Siddi community in India

The Forgotten Sheedis

Omaina H. Aziz

Omaina H. Aziz

Born and raised in Pakistan, Omaina has spent the last eleven years of her life moving around from country to country. An avid reader and a passionate feminist, she is an electrical and computer engineer by education and a Production Manager by profession. Since her hopes of becoming Prime Minister of Pakistan seem to have stalled, she aims to promote human rights through her writing and future work.

How does one fight for the civil rights of marginalised communities when the rest of country is not aware of their existence? With the growing popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement globally, the plight of the African diaspora outside of North America is receiving attention as well. In this piece I delve into the history and current conditions of the Afro-Pakistani community – the Sheedis. In 2018, Pakistan elected its first Sheedi lawmaker – Tanzeela Umme Habiba. Here I talk to her about her experiences, the current state of her community and what changes she hopes to see in the future.
 
It is 5:30 am. I turn my alarm off and jump out of bed with an unusual alacrity. Rushing around the dimly lit house to have my coffee, laptop, and notes ready, I clear my throat multiple times and say a few sentences out loud to get rid of any hoarseness from my voice. Appearing fresh and alert is a high priority. Hopped up on adrenaline, I pick up the phone to call Tanzeela Umme Habiba and talk to her about the Sheedi community in Pakistan.

These past few weeks, after the horrific murder of George Floyd, the populace of the United States has been electrified. Every racial group in the USA has had to face an internal reckoning. A reckoning over internalised biases, the amount of support they have offered the black community, colourism, lack of knowledge, and the model minority myth. Conversations between South Asian immigrants have diverged from the immediate threat of police violence faced by African Americans, as they look back to their homelands. Instagram has become a hotbed of information. Selfies and strategically shot photos have been replaced with instructions on how to be a better ally, infographics, petitions and details about black owned business as well as calling out corporations on the racism embedded in their work culture (see Instagram posts below). Browsing through all this information is how I found out about the Sheedi community in Pakistan. “Sheedi” is the name used to refer to Pakistanis of African descent.
 

 

 

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Another day, another boho Karen retailer showing their true shades of beige. Last week, @anthropologie posted a Maya Angelou quote in splashy colors as a “call for equality”. With any mention of the #BlackLivesMatter movement absent, Angelou’s words could be interpreted more along the lines of “All lives matter”, lest Anthro offend their primary target audience. In the comment section, oblivious fans clamored for it to be released as a t-shirt or a poster. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Also in the comment section— claims of deep discriminatory practices. The code names different retailers have used to profile POC shoppers have come to light in lawsuits over the years—Moschino’s “Serena”, Zara’s “special order”, or Versace’s “D410” (the merchandise color code they use for black shirts)—but Anthropologie’s is maybe the most insidious yet. Comments from multiple employees confirm that stores in California, Chicago, Seattle, NYC and Canada use the code name “Nick” to refer to Black shoppers. Associates report being told to watch Black shoppers, and Black shoppers also commented confirming having been followed while shopping in their stores. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Anthropologie followed up with a post of a black square and then some promises of action they’ll take. At the same time, more hypocrisy was taking place at the corporate level. While the retailer was posting about committing to diversifying their workforce, they were at the same time asking POC for free labor. On May 26th, Queer Black creator Lydia Okello ( @styleisstyle ) was approached by a producer to potentially partake in Anthro’s #sliceofhappy Pride month campaign in exchange for a free outfit. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Okello replied with their typical rates and ended up getting trapped in a back and forth volley with no resolution after being told there was no budget for an influencer of their level (22.8k followers). For a campaign aimed to express what happiness means, surely they could’ve anticipated that no one, especially in a month meant to celebrate them, is happy to work for free. • #blacklivesmatter #blm #anthropologie #anthropologiehome #anthro #retail #codename #work #free #influencer #microinfluencer #labor #dietprada

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A couple of photos on various popular pages, showcasing laughing, beautiful children and women with traditional Pakistani clothes and identifiably African features would be posted (see below).
 

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There are many people who think, the BLM campaign has nothing to do with Pakistan, since there are no black people in Pakistan. But in reality, did we forget about the Afro-Pakistani community. Here's a Thread to remind yourselves! *Edit* Some mistakes were pointed out in the comments that we overlooked by accident. We didnt mean any harm. We meant black people and didn't call them blacks as a derogatory term. All the “names” that we've mentioned are infact racist slurs which are prominently used by our people and are infact attached with racism. We intended to point them out for all of us to stop using them and speak against this racism. We should’ve clarified it for better understanding, Thank you for the constructive criticism 💕 . . . . . . . . . . . #blacklivesmatter #pakistan #pakistani #black #georgefloyd #protest #racism #usa #freedom #protection #humanrights #human #read #guide #share #trend #trending #justice #post #share #viral #help #change #color #design #poster #instagood #instadaily #instagram #blogger #blog

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The captions would talk about how the Black Lives Matter movement is also relevant to Pakistan as there is a community of African descent present there too. This is a pet peeve of mine. Apparently, one must be related, or be in physical proximity to marginalised people in order to have empathy for them. Or so these captions would have you believe. There has been some pushback on South Asian support of the BLM movement as, the argument goes, there are multiple human right abuses going on in the region that deserve the attention being diverted to BLM. What this logic gets wrong is that empathy and human rights are not a zero-sum game. There is no diminishing supply of rights which, once depleted on one group of people, cannot provide for another. Human rights and empowerment are not limited, and caring about one topic does not diminish the ability to care about other issues. Empowerment of one community does not mean subjugation for others. Our societies can provide the space and means for all communities to live meaningful lives as equals. Engaging with this argument in good faith, by showing the presence of an African community in South Asia, is silly at best and exploitative at worst.

I was genuinely surprised at the photos though. I had never heard of the Sheedi community. Had no idea that slavery, trade and migration had led to pockets of marginalised Pakistanis of African descent, Indians and Sri Lankans.

Trying to educate myself on their history and current conditions was even harder. The movement of African people to Asia is another chapter in the insidious book of slavery. The ruling maharajas (princes) of the Sub-Continent were often at war with one another. They greatly favoured Africans to be part of their armies for their strength. From the 1st to the 20th century the slave trade ran by either Arabs, Ottomans, Portuguese, Dutch, French and the British respectively, enslaved nearly 4 million people. Africans also came across the Indian Ocean as migrants and traders. It is generally estimated that Pakistan has the largest population of South Asia’s African diaspora. The extent of the lack of knowledge on the community is such that the numbers vary from anywhere between 50,000 (L1) and 250,000. The Pakistani Sheedi population is settled mainly in the coastal province of Sindh, and some in Balochistan.

It was during this search for information that I came across the profile for Tanzeela Umme Habiba (see below).
 

 
She made history in 2018, by becoming the first lawmaker of Sheedi descent. The People’s Party of Pakistan (PPP) – the political party of Benazir Bhutto, the first female premier of a Muslim country – elected her to be a member of the Provincial Assembly of Sindh. A postgraduate degree holder in computer sciences and a mother of three, Ms. Umme Habiba is a native of Badin in Sindh where she has also held the position of local party Chairperson.

The first thing I wanted to do was clarify if I could use the term Sheedi to refer to the Afro-Pakistani community, or whether it was used as a slur. She clarified – “Sheedi has been used as a slur, but I do not think of it as such. I want every child in our community to be proud to be referred to as Sheedi. What does the term Sheedi refer to? People who were brought here by force, against their own will. There is no fault of my ancestors in that. They did nothing wrong. I am Sheedi and I do not find it shameful to be referred to as such.”

She was pragmatic about my embarrassment at not knowing about the Sheedi community. Speaking about the International Decade for People of African Descent (IDPAD), declared by the UN for the years between 2014-2025, she mentioned Pakistan being a signatory to the resolution, yet not declaring itself as a country with any population having African roots. The IDPAD originated from the recognition that African communities outside of the African continent usually constitute the most marginalised and economically disenfranchised people in the regions they have settled in. With a variety of programs based on the spirit of recognition, justice and advancement, the IDPAD offers a framework for governments to work together with their African descent population to ameliorate their conditions. While the resolution to declare the decade as IDPAD was passed without a vote, it is true that Pakistan has not taken any active steps recognised by the UN to reach any of the goals set out for IDPAD. Neither has India or Sri Lanka.

In the online South Asian community, there have recently been a lot of discussions about the intersection of colourism and racism. Racism is the systemic and individual oppression of a group of people who are usually socially, economically, and politically side-lined, based on race. Colourism is the offspring of racism. It is a singularly colonial view of beauty, where the more you resembled the ruling class – fairer skin, straighter hair, slimmer builds – the closer you were to assimilating and passing among them. It is predominantly a phenomenon people face from within their own society. A lot of well-meaning South Asians have conflated the two, to claim some diffused understanding of the experience of the African diaspora, based on their darker skin colour. And indeed, most of us grew up hearing constant comments on the colour of our skin and how to make it lighter and brighter mostly in the interest of securing a good marriage. But there is a world of difference in between not being considered beautiful because of darker skin and being shot to death on the side of a road for jogging as a result of generationally held racist beliefs. While racism lent legitimacy to colonialism, which directly contributed to colourism, they are not the same. The case for banning lightness creams, and decrying colonial standards of beauty have their place, but are they a factor in the Pakistani treatment of the Sheedis?

Umme Habiba does see colourism play into the current attitude: “Goray (a general term meaning Caucasians, as well as people with fairer complexions) do not consider us [Pakistanis] gora. But here we have a people who are darker than us who we can feel superior to and be gora in relation to them.” There is a pause before she adds, “When you break your hand, you go to the hospital and get it fixed. When you break your foot, you go to the hospital and get it fixed. What do we do when there is something wrong with our thinking and we do not even acknowledge its wrongness? How do we fix that?”

One of the famous Sheedi heroes of Pakistan is Hosh Mohammed Sheedi. He was a general in the army of the ruling Talpur dynasty of Sindh. The Battle of Daboo where he lost his life in 1843, was fought against the encroaching British. The famous war cry “Marvesoon par Sindh na desoon” (We will die but not give up Sindh) has been repeated by Bilawal Bhutto – current leader of the PPP, son of Benazir Bhutto – in his political rallies. There is an easy narrative here, fortified by some of the historical accounts I have read about the Sheedis. There is mention of the Sheedis who became rulers in their own rights – most notably Malik Ambar, Malik Andeel and Sidi Badr. There appears to be an understated story of upward mobility offered to former slaves being brought to the forefront. Historical accounts read like a subtle, insidious effort to downplay the role of South Asian slavers and a sharper focus on whatever boons were granted to a handful of enslaved people by virtue of their service or by their own uprising. An almost glamorization of the princely states and various empires that ruled the sub-continent and upon whose favour one’s life could be elevated.

In Pakistan particularly, religion is brought to the forefront to defend against any charges of anti-black sentiment. In daily life you will hear conversations about how Islam “ended racism” by declaring all Arabs and non-Arabs equal in the Last Sermon of the Prophet (PBUH) as well as multiple mentions in the Quran declaring superiority only on the basis of piety. This narrative aims to frame racism as a “white” or Western problem, not something “believers” have to worry about. And while Islam did elevate the status of and grant more humane rights to slaves, slavery was not abolished. Some Muslim countries were particularly late in outlawing slavery – in the example of Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 1962. I wish I could remember where I read this statement that really resonated with me: “Islam may have provided the tools to dismantle racism, but it is the job of Muslims to do the task.”

It is easy to blame colonisers for much of the evil that besets the former colonies and believe me, I do. But when I read about the tomb of Hosh Mohammed falling into disrepair, when I do not find a correct census record of the Sheedi population, when the first Sheedi lawmaker is elected in 2018, when I talk to friends and members of my family to check if somehow only I was uninformed, and find that they have not heard about the Sheedi any more than I have – I do wonder what exactly we have been doing to uplift the community since India and Pakistan gained independence from the British in 1947.
 

Siddi community in India
Sheedi village in Sasan Gir. Indian people of African descent. Gujarat, New Year’s Day, 2015.  Photo @ Wikimedia commons

In Pakistan, the Sheedi community is still primarily living in the areas that their ancestors were brought to as slaves, with many still working as labourers for the feudal lords in Sindh and Balochistan. The suppression of the community extends particularly to the women. Marriage, or the difficulty in attaining one, is one of the easier ways to see social disenfranchisement in action, and in Pakistan it is a question that plagues women’s lives since the moment they are born. I was very curious if the Sheedis preferred marrying within their own community, as many minority groups across the world do as a means of cultural preservation and to avoid prejudice.

“Sheedi men who make something of themselves aim to marry women who are fairer in complexion than they are. The logic being that their kids would look less Sheedi and may have it easier in life.” Umme Habiba explains to me. This results in “successful” Sheedi men marrying outside of their own community. “I told my parents that I would marry within my community. Women who marry outside the community are either hidden away in chaadars (long fabric for covering head) or covered in white creams to hide their facial features and skin colours. God forbid the kids take on the colour and features of their mother. I did not want this for my children and for myself. The point is respect.” The prejudice against dark skin, leads to an increased number of marriages within the community. Either due to external factors, such as marriage proposals specifying the physical characteristics of the woman, or due to an individual choice to not go through this demeaning process and its dehumanizing results.

Apart from this basic form of social ostracism by not considering the Sheedi community “good enough” to marry into – they face religious discrimination as well. The Sheedi Mela (festival) has been a vibrant part of Karachi’s cultural history for a long time. The mela is famous for the sacred crocodiles at the shrine, considered one of the miracles of the saint buried there, and the African influences on the rituals performed. Since 2010, the mela has been suspended due to “security concerns”. The throngs of people outside the shrine have been replaced by encroaching properties which harbour militant feelings towards the celebrations. The mela was finally moved to the city of Hyderabad, in 2015.

Why am I writing about the Sheedi community? Why did it take the BLM movement for a marginalised community to rise to some prominence over social media? Is it guilt? Is it the simple human need to feel connected to a movement larger than oneself?

Umme Habiba is more practical about the answers, “America is the great global influencer.” And that is true. America sets the trends that are talked about in the global community. Culture, more specifically pop and online culture, does tend to be focused around American topics. I am not one of those people who believe that one must be directly impacted by tragedy to feel its sorrow. I do not feel the need of the bounds of religion, race, or nationality to bind me to the struggle for rectifying injustice. But when I yell out “black lives matter!” it should mean that all black lives matter. Not just those in the USA but those in Pakistan as well.

The possible exploitation of the community with my newly found knowledge to simply write an essay, does not escape me. I asked Ms. Umme Habiba about what practical actions can be taken to help the community. Her answer is prompt: “Education. Lack of education is the biggest issue the Sheedi community faces. Government schools are beset by bias and prejudice. They will pinpoint and mistreat the Sheedi children in their classrooms. Because of this, kids do not want to go to school and suffer academically.” In her time as MPA she has passed a law punishing any racism in the classroom. But this is not the only way. Sponsoring children in need of education and donating to and working with the Young Sheedi Welfare Organisation are also practical positive steps.

While talking about her visit to the USA, Umme Habiba mentions meeting the black communities there and the ostracism they bonded over. I could sense a hint of disappointed wonderment at the fact that all over the world, the people of African descent face animosity and a lack of acceptance in their adopted countries. But she is firm when she says, “We do not want to go back. This is our country. We have been here for generations, and this is our country.”

It is indeed. It is time the country realised it too.

Please note the parts of the interview cited in this piece were conducted in our mother language of Urdu. Any translation errors are mine.

 

Omaina Aziz

 

Received: 26.06.20, Ready: 21.07.20, Editors: Simone Redaelli, Robert Ganley.

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