Pakistan’s Reaction to Social Advocate Parveen Rehman’s Murder

| 03/16/2013 1:16pm
Muna Khan

Pakistan’s largest city is reeling from the death of Parveen Rehman, who has been called the “mother of the poor” and a “true martyr.”

Parveen Rehman’s name was the latest to be added to the fast-growing list of Karachi’s social-advocate casualties when she was killed in a drive-by shooting on Wednesday while on her way home.

The death of this remarkable woman in Pakistan’s largest city, who has been called the “mother of the poor” and a “true martyr,” has touched a raw nerve across this sprawling metropolis of up to 21 million people, and has exposed for the nth time the ineptitude of the government when it comes to providing security to its citizens.

Rehman, 56, was the director of the Orangi Pilot Project Research and Training Institute, which provides basic amenities and services to the community once known as Asia’s largest slum. The group is known for its “self-help” approach, teaching the poor to dig their own sewers for example, and solve their problems with as little help from authorities as possible.

Rehman was also known for her meticulous compilation of land records in the city and became an expert of sorts on such records. As a friend of hers told the newspaper Dawn on March 14, “She documented everything about the lands that had been grabbed.” It is widely believed that she received death threats from the land-grabbing mafia in Karachi, a powerful entity with strong backers that is viewed as untouchable. This fact was not lost on Rehman – she knew of the dangers, but she carried on with this important work nonetheless.

After her death, an audio clip from her interview with The World in January 2012 on urban violence and land grabbing in Karachi was widely shared on Twitter, and her words echoed with a foreboding eeriness: “We said, all that you can do is kill us. What else can you do? We’re not afraid of you.”

Listen to the January 2012 interview with Parveen Rehman in which she defies the powers that oppose her, saying, “All that you can do is kill us.”

When a person takes on a powerful entity in Pakistan and is killed – an all-too-often occurrence – everyone has a theory about who the killer is, but no one wants to say it out loud.

The identity of Rehman’s murderers seemed immaterial to the thousands who attended her funeral; the attendees were stunned into silence, drawn together in shock, and her friends sought each other out to ask, “Why her?” This is coming from residents of a city whose lives are often described like the city they live in — “resilient” – who have buried many a loved one due to acts of senseless violence. Karachi’s violence can indeed seem complex when words and phrases like ethnic, sectarian, land-grabbing mafia, and gang wars are thrown about. But all the complexities that cause such terror and heartbreak in this city could always be broken down by the clear-eyed Rehman. The mourners at her funeral said her loss would be a vacuum that could never be filled.

Just as the inaction of the government has come to be seen as standard operating procedure – there will be official expressions of shock, condolences, promises to take stern action, and perhaps a few arrests, all of it likely amounting to nothing – so too have the necessary protests by civil-society activists who follow such dastardly murders. But this time the participants seemed more devastated by the loss. The anger at the government’s inability is more palpable in Karachi this time around, and there seems a determination not to let the matter drop until those behind the chaos that engulfs the city are arrested.

It is not that Rehman’s death was a high-profile government assassination, or a sectarian killing, or ethnic vs. ethnic, gang warfare, or all of the above. Karachi’s residents are tired of losing their sons and daughters to an endless cacophony of wars that disrupt the lives they are trying to get on with and build—and build well, without any help whatsoever from the government, as OPP illustrated.

Whether Orangi residents will channel that helplessness and frustration into seeking vengeance for death or carrying Rehman’s legacy forward is hard to tell at this point. One can hope it is the latter, however. It’s easy to imagine that’s what she would have wanted.

Muna Khan is a journalist and editor from Karachi who was worked for The Express Tribune and Dawn. Follow her on Twitter @muna_khan