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What It Means to Be Black and South Asian

Afro-Pakistani experiences show that anti-Blackness is a global struggle

Hina Yaqoob and her cousin sitting in their home.
Hina Yaqoob with her cousin, Mahnoor Hussain, 16. Photos: Iman Sultan

When Tanzeela Qambrani became the chairperson of her local council in Matli, a town in southern Pakistan, she never anticipated opposition from members of her own political party. A finance consultant with the Asian Development Bank, who hails from a family of activists, Qambrani was more than qualified for the job.

After Qambrani’s predecessor died from cancer, the 41-year-old mother of two became a councillor, and in 2018, was handpicked by the People’s Party as a local chairperson. The decision triggered fresh resentment in other politicians, who saw Qambrani’s success as rising above her station, and tried to get her removed from her post by contacting Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of the slain Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister. When that didn’t work, Qambrani alleges they tried to bribe and harass her.

“I was everything they hated: a woman, Sheedi, middle class,” Qambrani said. “I realized then, okay, being Sheedi is this bad of a sin? I thought the discrimination I’d face sometimes was because I was a woman. I didn’t realize they were doing this to me because I was Black.”

Tanzeela Qambrani is one of hundreds of thousands of South Asians of African descent, and belongs in particular to the Sheedi community, a term denoting Blackness in the subcontinent. Sheedi and other Afro-Asian communities have lived in Pakistan and India for generations, but still face discrimination and a lack of acceptance because of their physical appearance. Just like other Black Pakistani women, Qambrani has to overcome anti-Black racism, classism, and misogyny to rise to where she is today.

“For others, if you don’t tell your caste, people won’t know what it is,” Qambrani said. “But if I am sitting in a room with a hundred people, everyone will know that I am a Sheedi.”

When George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin this past May, Qambrani put forth a resolution in Sindh assembly condemning the murder, and drew parallels to the racism Sheedis experience in Pakistan. “For us, this was nothing new,” she said. “If there is a fight of four people, and the police come to break it up, they’re going to assume the Sheedi person started it.”

Other Pakistanis of African heritage likewise expressed their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. Parveen Naz, a 38-year-old human rights activist in Karachi, has challenged corruption in her area and advocated for the rights of women, and signed a petition in support of George Floyd.

“It’s the kind of thing where because I identified with him, I felt so angry about it. Nothing like this should ever happen again, ” Naz said.

Naz comes from the Baloch ethnic group, a portion of whom have historically mixed with Africans, and lives in Lyari, a densely populated borough in Karachi known for its large community of Afro-Baloch people. Once a hub of art and poetry, Lyari has faced gang wars and generational poverty, which Naz witnessed firsthand. “First, you’re already pushed around because of your skin color. But then you’re also poor. And that poverty holds you back and oppresses you even more,” she said.

“When George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin this past May, Qambrani put forth a resolution in Sindh assembly condemning the murder, and drew parallels to the racism Sheedis experience in Pakistan.”

Hina Yaqoob, a Sheedi schoolteacher in Baldia, a town in the western part of Karachi, remembers being bullied as a young girl. “When we were children, we looked different from everyone. Other kids would ask me, ‘Why is your hair so curly? Why do you look like this?’ At the time, we didn’t have any answers. So we just had to put up with it,” she said.

A diaspora across the Indian Ocean

In southern Asia, Pakistan has the largest number of inhabitants of African descent, numbering an estimated 250,000 people. Significant populations also exist in India, such as in Gujarat state and the Hyderabad region, and the port city of Bandar Abbas in Iran. South Asians and Iranians of African descent trace their roots to pathways of trade and migration in the Indian Ocean. According to Dr. Omar H. Ali, Professor of African Diaspora History at the University of North Carolina, more than 4 million Africans have dispersed across the Indian Ocean since the 2nd century. Today, their descendants are concentrated in port cities and coastal areas, where they have adopted the local cultures and languages as their own and integrated over the centuries.

While many Africans, particularly in Iran, were brought as enslaved people working on plantations and in wealthy households, others migrated as “sailors, traders, and explorers, all free people,” Dr. Ali said. A notable portion were recruited as soldiers in armies, both as enslaved fighters or paid mercenaries. The historical occupation as a soldier is still seen in how Black men are employed as low-wage security guards in Pakistan.

In the Makran belt of Balochistan, a region overlapping Iran and Pakistan, some indigenous inhabitants have African ancestry, but identify first with their Baloch ethnicity, and uphold an internal caste hierarchy proximate to the tribal chieftains of the area. Slave rebellions and famines in Iran in the late 1800s led to the mass freeing of enslaved populations, and induced Black people to migrate eastwards to Balochistan. Many ventured further to the coastal city of Karachi, which is now the economic center of Pakistan and has a population of 16 million people.

Sheedis are found in the Lasbela district of eastern Balochistan, and in the province of Sindh. Hoshu Sheedi, a Black Sindhi revolutionary who died fighting British colonists in 1843, is widely celebrated as a cultural hero in the province, and his slogan in defense of Sindh still inspires ethnic nationalists today.

Sheedis also migrated to Pakistan from India during the 1947 Partition. Hina Yaqoob’s mother is Gujarati, and they remain connected to relatives across the border through WhatsApp.

Facing gendered racism in society

Politics is not the only arena where women of African descent face racism. Sourath Hussain, 27, is a graduate student at Quaid-e-Azam university in Islamabad, who aspires to become a diplomat or civil servant. She is the only Sheedi in a public campus of 13,000 students.

“When I’m at university, they don’t care about my caste or character. They start talking about my features. They ask me, did you get your lips botoxed?” Hussain said. “I have a MPhil degree, and I plan to enroll in a PhD program, but being a Sheedi, nobody is valuing my degree. They’re focusing on my appearance instead.”

Living in a traditional society ruled by both caste and colorism, the challenges Black women face in South Asia are unique. While Black girls and women are known to excel in school or professional life better than men, enduring the antiblack bullying that often causes boys to drop out, prospects of marriage can be difficult to come by because of their skin color.

Nazeen Barakzai, 32, relates how her great-grandfather’s second wife was a woman of African descent, and they had two daughters together. “It’s not that they weren’t beautiful. They were very beautiful. But they faced difficulties in getting married. One was wed in Iran, and the other didn’t get married at all.”

Parveen Naz shares a similar experience of how her oldest sister, Yasmeen, struggled to get married after she dropped out of school as a preteen. “We used to live in an area where the other girls were very fair-skinned and had long hair, and my sister refused to go to school because she was taunted and bullied,” Naz said. “My parents were anxious to get her married. They married her to someone else who was dark-skinned [but not Black], when she was only 21 years old. And she showed up to our doorstep everyday after that, asking for money.”

“While Black girls and women are known to excel in school or professional life better than men, enduring the antiblack bullying that often causes boys to drop out, prospects of marriage can be difficult to come by because of their skin color.”

Both Naz and Barakzai’s families are Baloch of mixed heritage. Sheedis have traditionally married among themselves, but popular media and the internet have led to both boys and girls seeking partners outside of the community. “The new generation wants to marry for love,” Hina Yaqoob said. “Because of mobile phones, and mostly Facebook, a boy and girl become friends and then exchange numbers. And now everyone’s using Insta too. Once the boy finds his choice [of wife], he convinces his parents until they accept.”

Leading in mosque, school, and the workplace

In a mosque on a narrow street in Lyari, Zareena Bano sits with two stray cats on the marble floor, praying with a tasbeeh in her hand. Known as “Pupha,” she is the caretaker of the Sufi masjid, which has faced break-ins from gangsters in the borough’s decade-long gang wars. Pupha has never backed down, even when threatened by powerful men with guns, and she inspires awe and respect from people all over the city, who come to pay their respects at the shrine.

Locally and principally in the working class, Black Pakistani women inhabit roles of leadership and guide the communities in which they live. However, this leadership does not always manifest in education or professional workplaces, which are difficult for most Afro-Pakistani women to access because of class barriers and the country’s low literacy rate for women.

Despite these hardships, many Afro-Pakistani women have found success in various professional fields, particularly women living in cities and/or from educated families. Kaother Parveen worked as a hairstylist at Nabila’s, an upscale salon in Karachi known for its celebrity clients, before she had a heart attack. “I had to stand up for my children and raise them. My husband married a second wife, so I left him, and I’m looking after my four children,” Parveen said. “Who we are is in our genes, it isn’t taught to us, it’s just something we’ve observed in our families. And our women are strong in everything they do.”

When it comes to pursuing education, women speaking to ZORA reported facing both support and resistance from their families. “In our society, we have this problem that we don’t support our girls. And the [Black] girls who get out and succeed, they are fighting not just with outsiders, but their own families as well,” Sheedi Raza Muhammad Bilali, principal of Mahnoor Children Academy in Karachi, said. “Our girls have to look after the house, cook food, sweep the floor, and wash the clothes, and they still have to attend to their studies.”

Shazia Baloch started boxing in 2017 in a gym owned by her father, but said she didn’t receive support from her brother. “My parents encouraged me, but my brother was against me becoming an athlete.”

Still, others found their families as a source of support. For Sourath Hussain, her ancestry drives her professional goals. “I was always taught that we were descended from warriors, and that’s why we come forward and don’t withdraw,” Hussain said. “I gave an exam for civil services recently, and I want to work in policy or in an embassy. We’re known to be fighters, we don’t accept defeat.”


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