When you enter Sabeen Mahmud’s airy The Second Floor café, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re in San Francisco. The walls feature works by young local artists; the menu offers panini and café lattes, and announcements invite you to author readings and discussion evenings. Indeed, with her short, stylish hairdo and edgy glasses, Mahmud herself looks very Californian.

But this is Karachi, a city that most of the outside world associates with extremism and sectarian violence. In fact, Mahmud’s café is a risky endeavor. Intelligence officers frequently show up, especially at Indian events. “But fear is a line in your head”, she reflects. “I want to do what I want to do. Of course I want more security, but I’m not going to worry that I’ll be raped or shot. Fear is the new normal in Karachi.”

All around Pakistan, there are brave women like Mahmud who tenaciously fight extremism. And extremism is growing, partly because many Taliban who’ve left Afghanistan have settled here. Around Karachi there are entire Taliban colonies; indeed, the Taliban even boast of being protected by the police. “The situation is getting worse for all citizens of Pakistan because of terrorism and extremism, and women and minorities are always more vulnerable in such situation”, says Mahnaz Rahman, Director of the Aurat (Women) Foundation in Karachi. Reflects freelance journalist Zofeen Ibrahim: “It’s painful to see how we’ve regressed in the past 10 years. There used to be so much freedom. You could ride a bike. You could wear anything you wanted. Now I don’t even let my daughter go to the cornershop alone because it’s not safe. This is not normal!”

But Ibrahim herself goes to the corner store and publishes articles. Farieha Aziz, a young activist who recently founded an NGO, laments how “NGO has become a swearword in Pakistan”, but continues her work anyway. Sana Saleem, a 20-something who wears a headscarf, blogs about human rights and frequently takes on Islamists. “People here don’t take online advocacy seriously at all”, she tells me as I meet her at The Second Floor. “There’s a consensus that if something is anti-religious it will be blocked.”

Indeed, when it comes to women’s rights, Pakistan is a gigantic contradiction: Benazir Bhutto was the Muslim world’s first female elected head of government. The majority of medical students are now women. There are female fighter pilots and judges. At the same time, there are forced marriages and honor killings. But, observes Majida Razvi, Pakistan’s first female judge: “Women are forcing their way forward.”

I meet a large group of those women at the offices of Aurat. Like many companies and offices in Pakistan, it’s guarded by an armed officer. During our lively discussion, male staff serves tea. “There are even feminists in rural areas”, notes activist Hameeda Kaleem. “On the other hand, the rise in fundamentalism has really affected women.” India, Pakistan’s perennial foe, plays a part in this equation, too, as Tabinda Sarosh, a feisty reproductive rights campaigner, observes: “Lots of people watch the Indian TV channel Star+. Women there are always beautiful and dutiful and portrayed as lesser persons intellectually.”

And despite the setbacks – Taliban, Indian soap operas – Pakistan’s unofficial Women’s Army is adding new members to its ranks, while its veterans get grow bolder. Recently Sabeen Mahmud, who at 38 has two decades of activism under her belt, staged a solo protest against an Islamist anti-Valentine’s Day campaign. And she wants even more action: “Why do people march everywhere else in the world but not here?” she asks. But, then again, tiny victories are leading to change. “Have we stopped a war?” she asks. “No! Have me made a dent? Yes!”

Dancing against extremism

Sheema Kermani is one of Pakistan’s best-known TV actresses and an unusual rebel: she fights extremism with guerilla dance performances. “Dance is a tool for women’s activism”, she tells me as we meet in Karachi. “And it’s entertainment for women who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it because it’s too expensive and they don’t have transport.”

But staging the performances is risky: traditional dance on stage is banned in Pakistan. So, before each performance Kermani signs an affidavit saying she won’t dance – and each time she dances anyway. “Now the government doesn’t care”, she reports. “But it’s more dangerous because of the rise in fundamentalism. Any member of the audience can just get up and throw rocks at you.” Even so, Kermani, who looks the part of a TV star, doesn’t stop. “It’s a decision I took years ago, so it doesn’t frighten me”, she explains. “But I’m concerned about what would happen to everyone else if someone threw a bomb. People will stop attending and there will be no future for culture.”