Last Friday evening in Karachi, Sabeen Mahmud, a forty-year-old Pakistani activist with close-cropped hair, a loud belly laugh, and an interest in human rights, held court at the café she owned. Mahmud opened The Second Floor, a coffee shop and community space, eight years ago, and it became both a staging ground for her activism work and a popular gathering place. It was tucked next to an empty lot on a narrow street, and the moment you entered the skinny front door, you felt you were in a different world. “You’d forget you were in Pakistan,” Mahmud’s friend Sheba Najmi wrote in an e-mail. “It turned strangers into friends.” Bookshelves lined the brick walls of a cozy room, which was dotted with murals. The staircase was painted with blue skies, black crows on telephone lines, and questions such as “Mama, should I trust the government?”
That evening, Mahmud was hosting a panel discussion about the situation in Balochistan, working with several social activists from the embattled province. Balochistan is largely undeveloped and one of Pakistan’s poorest regions, but it’s also the biggest and rich in natural resources. For the last decade, it’s been home to a separatist uprising, the third the province has seen since the nineteen-sixties, and Baloch nationalists have been going missing. Although the numbers are difficult to confirm, as many as twenty-one thousand people may have disappeared. In October of 2013, Mama Qadeer, an activist in his seventies and one of the participants in Mahmud’s event, began marching from Quetta to Islamabad, a distance of five hundred and sixty miles, in order to draw attention to the victims, many of whom, Qadeer alleges, have been “killed and dumped.” His own son’s corpse was found in 2011, two years after he vanished.
But what’s happening in Balochistan is a controversial subject, and one that many Pakistanis don’t feel safe talking about. Earlier this month, Lahore University of Management Sciences, one of the country’s most prestigious universities, cancelled an event called “Unsilencing Balochistan,” citing government pressure. Mahmud named her event “Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2)” and invited several of the same speakers. An online announcement asked, “What makes it dangerous for us to talk about Pakistan’s largest province at one of our most celebrated universities?” Mahmud knew she was taking a risk by holding the event and discussed the possibility of “blowback” with a friend on Facebook. But she wrote to another friend, “I just want to leave everything and join the Baloch march for the rights of their missing. What else is life for?”
The evening began with Mahmud asking the audience to maintain a polite exchange of views, even if there was strong disagreement. She then played a short documentary on Balochistan’s missing. After several panelists spoke, there was a question-and-answer session. When the event ended around 9 P.M., Mahmud left The Second Floor with her mother, Mahenaz Mahmud. They got into a white Suzuki; Mahmud drove, her mother sat in the passenger seat, and her driver sat in the back. According to a friend, Nosheen Ali, Mahmud liked to drive, often riding a motorcycle to work even though Karachi is a city where women don’t drive motorcycles. “She did what she wanted,” Zaheer Alam Kidvai, a friend who attended the event on Friday, said.
Shortly after Mahmud pulled away, as she approached the traffic signal near the Defense Central Library, armed motorcyclists surrounded the car and opened fire. Mahmud was hit twice in her chest and once in her neck. One round went through her cheek and came out the other side, striking her mother. As Mahmud slumped over, the shooters took off.
Mahmud’s mother called out to her, but there was no response. Mahmud was likely killed instantly. Bystanders helped move her body to the back seat, and her mother was rushed to a hospital. According to the Express Tribune, police officers responding to the scene described it as a “targeted” or “seemingly targeted” killing. Mahmud had been getting threatening phone calls and e-mails, and intelligence agencies reported that her name was on a hit list that they released in January.
The first time I met Mahmud, in April of 2013, she had also recently received death threats, for staging a protest of a campaign against Valentine’s Day that was being carried out by religious political parties. She described being stuck at home, fearing for her life, when the doorbell suddenly rang four times. It turned out to be just a deliveryman. We were picking at honeyed hors d’oeuvres in the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi, at a conference on female leaders in Asia, and we both felt a little out of place in our gilded surroundings. As she recounted the story, she laughed. “Fear is a state of mind,” she said. “You can make it much bigger than it actually is.”
At the time, Mahmud had just put together Pakistan’s first hackathon, to address the lack of online civic resources, hosting the event with Sheba Najmi at The Second Floor. As we spoke, she told me the story of how she decided to open the café. “I wasn’t a member of any clubs growing up. I was wondering how to meet new people around shared interests, to give space to people who wouldn’t ordinarily get it otherwise,” she said. The problem was that she had no money to fund a new public space, until a London-based uncle sent $9,400 for her grandmother’s future health care. “So I told my grandmother what I was planning to do,” Mahmud later wrote, “and assured her that if she fell ill, we’d give her a triple shot of espresso that would either cure her or kill her.” With her grandmother’s blessing, she opened The Second Floor.
News of Mahmud’s death spread quickly, appearing on the Internet that same evening. A hastily organized event in her honor at the Islamabad Literature Festival on Saturday was packed with more than two hundred people. Zehra Nigah, an acclaimed Urdu poet, started by saying, “It’s hard for me to speak in the past tense about someone who I have seen as my own child.” After Nigah’s eulogy, Dr. Framji Minwalla of the Institute of Business Adminstration, told me, “I kept catching all of us switching from present to past, catching ourselves, stopping, breathing.” Mahmud’s death has already had a huge impact, Minwalla said. “It has galvanized some, others it has sent scurrying back to the shadows.” A sense of unfinished business is shared by many of her friends. “We need justice for her and for all those she was helping to un-silence,” Mahmud’s friend Nosheen Ali wrote.
Mahmud’s activism, however, may have received more international attention in the past few days than during her lifetime. Her death has been reported, and her work commemorated, in the Times, NPR, CNN, and the Guardian. . The problem with these eulogies is that they often obscure the thankless tasks that kept The Second Floor open, the small acts of kindness. “They talk about what The Second Floor has done” and call for more spaces like it, her friend Zaheer Alam Kidvai said, but he thinks that the community Mahmud made is unlikely to be replicated. “Who wants to run a non-governmental organization and not make tons of money, other than Sabeen?” he said. Mahmud is being remembered for her fearlessness, but her friends say that what motivated her daily bravery was love.
This winter, Mahmud enrolled in Peggy Mason’s online neurobiology course at the University of Chicago. Mahmud visited Chicago in February and asked to meet Mason to learn more about her research on empathy. Mahmud was intrigued by the idea that we have a biological urge toward caring. “It fit with her politics,” Mason said. “My work shows we are naturally inclined to help each other.”
It’s a hopeful message and one that was at the root of all Mahmud’s efforts. Her close friend Nosheen Ali wrote, “Sabeen defied categorization. Arts patron and N.G.O, worker are so bland. She was a dil phaink”—an open-hearted person. “She was a heartist like that.”
Lois Parshley is an editor at Popular Science.
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