Danial Shah turned to Sabeen Mahmud, who founded PeaceNiche, which promotes free speech through culture, for help with his first photo exhibition when all other organisations refused to show his work. Shah’s photographs cover political and cultural issues, such as local elections and women’s rights. Some refused to work with him on political grounds, while others did not reply at all.
After a meeting at Mahmud’s community space, T2F, in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, she agreed to host his exhibition. But Mahmud, a 40-year-old human rights activist who oversaw a programme of progressive arts at T2F, did not get to see Shah’s first exhibition. She was murdered a few months after their meeting.
“If it were not for T2F, I would not have felt confident that I could be a photographer and teach photography,” said Shah. “The event introduced me to photographers, artists and fans. The space was for everyone. I also conducted my first workshop there.”
The pioneering community venue, originally known as The Second Floor, after its location in an office building, was founded in 2007 by Mahmud. But now the board running T2F has decided to close it, in a move that has been called “more than a tragedy”.
Mahmud wrote in the journal Innovations at the time of its opening: “I wondered if I could create a minuscule postmodern hippy outpost, a safe haven for artists, musicians, writers, poets, activists and thinkers, essentially anyone who wanted to escape the relentless tyranny of the city for a little while.”
There is almost nothing else like it in Karachi. It is more than a colourful cafe and bookshop, whose walls are often lined with paintings or photography. Often filled with artists, activists and writers, it has become a safe haven for free-thinkers, just as Mahmud hoped, and survived after her killing.
Shakil Jafri, T2F’s director, said: “Due to the pandemic, T2F could not generate revenue to meet its expenses, therefore we have decided to suspend its services. The board will decide the future of T2F in a few months.”
Marvi Mazhar, who led T2F after Mahmud’s murder, told the Guardian: “Suspending T2F’s services is more than a tragedy. Our society is already damaged and filled with extremism and intolerance. In such hard times, we need such spaces and alternatives more than before.”
On the evening of 24 April 2015, after hosting a talk on Balochistan, the troubled south-western province of Pakistan, Mahmud was on her way home when she was gunned down by two men. Her mother, whom she was about to drive home, was also shot but survived. Mahmud’s friends told the Guardian that she had received death threats for hosting talks on various issues, including the last one, that are censored elsewhere in Pakistan. Two men, Saad Aziz and Aliur Rehman, were convicted of her murder and sentenced to death. The authorities linked the men to Islamist terrorism, though many of Mahmud’s friends believe the country’s military “deep state” is responsible.
Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur, an activist and writer invited as a guest speaker for the Balochistan event, said: “Regardless of the reasons behind the closures, without spaces like T2F, the voiceless, the unheard and the marginalised will be poorer and deprived of a space to register their woes and dissent.”
The increasing curbs on freedom of speech, rising attacks on journalists and closure of public and community spaces has given rise to the term “hybrid regime” in Pakistan, to capture the democratic backsliding that is occurring in the country.
In 2019, an exhibition at the Karachi Biennale by the Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman, called The Killing Fields of Karachi, which addressed the extrajudicial deaths of 444 people at the hands of the police, was raided by the authorities and forced to shut down.
Jibran Nasir, also a friend of Mahmud, criticised the security agencies for shutting down the exhibition and said: “We see censorship and curtailment of free speech everywhere in Pakistan. I don’t know if this regime is worse than that of former dictator Zia’s, who brought Islamisation and extremism to the country. But I do know that the current regime is trying its best to close even online spaces after putting an end to most public and community spaces.”
Sheema Kermani, who works in the performing arts and is the founder of Tehrik-e-Niswan – or women’s movement – said there were few community spaces for artists and in recent years the decline in the number of venues had accelerated. Kermani said: “Right now, I rarely see any space.”
PIA Arts Academy was set up in 1966 by Pakistan International Airlines and later became the National Performing Arts Group. She said: “This beautiful space was closed recently. We are losing all our space.”
As public spaces in Pakistan close to artists and activists, in their place a culture of censorship and accusations of blasphemy grows.
The Pakistani film Zindagi Tamasha, or Circus of Life, has been tipped for an Oscar nomination, but most Pakistanis cannot see it. It was accused of having blasphemous content, but the film was cleared by the censor board and by a group of senators. However, it was not screened after Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an extremist political party, organised protests against the film and the director, Sarmad Khoosat, was hounded by death threats.
In March, the Sindhi writer Amar Jaleel was accused of blapshemy and hounded on social media with threats of violence for a literary festival reading of a short story on the plight of political dissidents.
The prime minister, Imran Khan, has been criticised for defending Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to win the backing of the religious right before his election in 2018, with activists and writers saying Khan is turning Pakistan into a more conservative, intolerant place and curbing freedom of speech and the media.
The author Fatima Bhutto, of the Bhutto political dynasty, said: “The sad thing is that this is a moment where the country ought to be supporting its youth, encouraging and patronising the arts and using soft power to put a new face of Pakistan out to the world. It’s a disastrous miscalculation of Imran Khan’s government to fight the arts.”