Sabeen Mahmud: “I stand up for what I believe in, but I can’t fight guns”

Sabeen Mahmud alleviated intellectual poverty until the day she was murdered, 24 April 2015. In an interview with Karima Bennoune in 2010 Mahmud explained why she founded a politico-cultural space in Karachi.

Karima Bennoune
25 April 2015

Sabeen Mahmud, founder of the NGO Peace Niche and director of Karachi’s cultural institution, T2F, was assassinated on Friday night while leaving the centre with her mother, who was also gravely injured in the attack.  T2F had just hosted an event about human rights in Balochistan, and Sabeen had reportedly been receiving threats.

This interview is published today in memory of Sabeen Mahmud

Karima Bennoune: What made you decide to found T2F?

Sabeen Mahmud: I was studying in Lahore, and when I came back I was working in technology. But my mother works for an educational non-profit.  This sense of social justice and standing up for what you believe in started becoming a part of everyday life for me, just thinking about what, as individuals, we are supposed to do about issues that confront society.  I finished college, after trying to drop out for four years, unsuccessfully. I started working. By 2006, I was getting very restless and wanted to do something in development. The companies that were our large clients – Unilever, Shell, - I realized that I am helping them sell more toothpaste or more oil and I am angry about what they are doing in certain parts of the world. It started getting more difficult to reconcile my ideas around activism with the work I was doing.

I am deeply interested in arts and music and technology and science. So, I thought, how about creating a space that would be able to host all kinds of events, would be a talent incubator, a platform for emerging artists, graphic designers, singers, poets, or other people who don’t have a platform?  Then, I thought, when we talk about how young people are the future, what are we doing to create future leaders?  We are not challenging them. 

There were coffee shops, but a lot of them were expensive. It was very businesslike. You go and have your meal and leave. Coffee houses used to be centers of intellectual activity and discourse.  I know that was decades ago, but surely people still have things to say.

In Pakistan, we don’t have bars. How are people supposed to meet new people? Then, one day I just decided I would do this. I wanted to set up a non-profit not to make money but to make meaning, with a quadrangle for theatre, and other things around it. But, we didn’t have money. It was a crazy idea. My uncle had sent some money. My mother and grandmother and I live together - three generations of women. I took the money my uncle sent and set up T2F which stands for “the second floor” because it was on the 2nd floor of a building.

KB: When did you open your doors, and how?

SM: May 13, 2007.  It took a few months to set up.  If you tell someone you’ve set up an NGO, no one is going to come.  You want to reach out to young people. I wanted to think about how we could be self-sustaining. People will come here and sit for six hours and have one cold drink. And that does not make a space like this function. But others will come and just drop off a 1000 rupee donation. We operate on an honor code. People who understand and value will keep eating and drinking. Others will sit here all day and not even order that one cup of tea. The landlord served us notice in 2009. We had to vacate.  And then somebody wrote about it in the newspaper and this wonderful man donated these two floors to us. It is rented out to us for 1 rupee a month. It took 9 months to build. I took loans, begged, borrowed and stopped just short of stealing to keep going. My mother said, “what are you doing?” I have developed gambler’s nerves.

KB: What is the mission of T2F today?

SM: Changing minds does not happen in a week – especially with regard to the kinds of issues we were talking about at the forum you attended here on combatting violence against women with new technology [Take Back the Tech]. You do not get people to start thinking a certain way because you sat down one day and talked about it. What may be obvious to you and me is anathema to another person. You need that time and that engagement to hear out the other person as well as to present your viewpoint. Amartya Sen spoke of the many faces of poverty. Intellectual poverty alleviation is what we do. We work in three areas: 1) arts and culture, 2) science and technology and 3) advocacy.

We are open every day from noon to 10 PM. Initially, in the original space there was just me and I used to be in for 14 hours a day. Today, we have Hindus and Muslims and Christians working together. They sit and eat together.

KB: How do you keep T2F going?

SM: I do not earn any money from this. I work nights in graphic design and technology consulting to pay my bills. When I say nights, it is actually in the middle of the day, and it could go on until 3 in the morning. I remember this one project we worked on - an interactive CD on Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a revolutionary Pakistani poet. I spent 30 days and nights in the office. I only went home to bathe. I used to be of the opinion that we can convert one day into two, if we work non-stop. Now, it is all catching up. I am 36.

We have a few volunteers and interns, and a lot of young people, and I feel so maternal to them. This is exciting because you feel the hard work pays off - like these “First Fridays” that we instituted. The first time we did it someone from one of the leading radio stations came and he heard these two sisters who were playing together for the first time in public, and they were on the radio the next weekend.

KB: What have been some of T2F’s most memorable events?

SM: No matter what happens, I am a geek.  So, one of my favourites was with a guy who was the first Pakistani to get an application into the Apple apps store, and about his approach to business and risk. The people he hires are supposed to dedicate a certain percentage of their time to work for social justice. That was one of my favorites.  But, we have had over 250 events [as of December 2010]. Another really memorable event had to do with Faiz Ahmed Faiz.  We got his daughter on the phone, and then an Indian singer and a Pakistani singer.  They’re both very famous. They sang and told stories on Skype. We were able to use technology and show you can bridge boundaries in this way.  Music transcends everything.  If you go to our website, the events page has an archive back to 2007.

KB: What do you feel you have achieved here?

SM: I have no grand illusions. I was brought up in a home where my mother’s focus was changing one teacher at a time, by changing the way she thinks. My mother was rebellious from the day she was born. She is not a get-out-on-the-street-and-protest kind of person. Instead, she has done incredible work in government schools changing mindsets. It takes so long and it takes so much effort. I am who I am because of her, undoubtedly.

KB: To what extent has the issue of fundamentalism impacted your work?

SM: There are certain buzz words, “combatting fundamentalism through fashion,” that get attention, publicity, donor money. We have never done anything like that. We try to quietly go about our business. By its very nature, we are doing all those things. But, you don’t have to shove it down people’s throats. Or give press releases to that effect. “We have had twenty musicians so we have changed everything.”  We have changed nothing. We gave twenty people an opportunity to breathe for two hours. Maybe they would never be able to do that otherwise, and I am very happy we were able to do that for them. And, I hope they can find ways to do that for other people.

KB: How dangerous is your work?

SM: I stand up for what I believe in. But I can’t fight guns. I know that much, and nothing is worth dying for.  You have to live for these causes. We do things on the blasphemy law and we do things on AIDS. You have to take calculated risks.

You were asking about fundamentalism. We did this thing recently on the blasphemy laws. The people who were sending us the speakers said you might not say it in the title. I said, “all our lives we have been fighting against this.” We’ve marched on the streets for it. What will happen? We are talking about its [the blasphemy law’s] repeal. It is important to talk about this. Those kinds of risks we are happy to take. More people need to stand up.

There are people from the [security] agencies who come. It’s quite clear they are from the agencies.  I am sure a dossier has been prepared somewhere. They attend.  They say, “don’t take my photograph.” They have a cup of tea.. You just have to work within what you have, and try and do as much as you can.

KB: How has the broader security environment in Karachi affected you?

SM: There are days when the guys can’t come to work, because there is no transport. We can cancel an event or have it the next day. We have had to close down on occasion. There have been riots, there have been strikes. The security situation has always been awful in Karachi.

But, this year [2010], Karachi has had a lot of violence. What upsets me is there is a huge gun shop at the end of the lane. It is awful. There is talk of a de-weaponizing Karachi campaign. But, I feel it is a battle we can’t win. We should focus where we can attain some victories, and feel empowered to move on.

KB: What battles do you want to focus on?

SM: The blasphemy law is something that I really want to see gone in my lifetime. We need more people to rise up and take a stand.

Sabeen Mahmud defied terror in multiple forms to champion the right to culture.  She embodied the spirit of the line from Faiz Ahmed Faiz which insists that “tyrants… cannot snuff out the moon, so today, nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed.” 

Though she is gone now, Sabeen’s light – which she bequeaths us all - cannot be snuffed out either. 

Karima Bennoune interviewed Mahmud at T2F in December 2010 while doing research for the book “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism.

This interview is published as a hundred women human rights defenders meet with Nobel Peace laureates at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference on 'Defending Human Rights Defenders ! in the Netherlands, April 24-26. Read articles by participants and speakers framing and addressing the discussions. 

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