The Death of a Nobody

By Ghazala Akbar

Hundreds of lives lost, homes destroyed and we are not even in the first quarter of the year. In other countries this would constitute a national emergency. Heads would roll, governments might fall but in Pakistan, it’s just another bad day at the office. We are as they say a very resilient people. Very. There is no other option. When you are down, the only way is up. That’s what an optimist like the late Parveen Rahman might have said. Parveen who? Exactly. In the recent tsunami of violence, it’s easy to forget. Coming hard on the heels of back to back bombings of Shia neighbourhoods in Karachi and Quetta plus the burning of homes belonging to Christian families in Lahore, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep count or remember names.

Parveen Rahman, an unimportant nobody was killed by unknown assailants in Karachi on March 13. It is a sad commentary of our violent times that wanton murder by professional killers euphemistically known as ‘target killings’ are so commonplace in Karachi’s urban jungles that they hardly cause a ripple anymore. But the brazen assassination of Ms. Rahman, a long-standing development professional and a director of research and training at the Orangi Pilot Project seems just one too many to bear. The anger, the grief, and the sadness at this woman’s death is compounded by the all too painful realization that in this environment of impunity, the perpetrators and – more importantly – the ones who ordered the killing will in all probability never ever be caught. The details of her murder will simply gather dust in the cemetery of forgotten cases. When is anybody ever apprehended or even punished? Even a self-confessed murderer like Mumtaz Qadri has yet to be sentenced.

All week I have been trying to come to terms with this seemingly senseless killing. It seems incomprehensible that a woman in her mid-fifties who has devoted her working life helping the poor and the marginalized in what is often described as the ‘world’s largest slum’ should be a candidate for a contract killing. She wasn’t the high-profile heir of a political dynasty or a defiant teenager challenging the edicts of the Taliban. She wasn’t a white missionary brazenly spreading the gospel or a polio vaccinator ‘fronting’ for the CIA. And — dare I say it – she wasn’t even Shia or Ahmedi. Sadly, these are the ‘types’ who are now in the crosshairs. Ms Rahman did not fit the bill. So why specifically was she a target? Actually, I ought to reframe the question. It’s not who or why but why one should be surprised anymore!

While it is sorely tempting to put the blame squarely on the ‘usual suspects’, the misogynist Tehreek e Taliban — and indeed some media reports do allude to that theory, the explanation is too pat and unconvincing. Deep down we are painfully aware that it isn’t just the fanatics singularly that are the source of mayhem in the country. There are other sinister, dark forces — criminal gangs, extortion rackets and kidnapping syndicates that flourish and thrive with political patronage and protection. In a climate where even personal scores and petty rivalry can be settled with the use of guns, (the murder of Shahzeb Khan for instance) what chance did poor Parveen Rahman have to buck the trend?

By all accounts it transpires that during the course of her work in Orangi, Ms. Rahman became all too aware of the lucrative land grabs that are conducted by vested interests known collectively as the ‘Land Mafia.’ These criminal gangs cut through ethnic, sectarian and political divides. Their turf wars were the source of the extreme violence that engulfed parts of the city in 2011. Parveen Rahman with her vast knowledge of these areas acquired through years of engagement at the grass-roots level knew who was doing what to whom and why.

In Steve Inskeep’s excellent book ‘Life and Death in Karachi’, Rahman is fairly candid about the land-supply activities of various groups with the complicity and connivance of state officials and law-enforcing agencies. She reveals how miles and square miles of public land is being illegally appropriated and being sold and re-sold for profit. Parveen’s only concern in all this was for the poor. Where would they live if all the land kept disappearing? Ms.Rahman’s knowledge of and determination to document these shady goings-on obviously made her a thorn in the side of some very powerful people. She was a woman who knew too much. And that in our misogynist society is doubly dangerous.

I did not know Parveen Rahman personally. Why then should I agonise over her killing? She was not glamorous. She had no political affiliations. She did not appear on TV talk shows or YouTube. She didn’t Tweet and — horror upon horror she wasn’t even on Facebook! Why should I be bothered to write about a nobody who went around showing wretched people how to lay pipes for waste or water in their equally wretched localities? Or receive vocational training. Or have access to health facilities. Or advise them to register their handkerchief-size properties in the official records. Surely it is the job of the government and local municipalities to provide infrastructure and services? Exactly. They didn’t. Not where the poor and dispossessed live anyway. That’s why people like Ms. Rahman and other nobodies take it upon themselves to step in to help. If we can’t join them, at least we can applaud the efforts of those that do.

For a woman who had few on-line footprints, Ms. Rahman managed to leave a mighty big trail. All week, on the social and conventional media, I have come across moving tributes by her heartbroken peers, colleagues and friends. Their heart felt words and messages speak volumes. She was a good soul, a plucky and feisty woman who walked fearlessly where angels feared to tread. Her life was her work and her work was her life. Not for her a cushy job or a globe-trotting career as a development professional. She practiced what she preached, living simply, in a modest apartment, with her elderly mother. True to the philosophy of her organization she received a paltry sum of Rupees 32, 000 or $300. Her only perks were a car, driver and a mobile telephone. On that fateful evening on the Banaras flyover she made one last call to her co-workers, advising them to take a different route to the one she was taking. Had she, perhaps, seen her assassins following her car? Colleagues say that was just typical. Putting other people’s welfare before her own. Ms. Rahman gave up a career in architecture to join the Orangi Pilot Project, the last testament of the legendary Akhtar Hameed Khan. We may not find his name in our history books but this Cambridge-educated ex ICS officer wearing home-spun khaddar pioneered ground-breaking projects for impoverished rural and urban communities for over four decades. His work at the Pakistan Academy for Rural Development (Comilla) in the former East Pakistan once made him a household name in that country. His development models with emphasis on self-help and self-reliance at the grassroots level have been replicated in several developing countries. They have served as an inspiration for many including the Nobel Laureate Dr. Yunus of Grameen Bank and Dr.Anne Dunham, the late mother of President Barack Obama. It is pertinent to mention that Akhtar Hameed Khan’s liberal and unorthodox views twice elicited accusations of blasphemy when he was eighty years of age! (He was never formally charged but his biographer, Nasim Yousaf notes that it caused him needless mental anguish.) After Khan’s death in 1999, Parveen Rahman and others continued the good work in Orangi unfazed by the political and ethnic turmoil that the city constantly faced. If today you are wearing an expensive hand-loom outfit bought at a fancy boutique, chances are that it’s probably been spun in Orangi.

Life had its up and downs for Parveen. In 1972, her family arrived in Karachi traumatised and shaken. They had been made destitute and homeless by the bloody war that divided Pakistan causing it to lose the eastern half. Her idyllic early years in East Bengal are poignantly recounted in the book ‘Of Martyrs and Marigolds’ by her sister, Aquila Ismail. However, all that was to change. In the aftermath of the war, family members were cruelly separated, with the females confined in an internment camp.

When ill-disciplined and revengeful militias arrived nightly, forcibly picking up young women against their will, her mother advised the daughters to kill themselves if they were dishonoured. At one point they even contemplated throwing themselves in a nearby river. Fortunately they were rescued from the camp by sympathetic locals. Life gave her a second chance and she was saved perhaps for a higher calling. What an irony that she perished eventually at the hands of greedy, unscrupulous men in the land that gave her refuge! What the perpetrators don’t realize is that in shooting down Parveen they have only shot themselves in the foot. Her untimely death has left this poor country morally bereft and even more impoverished.

Courtesy: Zohra Yusuf