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by Andrea Fitrianto (visit profile page), 12 November 2013
Perween Rahman – an Awakened Architect
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Bad dream last night: as white smoke puffed-out from the chimney of
Pritzker castle, a new patriarch of the white order in Architecture was chosen.
As it seems, he spent forty years in service, designing buildings
that are sleek, white, hollow, and sensual.
They are still as white as the chapel in Ronchamp
designed by le Corbusier six decades ago.
It has been almost a century of modern architecture orbiting in inertia,
and those white chapels are now ghost ships, alien objects in a vacuum.
Such as the wrecked Chinese satellite that crashed into a Russian satellite,
it destroys its own kind, self-destructive in its existence,
litters the space, perpetually...


Meanwhile, in the district of Orangi in Karachi in the 1970s gravity is so strong. Thousands of families from hinterland villages and from troubled East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) arrived in search of a better life in city. Alas, they found modernity like a bad dream; dystopia. For poor families in Orangi, living in the modern era also means having to stay in slums with muddy streetsand deprived of sanitation. Land and clean water were expensive, and they have to buy them from middlemen.

Her name was Perween Rahman. In 1982, she graduated with a degree in architecture and gained a post in a lavish firm that promised her a bright career. But, after few months she reneged the offer and never looked back. Strong gravity pulled Perween to the ground. At that time, with 1.5 million inhabitants Orangi is among the largest and most impoverished slums in Asia. Perween joined a local NGO called Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) and met development expert Akhtar Hameed Khan. She was not overshadowed by her mentor and freely expressed her thoughts. On her mentors later she said, "I am lucky to have worked with the best. At the OPP you learn as you grow. It teaches you that you can have a good life even in simplicity."After obtaining a master's degree in Rotterdam in 1986 she returned to OPP and soon became the director. With OPP she focused on the fields of sanitation and micro-credit to improve the lives of poor families who were neglected by their government and marginalized by fellow countrymen.

Aah, what's the importance for them was the concept of nationalism? What's the relevance of cultural analysis, post-colonial studies, or the conflicting ideologies in the Cold War, and too, the international development cooperation? The housing problems faced by the poor in Orangi, in Karachi, in Sindh, and across Pakistan were so present and immediate. The ethics of OPP is to seize the day, to work together with the locals.OPP strive to be responsive, relevant, independent, and rooted. "If the World Bank says something can be done with $10, with a little guidance we say it can be done with $1"says Perween. In fact, she trained local youth to map their own neighborhood so that they understand their own situation. Then communities were able to plan, improve pavements, lay-out drainage, and connect sanitation pipes from house to house.

OPP soon became a reference for the press and those who seek to understand the realities of Karachi. Their work is acclaimed in the profession, inspires peers in fields of self-help in urban development. Yet, Perween is camera shy, and the world recognizes her role in more detail through the book "Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi" by Steve Inskeep. Perween was born in 1957 in Dhaka, her mother is from Hyderabad and her father from Patna. Her family fled to Karachi, West Pakistan, in the midst of political turmoil and escalating violence prior to the formation of Bangladesh in 1971.

The maps made visible to all the extent of land grabbing and water thievery. The maps helped in identifying those who were turning a profit from these dubious enterprises, thus disturbing the status quo. Cruel competition over land in Karachi is often masked by conflicts and violence in the name of race, religion, or sect. The finger pointing game is routine for the politicians and the authorities, and the military conquer its own people once every four years. But Perween's light of hope never dimmed, "I am an optimist. The maximum I can remain depressed for is ten minutes!"

Threats and violence became common to Perween and OPP staff. On one occasion, an armed gang burst into her office, threatened staff, and shut down the computersviolently.  In response, "we called the bigger gang and so they left. To call the Police is useless" said Perween as she laughed at the irony. She would never show fear to the enemy, "all that you can do is kill us. What else can you do? We're not afraid of you."Although, on occasion Perween expressed concerns on the increasingly alarming violence in Karachi.

The maps have helped hundreds of thousands families of Orangi. The maps revealed that there are more than 2,000 such goths (settlements) when the city only recognizes 400. In 2010 these maps convinced the city to issue titles for more than half of the total goths."The maps did it. Maps help to build relationships," she said, "The maps tell us what to do, where to go, who to lobby. They help professionals to understand the reality and have the courage to accept it." Many of the maps were adopted as official maps, "we love it when other organizations claim the maps we help communities to make," Perween went on. "On all these maps, we don't put our own names - it is the community youth who actually do the mapping. We only help train them, and then take a back seat, become invisible."

"Today Karachi is in flames, and one of the aspects of the violence in the city is the politics of land and who gets title to it. Getting land title for these goth settlers, who have lived there since long before partition in 1947, has been a very powerful step forward for the peace and the political balance of Karachi. We were just saying amongst ourselves that if we die today, we will die so happily, because we have done it."
– Perween Rahman, during community architects gathering in February 2013.

It struck us deeply when her closing words were swallowed by reality.On the afternoon of March 13th, 2013 two masked gunmen on a motorcycle intercepted Perween's car driven by her chauffeur. She was shot in her neck, she was rushed to a hospital. But her injuries were too severe, Perween could not be saved.

The police accused the Taliban in the assassination, but Perween herself had long implied that the major political parties were the protectors of the mafia and responsible for all the violence in Karachi. Not much can be expected from a country that suffers a cancer of corruption and is plagued for decades by deep-rooted Kalashnikov culture. Terrorists and murderers enjoy impunity and roam freely while their patrons remain in power.

Architect Rahman Perween lived a harsh reality; male dominated politics, a cycle of violence, corruption, and poverty. But, she refused to live in an illusion, that architects and Architectureis superior over the social and humanity. She dedicated her life, three decades of career, laying infrastructure and sanitation system with goths' residents to benefit over three million people and help them to claim the rights to the city, land security, and ultimately a better life with peace. Six months after her passing, a gap remains open to be filled by those who dreamed for a better future and strive for justice, in Pakistan or anywhere on this planet.

*)Ismail Aquila, Perween's sister has set up a Facebook page called 'JusticeForPerweenRahman'