I first visited Lyari in August 2012 when a colleague of mine, Laurent Gayer, invited me to help conduct a focus group discussion with members of a community-based organization that worked with youth in the area. Until this visit I had only heard snippets about this part of the city in terms of its reputation for violence and criminality, but I knew very little of substance about this supposed ‘no-go’ area. The members of the community organization talked about how Lyari had been maligned by the media, how people in Lyari were discriminated against in employment and how the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in particular had waged a campaign against the people of Lyari. The themes that they discussed— marginalization, stigmatization, political manipulation and state neglect—were issues I had explored before in my previous work on Muslim women, and my interest in the area grew from here.
Entrance to Lyari, Karachi
One of the city’s original settlements, Lyari has been the site of an on-going conflict between rival gangs, political parties and law enforcement agencies over the past two decades. Over the past five years, my research in this area has focused on the dynamics of everyday life, examining how diverse residents cope with, strategize around, and resist multiple forms of violence by state and non-state actors and in public and private spaces. My research also looks at the impact of structural forms of violence that result from economic deprivation and discrimination faced by marginalized urban citizens.
Because of the periodic conflicts taking place in this area and in the city as a whole over the past two decades, fear has become a way of life for many of the residents. In my work, I analyze how young men belonging to the Baloch community learned to navigate through the periodic bouts of violence by adapting their movements within the city and even at times by migrating outside the country. This research demonstrates the ways that the insecurity and fear caused by violence reinforces social and economic marginalization.
I approach the residents of this area not as passive victims of violence but as active citizens negotiating multiple constraints. Residents assert their agency in a variety of ways—from everyday coping strategies to outright resistance. I have conducted extensive research on a series of street protests that took place in Lyari from 2012 to 2014 organized against law enforcement agencies, political parties and the gangs. This research highlights how acts of resistance are constrained, determined by and constitutive of particular relations of power.
Laurent Gayer and I have also collaborated on a paper investigating the local media’s relationship with the conflict, focusing on Lyari’s most popular newspaper, Janbaz. This research explores the ways residents engage with the local newspaper as a means of negotiating the conflict, as a form of entertainment, and as means of establishing a sense of community. It also draws attention to the newspaper as an arena where local state and non-state actors compete for power. I have also worked with a local filmmaker from the area to produce a short documentary based on these findings. My research on Lyari challenges the division that exists within the literature between public forms of violence, such as the violence between criminal gangs, political parties and law enforcement agencies, and private forms of violence, such as that which is experienced by women within their homes. In this regard, I have conducted interviews with women working in a variety of fields exploring the relationship between their involvement in paid employment and their experiences of violence in multiple spaces—at home, in public and at their places of employment. This research draws attention to the shifting sites of potential violence for women depending on their social, economic, and political circumstances. It also explores how changes in the economy have affected gendered power relations.
In the coming year, I plan on developing my research on Lyari into a full-length manuscript, which will explore the relationship between gender, marginality and urban violence in greater depth. The manuscript will make a series of important interventions in the fields of gender and urban studies. Firstly, it will contribute key insights to the understanding of violence in Pakistan, highlighting its links with economic, social and political factors. Secondly, it will focus on a part of Karachi that, despite being one of the city’s oldest and most conflict-ridden settlements, has received relatively little scholarly attention, thus contributing to the understanding of urban marginality in South Asia and in the Global South more broadly. Thirdly, it will highlight the gendered experiences of urban violence—an area that has received very little scholarly attention in the region or elsewhere. Finally, by analyzing instances of everyday and organized resistance, the project will frame the city as a key site for the assertion of citizenship rights among marginalized populations.
Nida Kirmani is Associate Professor at the MGSHSS.
This article was first published in the MGSHSS newsletter, 'Guftugu'.