Pakistani Free Speech Hero of the Year 2015: Sabeen Mahmud

Source: The News

Source: The News

There were quite a few Pakistanis braving their way through threats, intimidation, discrimination and hate, but who could equal the couragee that Sabeen Mahmud has inspired us with. She used to do things where others like me only talked from behind the closed doors of their comfortable lairs. She interacted with people and reached out instead of resorting to convenient misanthropy.

While most people thought she was targeted by people trying to silence, her fundamentalist killer confessed that he was offended by her Valentine’s Day movement, for which she was my hero in 2013. While some folks can still argue about what caused her untimely death, there is no argument over her brilliant resolve to say and fight for the right thing in an environment very hostile to free speech.

She is a free speech hero in the true sense of the word. Others can make claims, but she lived that and probably proved the point with her death-defying lifestyle. What makes her special was that she was a woman of action, not just words. Her death, by far the worst shock of this year, shook us to the core. But still, it is hard to express in words how proud I and many of my friends are of Sabeen. Long live her cause.

Source: Laal

Source: Laal

However, she is by far not the only free speech hero this year. In countries where curbs on free speech are a norm, there hardly ever is. Not unrelated to her accommodation of the talk about Baluch rights featuring Mama Qadeer at T2F in Karachi is Taimur Rehman of Laal, a professor of Political Science in the LUMS affiliated with the Communist Mazdoor Kisan Party. Taimur is known for speaking out about unpopular causes such as rights of minority religious groups and labor rights in a country very hostile to leftist parties.

What made matters even worse for Taimur Rehman was the smear campaign run against him by pro-establishment nationalists for speaking about Balochistan, particularly on mainstream media while he had no access to any such platform to clarify his views. The campaign largely condemnded him as a traitor and accused him of having links with Baluch nationalist separatists. It certainly takes courage to express political dissent as openly as Taimur does, but it goes to show how dangerous doing so still is in Pakistan, particularly with the history of bans on the Communist Party.

PervezRasheed-dawn-p-1

Source: Dawn

Another reminder why democracy is so important. Speaking of which, it is not everyday that a member of the government wins a nod in the Free Speech hero of the year post, but this year is an exception. Pervez Rasheed, the soft spoken but expressive Senator and Minister of Information from PML-N attracted the ire of the clerics and religious conservatives by his speech promoting rational education and condemning madrassahs or religious seminaries as “Universities of Ignorance.”  It’s a big deal coming from a government official of an Islamic Republic.

As expected, Pervez Rasheed was bombarded with condemnation, rather damnation of excommunication from the religious clerics, who bestowed all sorts of titles on him including Ahmedi, infidel, atheist and non-believer, not that anything is wrong with all that. However, that is a fundamentalist Muslim’s way of saying they hate you, and well killing you is alright.

This only goes to show that even government officials are not free from the attacks of religious conservatives for speech, that can potentially cost them their lives if not their positions. I am just glad that protests against him did not escalate as much as in the case of Pakistan’s first foreign minister Sir Zafrullah Khan for being Ahmedi. Because it very easily could have. The good news is that he is undeterred and still serving in the same position, and is a good example for the rest of the leaders in the government to follow for criticizing the role of religion in public life.

Read about the Pakistani Free Speech hero of the last year here.

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