"The Rebel Optimist"
Perween Rahman was a Pakistani social activist and director of the Orangi Pilot Project Research and Training Institute, a development NGO of Karachi, Pakistan.
Perween was born on January 22, 1957, in Dhaka, then situated in East Pakistan. As a teenager, she moved to Karachi after the fall of Dhaka and obtained a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the Dawood College of Engineering and Technology. She also received a Postgraduate diploma in housing, building and urban planning in 1986 from the Institute of Housing Studies in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
She worked at a private architecture firm before being recruited by Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan to become Joint Director of the Orangi Pilot Project in 1982, where she managed the housing and sanitation programmes. In 1988, OPP was split into four organisations, and Perween became Director of OPP-RTI (Orangi Pilot Project – Research and Training Institute), also managing programmes in education, youth training, water supply and secure housing.
The OPP operated in the Orangi Town Low Income Settlement of Karachi, which provided water and sanitation services to hundreds of thousands of citizens in poor settlements throughout Pakistan. The innovative project, started in 1980, helped residents of those poor communities build their own sewer and water systems.
A media-shy but prominent social activist and educationist, Perween was involved in creating a water plan with Karachi Water and Sewage Board, which was a water supply plan to the city that was presented to the government, politicians, and NGOs. “For every issue we try to provide a situation analysis, list the issues and provide solutions,” she said.
Perween had been instrumental in devising ways to deal with sanitation problems and devoted her life to the development of impoverished neighbourhoods across the country. She worked in an environment that most people would avoid and was a great help to people who would come to her whenever a problem struck them, trusting her like an elder sister.
In 1989, she founded the NGO Urban Resource Centre in Karachi and was also on the Board of Saiban, another NGO dedicated to low-income housing, and OPP-OCT (Orangi Charitable Trust, the microfinance branch of OPP).
In addition, Perween taught at the University of Karachi, NED University, Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture and Dawood College of Engineering and Technology, all located in Karachi.
Perween was an ardent compiler of records of the land on the fringes of the city, villages that were quickly vanishing due to the ever-increasing demand by thousands of families who were moving to Karachi every year from across the country. She said on record that villages had been merged into the city over the years and that land-grabbers subdivided them into plots and earned billions from their sale. Perween documented everything and also worked to help those whose land had been grabbed, never hesitating to go to an area where her life was constantly under threat.
On March 13, 2013, Perween was killed when four gunmen opened fire on her vehicle near her office, ending her long career of working for water and land rights. She had been an outspoken critic of the land and water mafias in Karachi and their political patrons and had long been receiving death threats. When friends and relatives advised her to take care of herself, she reportedly smiled, waved her hand and said, “What will they do? I have to work a lot and in the middle of the people.”
Perween Rahman involved communities in development work and endeavoured to empower people and lessen their sense of deprivation. Not changing her routine to help people was, in her eyes, a defeat to terrorists and her great achievement to bring healthy changes to the lives of the residents of Orangi leaves an indelible impact.
For her work and academic achievements, Perween Rahman was awarded the Mehdi Ali Mirza Award for Academic Excellence (1984), the Jaycees Award for community work (1986), the National Building Research Institute award for Housing (1994), the UN-Habitat Best Practice (with OPP-RTI) in 1996, the Faiz Foundation Award for community research (1997), a World Habitat Award (with OPP-RTI) in 2001, a Rotary Club Award for vocational services (2001) and in 2008 she was granted the title of Lifetime Honorary Member of the Water Academy in Oslo. On March 23, 2013, the Government of Pakistan posthumously conferred on her the Sitara-e-Shujaat, Order of Bravery.