Enabling Dissent, Defying Silence – In Memory of Sabeen Mahmud: Yaminay Chaudhri and Mariam Sabri

Sabeen Mahmud's Slippers

Guest Post by Yaminay Chaudhri and Mariam Sabri

[ This is a post from two friends in Pakistan responding to the tragic assasination of Sabeen Mahmud, activist and director of ‘The Second Floor’ (T2F) – a space that hosted many wonderful conversations and brave events. Sabeen was killed as she was going home after an event dedicated to a public discussion of disappearances and human rights violation in Balochistan.]

A normally quiet and desolate gali is packed with camera crews and hundreds of attendees for the funeral of Sabeen Mahmud. While there is a steady trickle of mourners entering and exiting the premises of the vibrant community space Sabeen created, the crowd waiting in the gali outside seems to be arrested by a mixture of disbelief, anger and grief.

Similar emotions paralyze us as we write about Sabeen in the past tense. It is difficult to believe she is gone, infuriating to think about the way she went, and, perhaps, the hardest to accept the beginning of her absence.

While watching her interview with PBS NewsHour last month, one is struck by how her cavalier attitude to fear and security, reverberates eerily in the wake of her murder.

“I grew up playing cricket on the streets” she said, “I just feel when the time comes, the time will come”.

Following her death, in the last two days, Sabeen has been referred to, in the news, as the director of an NGO, the ‘woman behind Pakistan’s first Hackathon’, a human rights activist and an ‘effective advocate for building bridges between India and Pakistan’. Truthfully, none of these labels can adequately encompass Sabeen or her work, since they both defied neat categorization. She wore multiple hats effortlessly without needing to claim expertise in any specific discipline.

She was not an academic, and even claimed to have ‘struggled at school’ in an interview with Asia Society, but her relentless pursuit of knowledge was more impressive than many. There is a vivid memory of her earnest and active participation in a bilingual forum for enthusiasts looking to deepen their understanding of Urdu poetry, which she regularly attended despite her busy schedule, demonstrating her commitment to learning outside her field and the academy.

On occasion, one might have disagreed with some of Sabeen’s political stances, but still had fierce admiration for her devotion to minority rights, consciousness of class polarization and her powerful, continuous, critique of patriarchy. Her consistent ability to create spaces where dissenting views were welcome, regardless of  divides based on class, gender, age and expertise, inspired unwavering respect.

Creating a community space with a ‘liberal arts’ sensibility, such as T2F, was the highlight of Sabeen’s efforts. It was her brainchild, her labour of love–an “island” of respite from the anguish of the city, that she had longed for and imagined well before its creation. Sabeen consciously tried to ensure that this safe space would welcome people regardless of  class, gender and sexual orientation. On one occasion when asked about the limited menu offerings at T2F, Sabeen noted that it was part of a conscious effort to maintain reasonable prices and encourage a wider demographic of people from the city to frequent the space. T2F was one of the first and only places where LGBTQ issues were openly discussed, and many who identified as such claimed to feel comfortable and welcome there.

T2F became a popular venue for talks, discussions, informal classes, music, dance and literary performances–and most importantly, became a space open to dissent. This is no small feat in a culture where conforming to hierarchy is essential to success and even survival, where dissent against the State and the military’s covert actions is discouraged in public spaces, where universities and centers of learning withdraw from (and avoid) hosting important conversations on contested issues. In such a context, the Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2) event held at T2F on April 24th 2015, was an unthinkable act of bravery and defiance. The insistence on holding this controversial event is presumed to have triggered Sabeen’s murder later that same evening.

Her murder comes at a time when the tyranny of the state and its censorship of dissent is gaining ground. A rise in state-sponsored aggression, in Balochistan and other parts of the country, as well as the problematic recently-released Cyber Crime Bill, are a wake-up call to our quickly disappearing civil liberties. Sabeen understood the urgency of nurturing and multiplying spaces of dissent rather than joining the petty politics of exclusion and competition.

“T2F is a model.” she said in the same PBS interview, “It’s a template for other people to create similar public spaces in other areas of the city”.

She demonstrated her dedication to this concern by sharing an attitude of generosity towards emerging talent, that helped multiple individuals, and startups gain popularity and access to networks. Mind your Media, Code for Pakistan, the Abdus Salam Documentary Film, Habib University, Procheck, Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema, Zambeel Dramatic Readings, and the Tarz Group Ensemble are just a few examples of organizations or projects that benefited from T2F’s platform.

In the way she carried herself, Sabeen established a model that defied essentialisms of class and gender. It was this humility, effortlessly combined with consistently ethical behavior and sheer bravery that inspired significant admiration for Sabeen as a person who led by example.

Sabeen’s style of advocacy was more powerful, honest, and unassuming than many renowned activists who are the mainstay of television talk shows in Pakistan. She believed in the importance of the movements she participated in, but was respected for never using her position for self-promotion. On many occasions, when asked about the threat her advocacy posed to her safety, she earnestly joked about how she was not important enough to be targeted.

Like any other day, without gloating over her achievement of hosting a discussion that had been ‘disallowed’ in universities many times the size and budget of T2F, Sabeen drove home with her mother via a route she took everyday. While she waited at the crossing for the light to turn green, gunmen pulled up from either side and opened fire on her car in a meticulously coordinated attack. The attack left Sabeen dead and her mother seriously injured.

A recent Youtube video, reporting her murder, leaves an indelible image on the screen. Her trusty leather kohlapuris, sit silently amidst shattered glass in her empty car. They render an absence that is painfully exact, hauntingly intimate and specifically Sabeen. Sabeen, who was always in motion, who many loved and admired. Sabeen who always had her feet firmly planted on the ground. Sabeen, who leaves behind shoes that are severely hard to fill and a legacy of dissent that must endure.

3 thoughts on “Enabling Dissent, Defying Silence – In Memory of Sabeen Mahmud: Yaminay Chaudhri and Mariam Sabri”

  1. Sabeen was a brave activist. She did not fear death. She raised issues which very few people were raising in Pakistan. She raised inconvenient issues to the annoyance of establishment, political, military and religious fanatics. Last time when I met her and inquired about her safety she said what would be the use of surviving when justice, liberty and democracy cease to exist. Her assassination is a great loss for those who are fighting totalitarianism in the Indian subcontinent.


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