On Being a Pakistani Activist (and a Woman)

On Being a Pakistani Activist (and a Woman)

December 24, 2020 0

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I remember the first time I received a threat.

It was in 7th grade when a boy, whose father was the SHO (Station House Officer of a police station) at the time, liked me but I did not share his feelings. He threatened me with “I’ll tell my father to have you kidnapped.” Quite privileged and raised to be egomaniacal myself, I responded, “Go ahead, I’ll tell my father,” and that shut him up.

I remember the first time I received a death threat.

It was a little over 4 years ago, shortly after my widely circulated article on having sex in Pakistan was published by Vice. I received violent tweets from Pakistani men, telling me to change my name because of their Islamic connotations and significance, and because I was a ‘gashti’ (a derogatory term referring to ‘sex worker’) and women like me, who “shame” the state ( I should be ashamed of advocating for women’s autonomy!) deserve to be killed.

I was also told by a close family friend, with ISI ties, that religious ‘leaders’ wanted two people dead that summer (2016): one was Qandeel Baloch, the other was me.

A family member shows pictures of Qandeel Baloch in 2016.
Asim Tanveer/AP

Qandeel Baloch was murdered 4 months after I wrote my article. After hearing the news, I went into a state of shock and panic. I was paranoid for months, afraid of leaving my house alone, wondering if someone would come to “find” me. I was especially triggered after going to a Tim Horton’s in downtown Toronto to purchase a bagel, when a group of young Pakistanis started taking photos and filming me on their phones. But then I thought oh wait, I’m in Canada and no harm can be done. 

I was wrong.

Karima Baloch, Pakistani human rights activist, found dead in Canada. Husband says foul play cannot be ruled out after body of 37-year-old dissident discovered in Toronto. Baloch, 37, was granted asylum in Canada in 2016.’ – The Guardian

Yesterday, Toronto Police discovered Karima Baloch’s dead body on Toronto Island, a place where I have biked around and spent many afternoons during my 8 years living in Toronto. In the summer, Toronto Island is idyllic, with swans and toads, kayaking, mini beaches, and views of the lake all around. Before COVID, it was also the location of Electric Island, one of Canada’s most well-known raves. But yesterday, it was the place Karima Baloch, a Pakistani woman and activist, was found dead. Toronto Police have stated that the death appears to be “non-criminal.” However, Karima’s husband Haider Hammal, and Lateef Johar Baloch, a friend of Karima’s and fellow activist who also resides in Toronto, disagree with Toronto Police’s statement.

Lateef told the BBC about the persisting threats made against Karima, disclosing that a recent one involved sending her a “Christmas gift” in order to “teach her a lesson.”

Karima’s husband, Haider, spoke with the Guardian and is reluctant to believe that her death can be claimed a suicide or, as Toronto Police have claimed “non-criminal,” due to the nature of her death (she was on her regular walk in the Front Street/Toronto Island area) and the volume of threats both Karima and her husband, as Baloch activists, have received. Haider disclosed that the threats outlined his relatives and his wife (Karima) as targets, and majority of her family have already been killed, captured, or abducted. What we seem to forget is our own colonial history; governments can try to kill an entire lineage of dissidents, sure, but there will always be new generations of rebels and revolutionaries. And while many labelled Karima and other Baloch activists as “terrorists,” the Baloch community considers them to be heroes. Balochistan demands sovereignty of their land and culture, and while its own ethnic-cleansing violence towards religious minorities, such as Pakistani Hindus, is inexcusable—the paramilitary violence that Balochistan and its people have been subjected to is unparalleled.

Have we learned nothing from both ‘47 and ‘71?

– Zahra Haider, author

Karima Baloch is not the only other female-identifying Pakistani activist that I know of in Canada. Now with her death, the question that invades my mind is, who is next? Will we ever be safe? While I am technically in exile as my safety is not guaranteed in Pakistan, I was a Canadian citizen prior to my relocation here. Karima and other activists came and continue to come to Canada as asylum seekers; that is, seeking asylum, safety, and sanctuary from violence.

Baloch activist, Sajid Hussain

Another Baloch activist, Sajid Hussain, was murdered in Sweden earlier this year. His body was found slain in a lake. He too had sought asylum in Sweden. But the Swedish government did not advocate for an investigation, justice, or further inquiry. The West feeds us ideas of being “better” than our ‘violent’ and ‘barbaric’ nation-states in the Global South, yet the reality is our lives are valued far less. I say this because of the inherent systemic violence and discrimnation that has historically occurred towards POC (people of colour) and immigrant communities in the West. Canada, which is highly regarded to be an equal, multicultural, and immigrant-loving Western nation, adopted these values as a farce, to mask and promote Canada’s nationalism in a subtle, less obvious way, unlike Pakistan and India, whose nationalism is so overt.

Protestor holds up a sign board reading ACAB, which means All Cops Are Bastards.

The exact origins of the term are unknown, but the consensus is that it emerged in England in the first half of the twentieth century. Aprocrophyally, “All Coppers are Bastards” was first abbreviated to ACAB by workers on strike in the 1940s…But ACAB really took on its modern meaning in 1970 when the Daily Mirror ran the phrase as a headline.


While it should be no surprise that the police is no different than the military, and that #AllCopsAreBastards, Karima’s death has highlighted the pre-existing injustices in Western law enforcement. In Pakistan, we know the cops are bastards, and the majority of them are underpaid and thoroughly abused by their superiors. However, here, where cops are easily paid $100,000 or more annually, they too, are bastards who are creating and perpetuating systemic violence towards POC and immigrant communities, and the erasure of our pain, trauma and injustices that we face as members of forcefully marginalized communities. At the moment, Amnesty International has urged Toronto Police to investigate what is very potentially a homicide. Currently, they have concluded the death was “non-criminal” with no suspects involved, maintaining the same conclusion they arrived at prior to any formal investigation. Karima’s husband and activist-friends are ruling out suicide on her behalf, and the body hasn’t been returned to her husband.

What is to be made of this?

How has the Canadian government left the responsibility of this case to Canadian Police, who are known for their discriminatory attitudes and improper investigation skills? The same Canadian police, who think it’s amusing to harass and intimidate protestors when there is no threat within sight. Are they simply indifferent to the violence we are subjected to, because we are brown? Is this even a question to ask when we, globally, are aware of the immense and despicable violence, brute force, discrimination, and death that is imposed on Black people throughout the West?

Not only are we activists, but we are women, and we all have our own unique oppressors.

In Pakistan, women are symbols of the nation’s ‘honour’ and are expected to display behaviours that project that belief. Be small, speak only when spoken to. Patriarchal ideology is deeply embedded in Pakistani society, and an intersectional approach is essential when it comes to understanding violence and oppression. While I identify as a Pakistani activist and woman who has received death threats, I am a Canadian citizen, I am related to a wealthy, well-connected, Sunni family in Pakistan, and because I have been educated in the West, I have the “tools” to survive in this very white supremacist society.

Karima Baloch, on the other hand, was here on the basis of her activism, safety and the need to escape from danger urgently; many of her relatives have already been killed because of their ethno-cultural background and demand for sovereignty. One thing we do have in common, is that we have both been accused of being double-agents. Often, this is a harmful nationalistic conspiracy theory. I have no interest in the state or intelligence services because as an anarchist and feminist, I don’t believe the revolution can sprout within these violent structures. I care deeply for my community, which directly extends to Pakistani women and activists. Being critical is a patriarchal construct—it has taught us the more we love something, the more we ought to criticize it (take for example, the stereotypical military officer father). Critics of the state, I believe, do love the prospect of what a nation’s ideology could represent. Nationalism on the other hand, can be blinding.

Whether or not Baloch was involved with the Indian nation-state, reflects her desperation for survival and community autonomy—but to what extent? She addressed Modi, as her “brother” in this YouTube clip, followed by a speech where she vocalizes fear for her safety due to the infiltration of Pakistan Army officers immigrating to Canada in the present-day. The first clip is certainly alarming. But regarding the second clip, would Modi have felt the same way, given his stance on Indian Muslims, let alone Muslims from other nation-states like Pakistan? Our options are limited and unfortunate.

Since posting about Karima’s death on social media, I have received messages regarding RAW’s involvement in the death, which is also linked to “The Indian Chronicles,” something I only recently read about. Using such horrific and tragic events as means of playing the blame-game and finger-pointing by Pakistan and India is unsurprising. It is of the utmost importance that Toronto Police are removed from the investigation of Karima’s death, and instead it is handed to CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) to do a thorough and expedited investigation.

At the end of the day, Karima is a Pakistani woman and an activist. She could be me, or any of us who are fighting for a better world. As Pakistani activists, but especially as Pakistani women – will we ever be safe?

Many have already signed a petition demanding Toronto Police investigate further and more closely into Karima Baloch’s death.We deserve transparency, and Karima, justice.

Zahra Haider
Zahra Haider
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