is quite politically apathetic," she said, frowning. "We've been under a military rule for most of our history, and we haven't really been able to build democratic movements—for a number of reasons. There is a general distrust of democracy." Reem agreed, adding: "The instability that comes with living here contributes to a testament to people's general drive. But despite that, they have the desire and willpower to be creative." As they spoke, I came to think of the T-shirt I saw Sabeen wear in a picture published online, which read: "I think, therefore I am dangerous."
A few days later, I came back to T2F and found Sabeen talking on the phone. "I don't care if it's the ISI, or whoever it is threatening us. I frankly don't care."
It wasn't the first time T2F had been advised by the ISI—Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence—to cancel an event. But this time it was different. On Facebook, a description of the event read, "Unsilencing Balochistan: Take 2. A conversation between Baloch activist Mama Qadeer, Farzana Baloch, Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur, Wusat Ullah Khan, and Malik Siraj Akbar." The panel had been designed to springboard discussion around the Baloch missing persons—referring to the allegedly hundreds of people from the neighboring province Balochistan who had "disappeared," likely under a forceful act from the hands of Pakistani security and law enforcement agencies. It was—and still is—a very sensitive political subject in both the Sindh and Punjab provinces. The same panel with Qadeer was forcefully cancelled in Lahore, just a few weeks prior to the event rescheduling in Karachi. The cancellation caused uproar on social media, and Sabeen decided to take the risk of hosting the event in her own hands.
On Friday, April 24, 2015, the panel took place as scheduled. A few hours after Mama Qadeer and hundreds of curious attendees left T2F, two unidentified gunmen pulled up to Sabeen and her mother as they were leaving the building. They opened fire. Sabeen suffered serious injury from five gunshots and died on the way to the hospital.
The day after her murder, Sabeen's body rested peacefully in her casket at T2F. She was surrounded by hundreds of friends, relatives, coworkers, artists, journalists, and embassy representatives, who all spilled onto the street outside the community space. After the ceremony, I spotted Sabeen's mother, Mahenaz, sitting on a chair near the entrance. She spoke quietly with Sabeen's close friend, Marvi Mahzahr. A woman checked on her injury, and unwrapped the bandages around her arm to reveal a fresh gunshot wound. Mahenaz seemed unfazed by the pain as Marvi called me over. "You were the last person to photograph Sabeen," she told me.
Now, although its leader might be gone, T2F will not cease to exist. Far from it. "Karachi still needs T2F," the community space's graphic designer, Sana Nasir, emphasized to me. "We need it as our haven, untainted by personal agendas and monetary profits. We need this inclusive community space that bridged the gap between people of various social classes. We need this community to grow and explore various disciplines, and not stop at one corner."
As much as Karachi needs T2F, T2F also needs the people of Karachi.
Throughout my month in the heavily populated city, I started searching for other important women who represent the future of the community that Sabeen built, and the future of creative independence and freedom of speech. These are the women I met.
PRESERVING HERITAGE HISTORY: MARVI MAHZAHR
"I met Sabeen at the Arts Council of Karachi Festival three years ago. Of course, like most things in Pakistan, it didn't start on time. I remember her shouting to someone, 'You said that it was going to start at 8:30! It's now 9:30 and my time is very precious!'"
Marvi's mother, a gynecologist turned politician, passed away after a targeted shooting in 1992. She worked closely with the eleventh prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, who the country's first, and so far only, female prime minister. Bhutto became a leading icon for Pakistani feminism after her first election, but was assassinated in 2007.
On her own activism, Marvi says it came from her mother. "Because of our mother, my sisters and I are all very strong women," she says. As a female architect, she explains, "Passing your idea or concept is always a fight, and you're always alone on that table. But women also have their own advantage here, I must say—you do get your way, eventually."
T2F GRAPHIC DESIGNER AND ILLUSTRATOR: SANA NASIR
"I helped start a design-based organization while I was still in college. Our aim was to create poster exhibits and give 100 percent of the profits from the sales to charity," says Sana. "Our first show was based on the unrest in Gaza, but hardly anyone we knew were willing to give us space to exhibit in. A friend told me he had found a new and unusual space [T2F], and that its owner was willing to let us use it for no charge at all. That was the first time I met Sabeen."
Sana feels like everyone around her "needs to have some sort of an exit strategy now," as opposed to maybe five years ago, when people were "more patriotic, and there were less Taliban influences in the country." Life becomes discouraging, she says, "especially when people get killed. How much can you do when your enemy has actual weapons, and all you have is voice?"
In all the discouragement that the city projects, though, Sana is still optimistic about Karachi's future. "I want to see this place become better," she says. "I know it can, but things might get worse before they get better."
ILLUSTRATOR: SAMYA ARIF
"The first time I met Sabeen she was really friendly, with contagious humor and a wry smile," Samya tells me. "In a city where there's a lack of mentorship, I knew that she was going to become one of my favorite people."
Downstairs in her room, Samya pulls some large sketches and paintings into the window light. She nonchalantly rolls a joint and shows me a series of drawings of a larger woman from her portfolio. "I modeled these after some photographs I shot of my friend on the beach. She was almost nude, and, you know, you're not supposed to expose any skin as a woman here. These men, these religious guys, were walking on the beach in our direction. I had to hide her behind my shawl and a large rock in the water. Just imagine if they had seen some female skin—a naked leg!"
Samya says her parents still ask her, "Where are you going?" and "How long will you be out for?" It frustrates her. "To be a fucking 29-year-old and still have to answer those questions is ludicrous."
STUDENT OF EASTERN CLASSICS: ZEERAK AHMED
Zeerak is, as well as a performer (recording under the musical moniker Slow Spin), a student of Eastern Classical music and has been in school for the last ten years. When asked to elaborate more on her knowledge in the field, she is modest in her words. "It's a lifelong relationship," she says. "Ten years of studying is essentially nothing under my belt. I'm not comfortable saying that I'm a 'classical singer' yet.
She smiles when she recalls her first ever show—at T2F. "Me and my best friend had a growing interest in social satire, street art, and psychedelic content," she says, "and one day found ourselves at Sabeen's house. It was the first time we felt like the adults were taking our opinion seriously."
FEMINIST ARTIST: HAMIDA KHATRI
"My mom is my role model," says Hamida. "But my father doesn't know about my art. If he saw it, he'd think I was completely crazy."
Her work talks a lot about feminism, she says, "and the internal struggles that a woman faces in her life," particularly, "the issues that are visible for almost every girl in this country. It's not very easy for women here to express themselves, and many aren't as privileged as some of the girls you have met. They come from families where the girls aren't allowed to go outside."
In Hamida's solo exhibition at Karachi's Sanat Gallery in February, one of the drawings she exhibited shows an illustration of a woman screaming in pain, as she is seemingly about to cut into her own breast with a kitchen knife. "Someone I know—a very religious person—told me not to do the show," she says. "But I said, OK, I've read the Quran, I know what my religion says, but, at the end of the day, I need a voice. This is the best medium I have."
FIGHTING THE INDUSTRY: SEHER NAVEED
"T2F served as a backbone to younger practitioners who were not getting support from other galleries and institutions," says Seher, matter-of-factly. "Cities like Karachi need places like T2F, where there is an open discourse, where one is encouraged to share ideas and thoughts and able to do experimental work." On Sabeen's legacy, she says: "We need more and more young people to be like her, to hold the city together like she did."
Seher explains, interestingly, how comfortable she now is traveling on her own within the city, but that it wasn't always that way. "In school, we were always forced to find alternative ways to travel if we didn't have a car that one day," she says. "So there was something significant about becoming comfortable enough to go out on our own as women.
"When I was studying for my MFA in London, I was pressured by the faculty to do something political, because I was from Pakistan. I have issues with artists doing political work here just for the sake of doing political work, even though the issues don't actually affect them, in any way possible." She also refuses to follow "the road paved by Pakistan's art industry," which she finds compromising in terms of self-expression.
SCULPTOR: SEEMA NUSRAT
"When I was studying abroad, I felt lost," says Seema. "I realized that all my subjects were here, in Karachi. But I think that the experience of living away from my city made me closer and more observant to Karachi. When I came back from my studies, I saw a drastic change in the city—one thing was these barricades that started popping up everywhere and they started to become a part of the city. There is a power segregation there."
Seema's sculptural work focuses largely on the structural function of an object and its material. In April, she exhibited an outdoor installation at Frere Hall in Karachi, a former palace from the British colonial era in Pakistan. A labyrinth of sandbags made up the complete installation, and the untraditional shape of the stacked bags allowed the material to subvert from its original, political function. "I think those open art discussions at T2F has helped me a lot in my art exposure," she says.
MULTI-MEDIA ARTIST: SARA PAGGANWALA
"There is a certain amount of censorship that we succumb to, both as women and men," Sara tells me over her desk. "And, you know, a lot of women are already liberated as it is, but it is a different kind of independence. It is stigmatized." Not that she'll ever let that deter her. "I mean, what is stopping you? Is it because a man is stronger than you?"
On Sara's work desk is a small, spinning object, projecting red and green light around the room. Looking closer, the spinning object is, in fact, a picture of Jesus, but on the other side of the double-printed cutout, she has covered the upper body of Jesus with a plastic burka. Sculptures made of various materials hang on the walls, while her work in progress is stored in the corners of the room. She points out one of her more conspicuous sculptures, an origami-shaped sculpture of a woman, made up by dozens of small, geometrical pieces.
"I wanted to work with a transient material," she says. "Something that would transform over time. I guess this piece comes down to the fact that I feel like we're often missing real connections with people. I feel like many people here are very superficial."
THE WOMAN HELPING ACID VICTIMS: MUSARRAT MISBAH
Musarrat started her career as a beautician, and her first beauty salon opened in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1980. After a few years in the business, her female customers started coming in not just for beauty care, but also for personal consulting. In 2003, something changed. "I was about to leave my office when a young girl in a burka walked into my salon and asked for my help. Underneath the veil was a woman without a face," Musarrat pauses. "She had lost one of her eyes and, instead of a nose, there was a hole. Somebody had thrown acid on her. Soon after, I placed an ad in the newspaper, saying: 'If you're a victim of acid or kerosene oil attack, you can come to my salon and get a free medical check-up.' I arranged for some doctors to come and, the next day, 42 girls turned up."
Musarrat explains that many of the acid attacks happen when "the husband is jealous or suspicious of his wife, or when a young girl says, 'I don't want to get married, I want to continue with my studies,' and that the man then thinks, 'Well, if she can't be mine, she will never be anybody else's.'"
"Today," she continues, "when me and my team hear of recent acid attack on a Pakistani woman, our coordinator will travel there and get in touch with her. We raise money from family, friends, and the public at large to pay for their hospital bills, for the medicine and for the operations needed. At this point, I have 627 girls who are still with me. There's one girl who has become an advocate, there are a few girls who have become nurses and 13 of the girls have gotten married to normal boys." What Musarrat really does, though, although she wouldn't say it outright, is help these women regain control over their lives. She helps them rediscover their pride.
Follow Tonje on Twitter.