By Zubeida Mustafa
I NEVER had a younger sister but at some stage, I can’t recall when, a woman entered my life to fill the vacuum I had always felt. Actually she was my friend Aquila’s “little” sister and so charming were her ways that we became connected. She brought sunshine into my life as she did into the lives of many others.
This little sister of mine — Parween Rahman — was shot dead last Wednesday leaving not just her family and supporters devastated. The whole country — in fact the community of caring social workers the world over — is mourning her loss.
There was something about Parween. Anyone who met her was attracted by her cheerful disposition and warm, caring nature. Her versatile personality allowed her to strike an immediate equation with people of all ages and background who met her. Her witty retorts followed by her musical laughter have now been silenced for ever. That really hurts.
Why should anyone want to touch a gentle soul like her who was incapable of doing anyone any wrong? Why? Why? Why? was the question asked in the hundreds of messages that poured in.
Najma Sadeque, who is the postmaster of my favourite email circulation list that reaches thousands of people, had circulated 70 messages expressing shock and sorrow within a few hours of the brutal killing. The number of people who visited Parween’s modest home in Karachi’s Gulistan-i-Jauhar area was unbelievable — some had travelled all the way from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to pay homage and then made their return journey home.
This is a manifestation of the huge number of lives she touched and that provides the answer to the question that is being asked about the motive behind her killing. She had forged a bond with the people she worked with and this would have been reason enough for unscrupulous vested interests, which abound in this unfortunate land of ours, to eliminate her.
Though hers was not a confrontational style, Parween was not by any means a weak woman. Her fragile exterior belied her inner strength, the quality that the powerful fear most. She would never compromise on her principles and drew her strength from the people she inspired by creating a consensus to take their mission forward.
She persistently described the present system as corrupt and “we will change it” was her constant refrain. Men with feet of clay felt threatened by such determination and her unlimited capacity to take people along with her.
Her enemies who are also the enemies of society understood this more than many of her well-wishers. Having learnt her primer in development work from the legendary Akhtar Hameed Khan, she proved to be an excellent pupil who understood his philosophy and disseminated it through the Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute’s work.
Unlike other NGOs working for the uplift of the poor, Parween’s work cannot be described as welfare work. It was more than that. She worked to help people help themselves. Even the sanitation and sewerage system which was launched by Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan was not gifted to them. They built it on a self-help basis with the OPP providing them technical support.
Self-help and self-reliance are the OPP’s guiding principles. It does not seek aid from foreign donors — Parween once refused an offer of several thousand dollars from the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. She told me they didn’t have the absorptive capacity to use such huge sums and such liquidity would lead to corruption.
The OPP’s overheads charges are minimal and unlike many other organisations its funds are used judiciously and not squandered. If the OPP model were to be honestly followed poverty could be eradicated without any foreign assistance. Would those who have flourished because of the inflow of foreign aid ever tolerate such a strategy?
The other “dangerous” work that Parween did was research. In a country where a person unearths the corruption of the corrupt by meticulous investigation and research and goes on to document it on her website to expose the evil can prove to be more effective than big-mouthed media guys who just shout quoting “some sources” which are known to be dubious.
Take the case of the 2,173 goths (settlements) on the periphery of Karachi that are being “regularised” in the name of development. Parween documented how 1,673 goths had had their status changed since 2011 — to create loyal constituencies for different parties while driving the poor out of their homes.
But her biggest ‘crime’ for which the wicked of this earth feared her was her commitment to empower the goth inhabitants through advocacy, bringing together the goth activists in the Secure Housing Support Group and providing them technical assistance, mapping all the land and supporting them in building the infrastructure that would enable them to safeguard their titles to their land.
Parween was a brave woman and now we know she had a huge constituency which will carry her work forward. There is no doubt about it though the killings in Karachi have made the task she undertook more daunting than ever.
The last sms she sent me was on the morning of her death. She wrote: “Your article in Dawn today is super! So informative. Thanks n Cheers PR”. I had replied, “Wow you are back. Was calling and calling…” Now I can call forever and she will — very uncharacteristically — never respond.