It would be safer if she was not the only one

By Steve Inskeep


Several times in Karachi I went to see Perween Rahman. We first met in 2008, as I researched informal settlements where millions of Karachi residents lived. People who knew these vast stretches of concrete-block homes told me to seek out Rahman, who knew more.

We met at her office, the Orangi Pilot Project-Research Training Institute. Someone would lead me across a courtyard to find Perween in one or another of the institute’s cluttered rooms – a dim room, usually, because the power was out. A photo from one of our meetings shows sunlight from a window reflecting off her glasses. Her hand is moving as she talks, and her mouth is bending into a smile. The image suggests her vitality, though I never managed a photo that fully captured the pleasure she took in her work. It was like trying to photograph a bird in flight.

Rahman showed me maps of the city’s incredible expansion. She introduced me to neighborhood activists. And she told stories of illegal land developers she’d met through her research. Though she knew some would kill to protect their business, she published her findings and helped journalists like me.

“Please write about this,” she told me once. “Write about it in your name. It would be safer if I was not the only one!” She spoke with a smile and a laugh, as she often did when describing her precarious existence.

Residents work on a low-cost sanitation project in Orangi

Her words came back to me after Rahman was shot by men on motorcycles this month. Police say they killed the killer, a man linked with the Taliban, though Rahman’s friends have doubts. “I am shattered, my heart bleeds, I feel powerless,” one wrote. The feeling of helplessness is widespread. But Perween Rahman suggested one thing to do. Write about this, she said. Don’t let me be the only one.

The OPP-RTI is famous for “helping the poor,” though that is not precisely what it has done. Akhtar Hameed Khan, the social scientist who founded it in the 1980’s, said the poor must help themselves. His mission was to spread information. If people must live in extralegal developments, he would teach them how to dig their own sewers or lobby for basic services.

Rahman embraced this philosophy, helping an entire city learn about itself. She wrote a report explaining who was stealing city drinking water. A wall map at her office charted sewers and storm drains clogged by unplanned development. Other maps identified hundreds of square kilometers that the informal builders were capturing. She courageously lit a torch at the shadowy intersection where politicians, business interests, criminal organizations, and violence come together.

Pakistanis do not have nearly enough information about that intersection, and Rahman’s death illustrates why.

She courageously lit a torch at the shadowy intersection where politicians, business interests, criminal organizations, and violence come together

Pakistan can be proud of a robust media, brilliant researchers, and dedicated activists who often work at the risk of their lives. The trouble is that they are not yet numerous enough, or supported strongly enough. It is hard to speak truth to power in any country, including mine. And it’s much harder than it should be in Pakistan. The whole ecosystem of information is cramped by scarce resources and constant peril. Vast social trends are under-examined. Murders are described but not often explained. Newspapers commonly edit stories so that basic facts, such as the name of a political party, are omitted. Journalists and activists must make practical decisions about whether this or that statement is so important that they are willing to leave the country after making it.

Pakistan as a whole is safer than any stereotype of the country would suggest. Karachi is not among the world’s most violent cities, which are mostly in Latin America or the United States. More than 80 countries have higher murder rates than Pakistan. It is the narrower problem of political violence that disrupts civic life, and risks staining a nation’s soul. All too often victims are targeted simply for what they say – people like Malala Yousufzai, shot as she was promoting education; Salman Taseer, assassinated for his opinion of Pakistan’s blasphemy law; Saleem Shahzad, dumped in a canal after he reported on extremists and the military; or Perween Rahman, producing her maps and reports on Karachi.

The Orangi Pilot Project is famous for ‘helping the poor’, though that is not precisely what it has done. The social scientist who founded it in the 1980’s said the poor must help themselves

But if these attacks horrify the world, there is an opportunity to inspire. Pakistanis can carry on the basic task of citizenship Perween Rahman performed for more than thirty years. Find reliable information. Pass it on. Publish it. And cite your sources, saying how you know what you know.

When I wrote a book about Karachi called Instant City, residents helped me follow Rahman’s example. They helped me to document a battle over park land, which ended in the murder of the activist Nisar Baloch in 2009. Although I could not identify who pulled the trigger, court records, maps, and interviews revealed a great deal about the land grab that led to the murder. Brave citizens helped me because they cared about their city. In the same spirit, citizens can continue the work to which Rahman devoted her life.

How to do this and survive? “It would be safer if I was not the only one,” Rahman said. When in danger, researchers, activists, or journalists can share information. They can publish their findings in many places, so criminals will know they are up against too many citizens to silence. Those who are not writers or activists can offer financial support, whether through a donation to a public interest group or simply a newspaper subscription. Contributions, however small, strengthen institutions doing dangerous work. Through such contributions, citizens effectively band together to inform themselves. It is a form of “self-help,” the principle for which Perween Rahman lived and died.

Ultimately, of course, the government must more effectively prevent or prosecute political violence. That would require extraordinary patience and political skill, especially when violent actors are found to have links to powerful parties or the state. But it is possible to imagine how Pakistan’s next prime minister might begin the job after the elections May 11.

First, congratulate the outgoing government on completing its five-year term, which no elected civilian government had ever done. It was a vital step in establishing democracy, and an overarching goal that the whole country understood. It was a departure from bitter history, worth achieving no matter what else went wrong.

Next, take a moment to recall Perween Rahman and other citizens who have been killed. Define the next vital step toward democracy, an overarching goal that is worthy of the next five years: Make public discourse safe.

Source: The Friday Times