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#Silenced: Sabeen Mahmud – The Progressive Flower Child murdered for speaking out

On her Instagram profile, slain Pakistani rights activist Sabeen Mahmud described herself as a “Post Modern Flower Child, Unabashed Mac Snob, Pink Floyd Devotee, Tetris Addict, West Wing Fanatic, [who] Will Die for Hugh Laurie.”

For her loves and her progressive attitudes she was murdered in cold blood on Friday night.  She was killed hours after hosting a discussion on Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province.

The province is impoverished but resource-rich and has been the site of an insurgency for years.  Thousands of people have disappeared, with many activists blaming security agencies.

Mahmud campaigned not only for the rights of communities in Balochistan but a myriad other victims of Pakistani society from a quaint little cafe on the second floor of a building in a rather nondescript part of Karachi.

The cafe was simply known as the The Second Floor Cafe or T2F.

Its interior reflected Mahmud’s loves – the walls were painted in ‘Flower Child’ psychedelic colours and the cafe was full of people, books and discourse on everything from technology to women’s rights.

Exercises that would have seemed utterly innocuous in any other part of the world had marked Mahmud out long ago.  Rock and Roll?  Art?  Culture?  Women’s Empowerment?  These were sacrilegious concepts to those who control Pakistan and keep it eternally subjugated.

Mahmud’s killing has shaken the progressive segments of Pakistani society where many people are too afraid to speak out. 

In fact, the Balochistan discussion that Mahmud had organized the day she was killed had previously been scheduled to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences but was cancelled after faculty member said they had been “pressured” by intelligence agencies.

It’s long been an open secret that Balochistan is a sensitive issue for Pakistan’s powerful military-intelligence nexus. 

The country’s media has been silent on the issue due to fear of that nexus.

The last journalist – prominent GEO TV anchor Hamid Mir – to take up the issue of Balochistan had six bullets pumped into him last year – Mr Mir’s brother Amir subsequently pointing the finger of blame at the notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

Balochistan may be resource-rich but it is Pakistan’s least populated and poorest.   Low-level insurgencies have been brewing there for years.  Media access to the province is severely limited. 

Balochi nationalists have sought independence from Pakistan and the country’s military has tried to suppress the movements often through extrajudicial means for years.  The Pakistani government blames India for supporting the separatists.

Various sectarian and Islamist militias also use the area for recruitment and training to fight wars in Iran and Afghanistan, which border Balochistan, and within Pakistan itself.

The troubles have resulted in thousands of Baloch men disappearing into thin air.  Families are promised investigations but often tortured, lifeless bodies are just dumped outside their homes or in unmarked graves.

While promoting culture and the arts inside T2F, Mahmud had embraced the issue of Balochistan with a passion. 

Much like those responsible for the disappearances in the province, many experts believe that Mahmud’s killers too will never be found or brought to justice, despite condemnation by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Hashim Bin Rashid, a leftwing columnist and activist, says that there is a growing atmosphere among the country’s urban middle classes that encourages the silencing of dissenting voices.

“The overall atmosphere of fascism… is much more worrying — where anyone is offering any dissent is going to be called a traitor,” he told AFP.

Activists who write about the rights of Baluch people on social media, or condemn the killing of minorities, are often loudly berated and receive death threats that are never investigated, while on the other hand the government blocks pages belonging to progressive groups on Facebook.

Days before her murder, Mahmud written a post asking why the Lahore University of Management Studies had cancelled the earlier discussion.

“Despite the plurality of opinion, very little space seems to be given to the discussion in Pakistani mainstream media or academia; the debate seems to be shut down before it can even begin.  What is the reality?  Has the media been silenced on Balochistan?  What makes it dangerous for us to talk about Pakistan’s largest province at one of our most celebrated universities?”

She subsequently rescheduled the discussion at T2F and admitted that it was a dangerous move. 

Tragically, she was right.

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