How Perween Rehman Crossed Over

Aug 2013

Issue V

Artist: Ayesha Malik | "Kid on bricks."

Artist: Ayesha Malik | “Kid on bricks.”

I was in class when I got the text message: “Perween Rahman shot dead.”

My hands started shaking and I could hear my heart beating. I found a computer, and clicked around so I could scan the online news sites, and see if it was true. “On March 13, 2013, Perween Rahman was shot dead near a Banaras fly-over by armed gunmen as she made her way back home from Orangi.”

News of the dead and the dying hardly shocks the way it used to. But this was different. This was Perween Rehman.


Glimpses of the changing landscape are clearly visible through the window of the cab as I move through the roads and large thoroughfares of Karachi. Designer shops, fancy restaurants, and large advertising boards turn into rows of dilapidated apartment buildings, densely inhabited neighborhoods, and busy commercial centers.

I am on my way to Orangi Town. Located in northwest Karachi, this working class neighborhood consists of numerous legalized squatter settlements, and is home to an estimated 1.5 million Pakistanis of various ethnicities from across the country–muhajirs, Pakhtuns, Baloch, Sindhis, and others. Residents of other neighborhoods consider Orangi Town a red-zone. With Karachi’s seething underbelly of land grabbing, bhatta (extortion) system, and ethnic divisions, red-zone residents face killings and violence everyday.

Admonitions from friends and colleagues echo through my mind as I watch Karachi race by. They say it is a no-go area for out-of-towners traveling alone, especially women. I find it understandable why they would say so. Yet, a large number of working women embark on this journey using public transport on a daily basis, tolerating harassment and the threat of violence.

The changing landscape, between those who have something and those who have little, reminds me of the political scientist Murray Edelman. He argues that our neighborhoods “serve as a constant reminder” to ourselves and to others that we “are worthy/unworthy,” or important/unimportant in the eyes of the state and other fellow citizens. My own time growing up in an Lahore neighborhood considered unfashionable means that I know what unworthiness means: It is when aspiring classes are reluctant to frequent the path that runs in front of my house, and places ill-provided by municipal services. At most, the dismal state of the apartment buildings reflect a rapid gentrification of Karachi, and its attempts to push low-income groups to the city’s peripheries.

Every single one of us, and every Karachi resident, understands and experiences the city through his or her own class and gender: the neighborhoods we live in, the spaces we occupy, the transport we use, the schools and colleges we attend, and the borders we think we can and cannot cross. In Karachi, this physical and ideational segregation carries over from the colonial period. At that time, residents came to share distinct public spaces according to their status in society: traders and small craftsmen remained within the old city center, laborers and low-income workers lived in poor conditions to the west, and the British developed new spacious, tree-lined, well-serviced structures to the east.

Post-partition, or after the end of British rule in 1947, much of the colonial sector was taken over by the Pakistani elite. Partition brought with it a large number of Muslim migrants from India, and Karachi’s industrial strength and prospective employment opportunities attracted people from all over the country. Exponential increases in population–less than half a million at the time of partition to over 20 million today–have caused massive housing shortages in the city. These shortages have been met by increasingly dense neighborhoods, and the development of squatter settlements. At the same time, high-income groups have, to a great extent, congregated within specific, highly developed neighborhoods in the city–albeit with pockets of low-income housing.

After unsuccessfully attempting to move the poor from the city center to the periphery, since the 1970’s, the government has adopted a policy of legalizing and upgrading katchi abaadis. While many such settlements have been legalized over time, very few have been upgraded. Instead, the government has spent a disproportionate amount on improving upscale neighborhoods–solidifying the divisive and invisible boundaries that exist within the city.

Karachi’s history is peculiar with its links to violence from ethnic and sectarian conflicts, and its relations with drug trafficking during the Afghan war. Its seedy underbelly of gang violence and illicit trade has exacerbated the insularity of the elite from the rest of the population. In his study of Karachi, scholar activist Arif Hasan noted that the city’s public space was increasingly segregated under the long military regime of Pakistan’s second army ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, whose Islamization program saw a nervous elite pull their students out of public sector schools, and themselves out of public life.


Karachi is already overwhelming on this visit. The hustle and bustle of the sprawling metropolis tells of a city penetrated by vibrancy and fear. Growing up, I travelled to Karachi frequently to visit family and enjoyed my time in the city immensely. Yet, my experiences and understanding of the city were largely based on the up-scale neighborhoods of Clifton and the Defence Housing Association: elite neighborhoods that we rarely left because everything we needed and everyone we wanted to see, with the exception of a few relatives, was based in these neighborhoods.

When I enter Orangi Town, it is as if I am entering a different city. Cramped quarters, mounds of trash, only a handful of women, congested roads, and the faces of those left to fend for themselves. It looks starkly different from the posh commercial and residential parts of Karachi, almost like inequality has been writ large, its traces etched into the buildings and bodies of Karachi’s Orangi Town.

I am meeting Perween Rahman, the director of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) Research and Training Institute. OPP is a non-profit organization that has been addressing many of Orangi Town’s vexing issues. Set up in the 1980s by Akhtar Hameed Khan, OPP works with local residents and supports local people’s initiatives to build low cost sanitation, housing, health, education and provision of credit for micro enterprises. The OPP team provides technical expertise and social guidance, training young community members in the process, and pressurizing the state to implement its regularization and upgradation policy. OPP is well known for providing sewerage lines in almost 7,000 lanes throughout Orangi through self-help principles, where those who benefit from new infrastructure are part of the decision and the execution behind getting what they need. OPP’s principles have been replicated in other parts of Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan, and have been studied and applied globally.

I first came across Perween Rahman’s name while working in the low-income housing settlement, Khuda Ki Basti-IV, in Kala Shah Kaku near Lahore. The city administration had fondly named one of the parks after her, and my colleague, a huge fan, suggested that I meet her were I to visit Karachi again.

When I enter her office, she greets me enthusiastically and asks me to explain my reason for visiting. I tell her that the main purpose of my visit is to learn about community engagement for affordable housing development. She listens intently and notes down my responses on a piece of paper. We speak at length about community engagement and organizing practices.

“Most importantly,” she emphasizes, “we don’t know more than the people, and have a lot to learn from them.” When I ask her how she goes about her work, she gives me a surprising answer:

“We take things casually, as should you,” she tells me. “The work at OPP is process-driven. There is no definite methodology. People have their own rhythm. People’s thoughts and dreams cannot be formatted to fit into best practice models.”

As a student, Perween found the theory being taught at universities to be irrelevant to the realities on the ground. In her words, in an interview with Dawn, within a month of working at a high-end architecture firm, she “ran off” because she did not want to “work for the rich.” After much searching, she found her place at OPP, where she has been working for more than 30 years.

She guides me to rooms in their offices consisting of maps of all shapes and sizes; maps of Karachi, maps of the city’s sewerage system, maps of its drains, and its water supply. These maps convinced the government to take notice of the OPP’s work, provide trunk infrastructure, and cancel foreign loans for infrastructure that already existed in Karachi’s neighborhoods. In recent years, she led the mapping of rural-turned-urban settlements on Karachi’s fringes, training young people in the process. Ultimately, the mapping was responsible for changing Karachi’s physical boundaries. It showed that there were not 400 such settlements, as the government claimed, but five times as many. As a result, the government gave land titles to more than 50 percent of them.

What strikes me the most is her personal approach to life and the manner in which she works with people in the area. She is fundamentally different from other non-profit workers who step into these katchi abadis and the low-income neighborhoods–workers who never manage to cross the boundaries and divisions of class and gender that are etched into our urban consciousness. She is dressed simply, and tells me that the OPP employees, including herself, realize that their needs are limited and are satisfied by earning less. Perween’s mannerisms and words reflect humility, respect, professionalism, and commitment. These personal qualities are ensconced in the guidelines she offers for working with communities: see with respect, observe with knowledge, learn with humility and teach with gentleness.

Perween personifies the OPP philosophy of integrating working culture and lifestyle in conjunction with that of the community, committing to working with residents in the long run and not simply as recipients of aid, but as partners and members of their communities, and creating an open and welcoming environment for people from all ethnicities, classes and affiliations.


Meeting Perween Rahman reaffirmed what I had been observing about our largely segregated lives and the importance of crossing over the boundaries we have ascribed for ourselves. As a woman hailing from a similar social class, I found in Perween Rahman someone who has successfully crossed over. In a society that is increasingly hypocritical, I found in her someone who practiced what she preached.

Hearing of Perween Rahman’s tragic murder three years later, I felt my beliefs, convictions, and outlook crumble. If this is what happens when people do what she did, should we even try? Yet, I am reminded of her unwavering optimism, and her insistence on repeated occasions that being scared is not an option. Describing her response to the threats she was receiving from various groups, she says:

“If you get scared, that’s a strategy, then you’ve had it. But for us, we’ve been working for ages. We said all you can do is kill us? What else can you do? So kill us. We’re not afraid of you.”

Just two months after her murder, Abdul Waheed, a colleague of Perween Rahman’s and head of the Bright Educational Society, who had been running a co-ed school and speaking out against her murder was gunned down as well.

These two and others like them need to be defended, their work supported, and greater investigations carried out into their murders. Their struggle tells us that we have a choice to make: we can either withdraw further into our gated communities, houses with higher walls, private guards, and associate ourselves within limited spaces in our cities, or, as a first step, ask the more difficult questions of the divisions which exist in society, the way they are reflected in the physical space that surrounds us, what our roles are within them, and how we can change those.

It is likely that Perween Rahman’s murder can be attributed to her speaking out against those who acquire land illegally through force with the support of the police, government officials, and legal office bearers for the quick financial returns land offers. It is essential to understand these developments, the politics, the actors, housing needs, and land commodification and its link to violence, and to question them.

As recently stated by her colleagues in a memorial for her, we will have to work twice as hard to continue her mission, and not only try to change the boundaries around us but change ourselves in the process.

Fizzah Sajjad is a scholar and a graduate student at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



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3 Responses to How Perween Rehman Crossed Over

  1. […] Source: […]

  2. Issue V: Space | Tanqeed on Nov 2013 at 1:51 AM

    […] of rural or international migrants, as well as refugees and internally displaced. In short, the colonial city of yesterday is alive and well in the capitalist division of space today. And, that demarcation […]

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