Elisabeth Braw wrote an admiring article about Sabeen Mahmud in 2013. It’s heartbreaking to read now.
When you enter Sabeen Mahmud’s airy The Second Floor café, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re in San Francisco. The walls feature works by young local artists; the menu offers panini and café lattes, and announcements invite you to author readings and discussion evenings. Indeed, with her short, stylish hairdo and edgy glasses, Mahmud herself looks very Californian.
But this is Karachi, a city that most of the outside world associates with extremism and sectarian violence. In fact, Mahmud’s café is a risky endeavor. Intelligence officers frequently show up, especially at Indian events. “But fear is a line in your head”, she reflects. “I want to do what I want to do. Of course I want more security, but I’m not going to worry that I’ll be raped or shot. Fear is the new normal in Karachi.”
You see what I mean about heartbreaking.
Pakistan hasn’t always been like this. Pakistan changed. That could happen anywhere.
All around Pakistan, there are brave women like Mahmud who tenaciously fight extremism. And extremism is growing, partly because many Taliban who’ve left Afghanistan have settled here. Around Karachi there are entire Taliban colonies; indeed, the Taliban even boast of being protected by the police. “The situation is getting worse for all citizens of Pakistan because of terrorism and extremism, and women and minorities are always more vulnerable in such situation”, says Mahnaz Rahman, Director of the Aurat (Women) Foundation in Karachi. Reflects freelance journalist Zofeen Ibrahim: “It’s painful to see how we’ve regressed in the past 10 years. There used to be so much freedom. You could ride a bike. You could wear anything you wanted. Now I don’t even let my daughter go to the cornershop alone because it’s not safe. This is not normal!”
Or maybe it is normal, and it’s freedom and rights and equality that are not normal. They may be not normal, but they are better. They are by far the better way to live.
I meet a large group of those women at the offices of Aurat. Like many companies and offices in Pakistan, it’s guarded by an armed officer. During our lively discussion, male staff serves tea. “There are even feminists in rural areas”, notes activist Hameeda Kaleem. “On the other hand, the rise in fundamentalism has really affected women.” India, Pakistan’s perennial foe, plays a part in this equation, too, as Tabinda Sarosh, a feisty reproductive rights campaigner, observes: “Lots of people watch the Indian TV channel Star+. Women there are always beautiful and dutiful and portrayed as lesser persons intellectually.”
Just like here – all those Real Housewives shows and reality shows full of hotties and cop shows with one token (beautiful) woman.
And despite the setbacks – Taliban, Indian soap operas – Pakistan’s unofficial Women’s Army is adding new members to its ranks, while its veterans get grow bolder. Recently Sabeen Mahmud, who at 38 has two decades of activism under her belt, staged a solo protest against an Islamist anti-Valentine’s Day campaign. And she wants even more action: “Why do people march everywhere else in the world but not here?” she asks. But, then again, tiny victories are leading to change. “Have we stopped a war?” she asks. “No! Have we made a dent? Yes!”
But now they’ve stopped her.