The headlines may be peppered with frightening words like “drone bombings, militants and kidnappings,” but they fail to reveal the positive strides Karachi has made in the past few years. With a population of over 15 million, Karachi is the world’s fourth largest metropolis. It is a bustling hub of commercial activity, as well as a city in the throes of social change. The poor huddle in shanty-towns amidst the well-to-do enclaves with staggering wealth. The forecast for the future is not all bleak, however, as the city continues to reinvent itself with pockets of civil society taking root.
Take T2F (The Second Floor). It’s a new café cum hangout for Karachi’s budding poets, writers and artists – basically anyone looking for a welcoming public space to meet and mingle with others interested in fostering Karachi’s nascent intelligentsia. The brainchild of Sabeen Mahmud, a young woman with the goal of ‘intellectual poverty alleviation,’ T2F has gained a faithful following of activists committed to being the change they dream about under her ‘PeaceNiche’ banner – the umbrella organization she began in order to spark grassroots civil action. Social entrepreneurs, engaged youth, civic-minded citizens – they all congregate here to discuss the future of their country the way they imagine it. Sabeen has succeeded in creating a place that encourages the ‘space between your ears,’ as she puts it. “We all have days when we think there’s no point and that what we do is a piddling drop in the ocean,” she says. “But [you have to] dare to dream.”
Take Cynara Siddiqui. A veteran news videographer from the DAWN English-TV program who is currently working on a timely documentary for French television about Pakistan’s social issues. Committed to capturing social change by turning her keen eye towards Pakistan’s unsung heroes, Cynara’s ability to move amongst the people and translate their stories for a Western audience is invaluable to the future of global news. Brought up in Switzerland, Pakistan, and England, Cynara is an internationally savvy, bilingual, global citizen who perfectly represents the voices of tomorrow. “It’s not always smooth sailing,” she admits. “Pakistan [is] a very male -dominated country. I have experienced more of an inward reluctance than an outwards resistance whenever I assign work to male colleagues or issue instructions to men, especially if they’re older than me. But I find persistence is key to overcoming these minor irritations.”
Take Sumbul Khan. A curator of the Poppy Seed Gallery, Sumbul describes her space as a forum “committed to promoting critical reflection of contemporary Pakistani art.” Readings, sketching with live models, exploring religious art and bringing art critics and artists together all elevate the gallery from a hub of commerce to a place where people can understand the impact of art as a means of social change. “When you stand apart from the norm, there’s bound to be a lot of discouragement before the idea proves its worth at a level where it cannot be denied or dismissed,” explains Sumbul. “It’s always a struggle and sometimes struggles don’t bear fruits of the proportions we would like to see… but the struggle is worth it [nonetheless].”
In a patriarchal society rife with tribalism, it is remarkable that the women are among the most active engineers of social change. Pakistani women already envision a future free from poverty, corruption and religious extremism, and are quietly but determinedly making this mirage a solid reality.
Dilara Hafiz is the co-author of The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook and the former VP of the Arizona Interfaith Movement.