Parveen and Sabeen – How to deal with power circles in Pakistan

Mansoor Raza 

Parveen Rehman, an architect by training, Director of Orangi Pilot Project Research and Training Institute (OPP-RTI), Karachi was killed on March 13, 2013. It was around 7:00 pm when she was attacked, just a couple of yards away from her office. Parveen relentlessly documented the villages (goths, as they called in local dialect) located in the periphery of Karachi. Parveen not only documented but also lobbied with the communities for their land rights. Besides, she also mapped the illegal hydrants operating in the mega City. Moreover, she was the proponent of modern values in life and was working in that part of Orangi Town which was considered to be under the influence of religious extremists. Hence it was widely believed, then, that she was penalized either by extremists, land mafia or by the tanker mafia.

Sabeen Mahumud, Director of The Second Floor (popularly known as T2F – though the current office is at ground floor), Karachi was shot dead on Friday April 24, 2015, hardly a mile away from her office. A progressive art loving woman, Sabeen was going back home, around 9:00 pm,  after conducting a seminar on the issues and solution as faced by Pakistan’s Achilles’ heel and spatially largest province;  Balochistan. Fingers were pointed rather quickly towards spy masters of the Country and social media space was filled up with the twin expression of grief and anger.

Let put this debate aside that who was responsible for the gruesome murders as the real question from the killing of the two extraordinary women is that why they were killed? The accompanying question is that if violence and intolerance is the order of the day in Pakistan, then how to say right things without getting hurt, so that the civil society channels of making right noises keep buzzing. It is necessary to find the answer of the not-so-easy-to-answer question as lives of many activists are dependent on it. And lets rephrase the question – how to deal and work with formal and informal power structures of Pakistan?

The term civil society carries many connotations and commandments for action. At the functional level it strives to curtail the coercion of state and thrives on humanistic values. It aims to empower the masses so that they can confidently claim their lost rights and take a stand against the injustices emanating from socio-economic inequalities. It is perceived that this could be achieved by creating institutions; institutions that are supposed to act as buffer between the tyrants, supposedly key state instruments or its satellite apparatuses, and the downtrodden who are the masses usually deprived ones. Greater the number of these institutions in a society, the more it qualifies as a ‘Civil Society’

And the two talented women, Parveen and Sabeen, have some things common to them. They were visionaries, had a pro-poor bias/sympathy, preferred a non-traditional life style, gender interactions was un-orthodox and valued the liberal arts. Parveen was more rooted and in liaison with grass root communities while Sabeen’s activism carried an elitist touch. Are those traits enough to get a person killed?  No, apparently not.

It’s a general perception that though both worked in different domains, actually crossed the red lines as set by the state apparatus and/or non-state power groups. Now how to live with those red lines and say what any civil society activists wants to say?  And this is where the lynch pin of the matter is. In contrast to a political worker who is trained to take stiff-necked positions and actually thrives on hard lines, a civil society worker is supposed to generate a debate on issues and that includes sensitive issues too. Generation of debate rather informed debate requires research based knowledge, accommodation of alternative view points, thread and bare discussions and finally negotiations on the issue.

The dynamics of civil society ventures is altogether different than political adventures. Unlike politics where a political worker takes a hard-to-negotiate ideological position, negotiated synthesis is the objective and steering towards that is an art for a civil society activist. One do not needs to be an advocate but a presenter of facts to different stakeholders no matter how hostile they are towards the issue. The deviation from the above-mentioned path usually results in catastrophe. If we closely look at the modus-operandi of the two women, both out of their love for people, took strong positions on some very sensitive issues, that made them party to the relevant subjects and thus lost the space for negotiations and suffered the brute reaction from the aggressive actors. Having said all that, it does not mean that they deserved to be brutally murdered. No it’s highly deplorable and the point is that intensity and the method of the taken-position should be proportional to capacity to handle backlash, if one has to take any position on hard issues.

States and power groups, across the globe, are in the habit of creating red lines. It’s difficult to talk about Kashmir in Delhi and more difficult to have a discussion about Tibet in Beijing.  Green Peace activism is not very much appreciated by the European States and Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières – MSF ), due to its stringent following of Hippocratic Oath, is always censured by various warring groups. The real art is how to deal with those yet not give up on the view point. This understanding is the basic building block of the facade of an ever evolving civil society in Pakistan. The real question is that who will guide them for that, so there should be no further colossal losses. Mere condemnation of the gruesome murders is not the answer.