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Pakistani Advocate For The Poor Slain By Gunmen


Gunmen killed a woman in Pakistan yesterday. The news stories about this were formulaic for Pakistan, she was killed in a customary manner by assassins on motorcycles who rolled away with impunity. What's remarkable is the way she lived. Parveen Rehman came from Karachi, one of the world's largest cities. She helped thousands of poor people obtain basic services.

When I first met her in 2008, she told me she studied to become an architect, but doubted the value of the upscale buildings she learned to design.

PARVEEN REHMAN: So when I graduated, I was very confused. So I worked with a famous architect and I ran from the office without taking my case.

INSKEEP: You really had a job and you just walked out the office one day?


INSKEEP: What kind of work were you doing?

REHMAN: Designing a hotel and I didn't understand what I was doing. And I said that since I don't need such a lot of money, so do designing and waste my time on this, when I know that who was this serving.

INSKEEP: Rehman went to work instead for the Orangi Pilot Project, named after a zone where more than a million people live; mostly poor, mostly in illegally built houses, mostly beyond the reach of government services.

She became a protege of the organization's founder, a man who encouraged poor people to help themselves - for example, by digging their own sewers or supporting schools.

REHMAN: He was a man who would say: I am your grandmother. Yeah? They say not your grandfather, why? Because grandmother gives love and the grandfather scolds and he's aggressive. But the grandmother loves, and through love she's able to encourage and make people grow.

INSKEEP: The Orangi Pilot Project followed a gentle model in a place that's not gentle at all. Armed groups contend for power and land. Rehman investigated the workings of her lawless city, writing a paper on who was stealing the city water supply. When she talked to such outrages, she commonly laughed.

She spoke of helping people to rise up, horizontally, by which she meant people rise together, helping those around them.

REHMAN: Once you rise up horizontally, you take everybody with you. But if you want to rise vertically, then you will rise, but then nobody will be there for you.

INSKEEP: That sounds like the difference between a bunch of houses in a Karachi neighborhood and a brand-new skyscraper.

REHMAN: Absolutely.


REHMAN: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Now, when the gunmen on motorcycles found her yesterday, they fired many shots in her car. It was rumored Rehman's organization had run afoul of the Taliban, though the Taliban deny responsibility. When it comes to murder, if nothing else, Pakistan's many armed groups give women equal rights. Yet it's hard to let the gunmen have the last word - better to remember an earlier moment.

Once she told me an armed group tried to take over her offices. Calling the police would be hopeless, so she called in rival gunmen. The groups eyed each other and all went away without firing a shot. When she told this absurd story, of surviving and working on, she laughed.


INSKEEP: It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.