Under Threat

Sabeen Mahmud is Gunned Down


On April 24, 2015 activist and self-described postmodern flower child, unabashed Mac snob, Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen devotee, and Tetris addict, Sabeen Mahmud, was gunned down after holding a public event on Balochistan in her cafe, The Second Floor in Karachi. In this video, we remember her spirit and fierce courage.

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

APRIL 26, 2015

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.

Sabeen Mahmud

 Members of the social group “Umeed Jawan Peace Society” hold pictures of Sabeen Mahmud during a demonstration to condemn her killing. Photograph: KM Chaudary/AP

“Be careful,” I said to my childhood friend Sabeen Mahmud when I saw her in London in 2013, soon after she’d received a death threat – neither the first nor last. “Someone has to fight them,” she replied.

“Fear is just a line in your head,” Sabeen had once said in an interview with Wired magazine – and she and I lived on different sides of that line. On Friday night, Sabeen was murdered, gunned down in her car in Karachi as she drove home with her mother.

There aren’t too many people from Karachi with a clear conscience. It’s a city of many horrors powered by even more guns, and fear makes most people live in a silence that becomes complicity. But Sabeen was always a woman made of different stuff, thanks in large measure to the two great influences of her life: her mother, Mahnaz (shot twice during the attack), from whom she inherited her socialist tendencies, and her friend and mentor Zaheer Kidvai (Zak) who introduced her to the idea of counterculture, via everything from Abbie Hoffman to revolutionary Urdu poets. While most of us at our elite school in Karachi lived in a fairly apolitical bubble, Sabeen was developing class-consciousness and identifying political heroes. Post-university, when most of her schoolfriends were choosing not to return to an increasingly embattled city, she decided to take another approach.

“I wondered if I could create a minuscule postmodern hippie outpost, a safe haven for artists, musicians, writers, poets, activists, and thinkers — essentially anyone who wanted to escape the relentless tyranny of the city for a little while,” she wrote in Innovations magazine. The answer was yes, she could – by maxing out credit cards, taking loans, and pushing herself to the point of exhaustion.

In 2007, the community space T2F (originally called The Second Floor, after its location in an office building) was born. It quickly became the city’s leading venue for concerts, readings, science courses, coffee drinking, art exhibitions, Pakistan’s first Civic Hackathon, and, of course, political activism. Everything that went on at T2F represented some facet of Sabeen’s own, astonishingly wide-ranging interests. While she was far from being a national figure, with every year, she and T2F gained prominence and credibility for fighting to make civil society matter – whether the issue was minority rights, opposition to religious extremism or freedom of expression – she brought these issues into T2F, taking to the internet and the streets in protest and solidarity.

Sabeen Mahmud

 A family picture released on 25 April 2015 of Sabeen Mahmud. Photograph: EPA

At T2F she often hosted people and events deemed high-risk. The last of these was Unsilencing Balochistan, a panel discussion on Friday that centred on the “disappeared” of the state of Balochistan. There is no area of conversation in Pakistan that is more “no-go” than Balochistan – Baloch activists continue to seek outlets to talk about the thousands claimed to have been abducted and killed by the state – but there is a virtual media blackout around the subject, particularly since the attempted assassination of powerful news anchor Hamid Mir was linked to his speaking out on the subject. Earlier this month, a university in Lahore cancelled a talk about Balochistan, involving the prominent activist Mama Qadeer, and issued a statement to say the cancellation was by order of the government. So, of course, Sabeen invited Mama Qadeer to come and talk at T2F instead. The event was packed, she uploaded a picture to various social media sites, and according to the journalist Saba Imtiaz she “laughed, smiled, shushed people and talked about what matters”. Shortly after leaving T2F, two gunmen shot her dead.


This was a woman equally at home soldering wires, discussing Urdu poetry, playing cricket, attending every progressive political demonstration in Karachi, singing the back catalogue of Pink Floyd, and being my self-proclaimed “geek-squad for life”. In 2013, she took on the religious fundamentalists by countering their “say no to Valentine’s Day” propaganda with posters saying “Pyaar hone dein” (Let there be love). Later that same year, she helped form a human chain around a church in solidarity with Pakistan’s Christian community after an attack on a church in Peshawar.

Those of us who loved and admired Sabeen now find ourselves asking: why? She didn’t seek political power, she didn’t have the sort of reach that major TV personalities command. Perhaps it was enough that, like Malala Yusufzai, she wasn’t frightened of those who seek to control through fear. Her death is the latest in a series of high-profile assassination attempts (most of them tragically successful) of women in Pakistan who fearlessly take on one group or another that seeks to terrify its opponents into silence. It is better, as a friend advised me, to find sense in a life well lived than try to find the sense in a death.

I can’t imagine her lifeless. Instead I keep seeing Sabeen as a teenager, silhouetted against a blue Karachi sky. She flicks her arm and a ball flies across the schoolyard with astonishing velocity. I can only watch, and wonder, where is all that power coming from?