Sit-ins with the Dead

Sep 2014

Issue 7 Essay | Get the full digital print edition now!

Untitled | Artist: Tazeen Qayyum

Artist: Tazeen Qayyum | Lost in Desires

On 10th January 2013, Rukhsana Bibi lost three sons in twin bomb blasts at a snooker hall on Alamdar Road, Quetta. She told me she was away on pilgrimage in Iran that day, but her family waited for her return before they buried the bodies. It took Rukhsana Bibi two days to reach Quetta; upon her arrival, she saw her three sons lying unburied on Alamdar road.

Alamdar Road is the economic artery of Meherabad — a neighborhood in Quetta with a predominantly ethnic Hazara population. On any other day, Alamdar Road would be trafficked by young Hazara boys on motorcycles, non-Hazaras on rickshaws, young and old men and women walking about the many shops that populate all two kilometers of its stretch through Meherabad. On that day, however, Rukhsana Bibi saw her young sons’ Khadim, Nasir and Imdad’s bodies lying on the road with one hundred other bodies that had been dug up from beneath the rubble of the bombing. Most of the bodies were missing parts.

Thousands of women, men and children were protesting with the bodies of their dead loved ones, and Rukhsana Bibi joined that protest on its third day. She likened the experience of sitting in protest to visiting a loved one at the hospital. She would go in the morning, kiss her dead sons, then sit in protest with them. Then, she would become overwhelmed and faint. Her family would rush her home, but when she came to, she would run back to Alamdar Road — sometimes without a chador or shoes — feeling guilty about having left her sons alone. She didn’t care what the men thought of her without her chador — she had lost three sons. On the fourth day, when the protest was called off and the dead had to be buried, she refused help from those men and buried her three sons with her own hands.

In conversations with protesters in Quetta, I realized that, when the protests began, no one knew that their sit-in on Alamdar Road would expand across several cities in Pakistan, disrupt the country’s major road networks,receive international news coverage, and even spread to several major cities around the world. Or that the government of Pakistan would engage in dialogue with them and meet most of their demands.

This essay emerged from a need to understand those protests — to analyze their moment and appeal, and their particular form of embodied collective action against violence. It was written after participatory observation of protests in Karachi in January and February 2013, conversations with protesters in Meherabad and Hazara Town in Quetta in August 2013, and activists in London in September 2013.

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The moment of protest

Most protesters I interviewed said that women mothers, sisters, wives of the martyred started the protest on Alamdar Road. It began at the Hazara Nachari Imambargah on Alamdar Road, where dead bodies were brought before burial. Distraught families, community members, and religious and political leaders had gathered there to support the affected families and discuss strategies for political action. It is uncertain exactly who first suggested the idea of refusing to bury the dead as a form of protest except that it was a man’s voice but the women present supported the idea.1 The imam and community elders disagreed, citing the logistical challenges that accompanied a hundred unburied bodies, to which the women retorted: “Here, please wear our bangles! We are going to sit with the dead bodies on Alamdar Road till we negotiate with the government!” That insult to their masculinity provoked the elders’ consent, and soon the families carried the dead bodies to Alamdar Road, the only space in Meherabad large enough to contain them.2

Once the women occupied Alamdar Road, thousands more from the community joined them. People opened up their homes, washrooms, and kitchens along the protest site for protesters, and effectively domesticated the space of protest to generate a self-sustaining communal experience. As the protest gained momentum, a joint coalition of political, social and religious parties, and community tribal elders—the Quetta Yakjehti Council (QYC) — took charge of governing it. As an old, established organization, the QYC is aimed at resolving disputes between Hazara and non-Hazara communities, and pursuing nonviolent initiatives to end terrorist attacks and targeted killings of Hazaras. As such, the QYC has enjoyed considerable repute within the community. The protests had called for negotiations with the government, and the QYC assumed that role with ease. To facilitate those negotiations, the QYC produced a list of demands. However, most of the protesters I interviewed in Quetta remarked that they were not consulted by the QYC as it set the demands of the protest. Nevertheless, the organization met with representatives of the Pakistani government to negotiate its demands: the imposition of governor rule in Balochistan, a targeted military operation against terrorist groups responsible for attacks on Hazaras, and martial law in Quetta. On 14th January, 2013, the government met most of those demands; the call for the army to take control of the city was the major exception.

During interviews with protesters, I realized that they had staged the protest to perform a singular, popular, public demand: “Stop killing us!” To the QYC, however, this demand did not meet the modalities of negotiation with the state. The demand “stop killing us!” had to be redefined, specifically on terms with which the government could engage, perhaps successfully. Yet, its redefinition into the set of demands noted above foreclosed the sociopolitical potential of the urgent, popular appeal. The demand “stop killing us!” could potentially have been voiced as a call for systemic, structural reform in governance and the protection of civic rights; however, the QYC redefined it as a list of preventative security measures.

The protesting body

An art student from the Quetta Sketch Club recounted:

You can only practice religious rites of burial, as ordained by the sharia, when conditions are normal. The sharia does not apply in abnormal conditions. In such conditions, it is most important to undertake the series of actions whereby conditions can be normalized.

In this student’s words, an ethno-sectarian genocide is an “abnormal condition,” that nullifies the daily demands of sharia. When Hazaras refused to bury their dead and appealed for the protection of their religious identity as Shias while at the same time contradicting sharia which mandates immediate burial they felt no dissonance between action and doctrine. In fact, their action (contrary to the doctrine) was aimed at restoring the everyday lived experience, upon which doctrine would resume application. Radical protest was a way of reinstating normalcy — perhaps the only way left. The body had to be staged in disruptive ways, against normative behavioral and religious conditions, only to normalize the very conditions that produced this abnormality.

In staging sit-ins with the dead bodies of their loved ones, the Hazaras rendered the ethnic Hazara body visible and significant to an audience that had never ‘seen’ it before. The Hazara political leadership made the Hazara body legible to Pakistanis by introducing it as a publicly visible sign of the violence of sectarianism. The Hazara body became the socially memorable Shia body. In the years preceding the moment of protest, Hazaras entered into a politically potent alliance with the Shia minority of Pakistan. As political strategy, the Hazaras reproduced a narrative that claimed that Hazaras were persecuted as part of the larger persecution of Shias in Pakistan.3 Terrorist aggressors, and the mainstream news media, claimed and publicized attacks against the Hazaras as ‘sectarian’ attacks on Shias.

As Stephen Dedalus claims in Bitter Harvest: Sectarianism in Balochistan, the Hazara leadership’s decision to rename Hazara persecution as a Shia persecution may have perhaps been courted by the Shia leadership: “[Shia] congregants were increasingly encouraged to see their sectarian identity as salient, enabling the refugee Hazara community to identify with a larger [Shia] nation rather than seeing themselves as a displaced, minority ethnic community in Pakistan.” Echoing Dedalus’s contention, Professor Nazir Hussain, a Hazara community elder, educationist, and social activist, narrated an account of a meeting after an Ashura bomb blast, where he advised the Hazara tribal leaders to take a political decision: “Will you call yourselves Shia or will you call yourselves Hazara?” The answer, he told them, should be subject to a simple calculation: How many people in Pakistan would know of, identify with, and support the cause of Hazaras (that make up less than one percent of the country’s population)? And, how many people would support the cause of Shia persecution in Pakistan, given that Shias are well integrated into the business and political elite, and have national and international visibility?

Irrespective of which minority group initiated the alliance, the protests of January 10th, 2013 substantively served the interests of both. In a country where Hazaras constitute only a fraction of the total population, Pakistanis learned of the plight of the “Hazara Shias.” Moreover, in a country that increasingly defines its nationalism through the dominant Sunni discourse on Islam, Pakistanis witnessed the Shia political party Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM) rise to prominence as the central force behind the protestsa feat that won them the national assembly parliamentary candidature from Quetta a few months after the protests.

Photo: Matiullah Achakzai | A mother cries next to the body of her dead son.

Related: God’s Gravediggers | Matthew Green | A mother cries next to the body of her dead son.

This was not a simple matter of one identity (Shia) overtaking another (Hazara). Rather, they were concurrently produced and reproduced through violence. In Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland, Allen Feldman explains that, “The ethnicity of the body is built in its dismemberment and disfigurement. Violence constructs the ethnic body as the metonym of sectarian social space.” In other words, the terrorist violence that targeted Hazaras was articulated in terms of sectarian violence. And terrorist violence, in particular, attempts to destroy visual markers of a person’s identity or—as in the case of bombings often—annihilates the body entirely so that no claims to physical markers of identity can positively be made. In acts of bomb blasts, hundreds of bodies are torn apart and invariably become enmeshed with other body parts, pieces of skin and blood. These disintegrated bodies form new ‘specimens’ that often do not belong to the targeted ethnic category alone. Sunnis and non-Hazaras are often killed with Shias and Hazaras.

Farooq lost two brothers in a suicide bomb blast at a marketplace in Quetta on February 16th, 2013. He identified his elder brother’s body through the clothes he had worn that day, but he had to sift through a pile of body parts lying in one corner of the Imambargah to identify his younger brother. Farooq had previously never been able to stomach the smallest of injuries, but on that day he picked through various limbs and headless bodies until he found an upper torso with a missing arm. He was only able to identify it as his brother because he could see the large mole on the left chest—a mark of chicken pox—for which he remembered taking his brother to the doctor.

The aim of such violence is not the marking of a particular ethnic identity alone; it is also about the production of an ethno-sectarian space. Repeated attacks of violence codify the targeted space in terms of an ethno-sectarian identity. Hence, a series of violent attacks by Sunni militant terrorist organizations in Meherabad, Quetta, have codified that neighborhood as a Hazara-Shia space.

These terrorist attacks are, of course, also organized to make larger geopolitical claims in the “war on terror.” However, I am specifically interested in the impact of such political strategies on the ways in which communities remember and resist violence. For instance, what does the dismembered body mean to the person burying and cleaning it, and to the family and community mourning it? Almost every protester I interviewed in Quetta narrated their memory of the protest and their loved one. Typically, each story attempted to rationalize the state in which the body was found, and in some cases, the embarrassment, horror, fear, utter disbelief at the violence done to it. Stories often focused on the disjuncture between the memory of the person and their violated body, and weaved juxtaposing accounts of violence and happiness. Story-telling became a way to re-member the dismembered body back into a coherent whole, to stitch together both memories of the violence done to the body—and the protesters’ lives—as well as the memories of happiness that they had shared with their loved ones. Those memories crystallized around the moment of trauma, and ultimately galvanized sit-ins with the same dismembered bodies to wrest concessions from the state. But, those memories also became a way to speak the everyday absence of the deceased.

The protest space

“All political action requires the space of appearance.” — Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

When asked whether the Hazaras thought it was unnatural to protest with their dead, Changezi, who was the lead negotiator with the government, said, “How is it unnatural to protest in this way, given what we’ve faced?” A sister who lost her brother to targeted killing, elaborated: “I can understand why families were sitting with their dead loved ones for days in freezing temperatures. It wasn’t so much that hundreds of people were killed—it was the way they were killed! So brutally…that people couldn’t take it anymore.”4 The violence done unto the dead and the hundreds killed over the years had to be spoken about and laid bare through a disruptive act that defiled the body’s sacred rites and threatened to make the dead a material fixture within the everyday space, unless the state worked to normalize conditions so that the dead could, at last, be laid to rest.

Protesting with the dead on Alamdar Road turned the general public into witnesses to the violation of the Hazara body and by extension, the Hazara community. By creating public witnesses, the protesters also created a public trial of the state’s failures and oppression. That public trial was located in the street—a space that has a long history as a potentially potent space for public, political action. In fact, the sociologist Saskia Sassen finds that the street in contrast to the boulevard or piazza has greater potential for political possibility: “the first signals action, and the second, ritual.”

The Hazara protesters, too, did not use designated public spaces such as parks or public squares since such spaces are typically designed to contain, meaning that they can be quickly cordoned-off, which can and does neuter the possibility for political “action” in such spaces. Everyday spaces, like the street, on the other hand, have the potential to be visible: protests performed in such spaces are not ritualistic political gatherings but disruptions of daily experience, and hence have greater potential for impact and engaging publics. So it was that many of the protest centers in Karachi and Quetta were not designated public sites, but commercial spaces and everyday spaces like streets, monument sites or government locations.

Each protest spacewhether it was the 2 kilometers long narrow Alamdar Road in Quetta, or an important traffic junction such as Teen Talwar in Karachi or the Governor House in Lahoreharbored the potential for collective political action and for fostering new forms of community. Hence, rare alliances, such as the Sunni-Shia collective call for state protection of minority rights, as well prayer services, were momentarily performed at the protest sites. Yet, these spaces too were often colonized by hierarchical politics that foreclosed more horizontal actions. In that regard, these were not populist protests. Under the QYC in Quetta, or the Shia religious and political leadership in other centers, the protests were dominated by speeches, slogans, practices that promoted a select political agenda. There was no structural provision, such as a people’s assembly, for building civic alliances.

Protest spaces, thus, initially began as sites of non-ritualized political and civic possibility, only to later become ritualized under the hierarchical and undemocratic organization of the QYC and Shia leadership. Therefore, when Karar Husain, a Hazara student in Karachi, held a poster that read “Stop Hazara Genocide”, he was scolded by the Shia imam in the middle of the latter’s address to protesters and reminded that the protest was not for the rights of Hazaras, but the rights of all Shias. Feeling the pressure for a particular kind of solidarity politics, Karar did not argue with the Shia imam, but later reflected that the Shia rights narrative had failed to represent the many ethnic, geopolitical, and socioeconomic complexities of the Hazara rights narrative.

Despite the power dynamics among protest leaders, the protesters and the state, the sit-ins with the dead were exemplary demonstrations of embodied collective resistance against acts of violence. The protests realized the potential for new forms of identity and civic formation for the future struggles of Hazaras—and, perhaps, other marginalized communities — in Pakistan.


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The struggle, however, is far from over. A small anecdote reflects on the Hazara community’s ongoing struggle with living with trauma and the memory of their deceased, amidst renewed threats of terrorist attacks:

Qayyum Changezi was telling me that his son’s body had turned into “minced-meat” when he got the phone call from the Frontier Corps (F.C.) security check-post. Changezi is the vice chairman of the Quetta Yakjehti Council, an organization that became the decision-making body and intermediary between the state and the protesters. The security officer on the other line told him that a red jeep had just sped past the check-post, even though the F.C. had fired repeatedly at it. The officer suspected that the jeep may have been laden with explosives and headed towards Alamdar Road. He had called to warn Changezi to evacuate the site of the protests within the next five minutes. Changezi made the phone calls, took a deep breath and returned to his son’s story. In the next ten minutes, as Changezi told his son’s story with minor interruptions, I worried for my life. Changezi’s son, Ali, was rescuing the injured in a blast outside the snooker gaming hall when an Edhi ambulance laden with explosives arrived and stopped in front of him. In the CCTV footage of the blast, Changezi saw that his son had tried to open the door of the ambulance, but had found it locked; seconds later the second blast occurred, and he was killed. They only found his shoe, and that is what lies in his grave today.

Changezi’s wife has been paralyzed since that day. He got another phone call soon after he had finished telling the story. The F.C. officer had found the red jeep and its drunk driver. “Nothing to worry about,” he said.

* * *

I am grateful to Mr. Zakir Thaver, Mr. Karar Husain, Professor Nazir Husain, and Mr. Nisar Ali Nasir for their tremendous support and enthusiasm for this work. An extended version of this essay was published in the first issue of Indus: A Journal of Art, Culture and Design, and I thank the journal’s editorial board for supporting its publication in Tanqeed. | Translator for author: Karar Hussain.[/schedule]

Ayesha Omer is a performance artist and doctoral candidate at NYU’s Media, Culture and Communication department. Her work explores issues of public formation, political resistance, violence and social memory in Pakistan.

[schedule=’2014-09-29′ at=”00:01″]For further reading on this subject, see here.

[schedule=’2014-09-29′ at=”00:01″]



  1. There is precedence for this form of protesting with the dead body. In 2008, Hazaras staged sit-ins with dead bodies in Quetta on two separate occasions. Also, there is precedence for radical protests led by Hazara women. []
  2. Qayyum Changezi, lead negotiator of the QYC, however, claims that the QYC initiated the sit-ins with the dead on Alamdar Road. However, an overwhelming majority of the protesters I interviewed asserted that women had initiated the sit-ins. []
  3. While my extended paper covers the Hazara Shia political alliance in detail, including the historical context of Hazara persecution in and migration from Afghanistan, this essay is specifically focused on and limited to an analysis of the protest. []
  4. On Hazara persecution, see: Marie, 2013; Ibrahimi 2012; Dedalus, 2009; Kharal, 2011. []

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12 Responses to Sit-ins with the Dead

  1. […] analyzed the will to resist — and the problems that can beset protest movements. Ayesha Omer shares her insights based on her ethnographic and interview work with the Hazara sit-ins, and Katja […]

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