May 01 2015

Activist and arts advocate Sabeen Mahmud killed in Karachi

by Emma O’Neill

Photo of Sabeen Mahmud posted on Facebook by Abro Khuda Bux on February 9, 2015.

On April 24, Pakistani activist and arts advocate Sabeen Mahmud was killed by a suspected group of militants while on her way home from a political discussion event in Karachi. She was 40 years old. Mahmud was heralded as one of the loudest and most fearless figures in a country where raised voices are repeatedly silenced.

As a part of her nonprofit organization PeaceNiche, the activist established the arts and cultural center The Second Floor (TSF) in 2007 to create a safe space where artists, writers, poets and activists “could escape the relentless tyranny” of Karachi. There, she hosted art exhibitions and music programs, as well as discussions about contentious political events.

With a long career as a political activist and arts advocate, Mahmud had grown accustomed to death threats, which she had been receiving again in recent days. On April 24, Mahmud hosted a talk at T2F, which centered on the issue of human rights abuse taking place in the regional province of Balochistan. Since 2001, armed separatist groups in Balochistan have fought for greater independence from the national government, which has long plundered the province for its natural resources. Since the uprising began, tens of thousands of dissidents have gone missing, only to be found dead and bearing the marks of torture, which many believe is the act of the government. In fact, Friday’s T2F discussion was led by Mama Qadeer, an activist whose son was a victim of the government’s alleged “kill and dump” policy. Initially, the talk had been set to take place at an earlier date at Lahore University of Management Sciences, but when government officials pressured the school into canceling the event, she did not hesitate to host it at TSF—an act that was not without controversy.

In addition to being a haven for political discussion, TSF is also home to a gallery aptly named Faraar—meaning “escape” in Urdu. Mahmud established the gallery to develop and exhibit the work of local, emerging artists who engage with controversial issues. In 2014, in addition to multiple exhibitions, Faraar organized film screenings, discussions on the role of women in Islamic art and an interactive show by New York-based artist David Greg Harth.

“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes,” Mahmud wrote on her Twitter account earlier this year. Her turn of phrase ran too true in the past week with the murder of two other advocates for free speech in Pakistan—university lecturer Waheed Rehamn and journalist Nadeem Parancha—in disturbingly similar circumstances as Mahmud’s death. On Saturday, April 25, many friends, family and supporters attended Mahmud’s funeral to mourn the tragic loss.