Pakistan’s first lawmaker from the Sheedi minority is on a humanitarian mission to fight centuries-old discrimination against her community of African descent, pointing out it has been held back by entrenched racism.
“Being penalized for something that is beyond our control, namely our black skin, is a reality that all Black people face every day in big and small measures worldwide,” said Tanzeela Ume Habiba Qambrani, a member of the Sindh provincial legislature.
“The majority brown skin community considers itself the white community of America, and because of this they feel superior to us,” she explained by phone from the southern Badin district, where many Sheedis currently live.
Many of Pakistan’s Sheedi people - whose numbers are unclear due to the widely differing estimations- are descendants of East Africans who were brought to South Asia as slaves or soldiers by some Arab traders.
Qambrani, 41, who traces her roots back to Tanzania, lodged a protest resolution in the provincial assembly against a “wave of racism”, condemning the worldwide known brutal murder of Black American George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
“This House strives to nip the scourge of racism in the bud through this resolution, and aims to see our society free of such inhuman tendencies,” her letter read.
Persistent negative stereotypes about the Sheedis in Pakistan keep limiting the community’s educational and employment prospects, trapping many in poverty, Qambrani explained.
“We are considered ‘jahil’ (ignorant) and ‘jungli’ (wild) and assumed to be involved in criminal activity. This stereotype has kept our community from progressing,” she said and called for educational funds to be allocated for young Sheedis.
“Education is our only way out of poverty,” she pointed out, noting the prejudice that many young Sheedis face at school.
“Most young people from our community are bullied and ridiculed in schools, not just by their peers, but by teachers as well, who tell them they are good for nothing,” explained Qambrani, daughter of a lawyer and a headteacher.
The mother-of-three said Sheedi women often face double discrimination due to the South Asian beauty ideals that make it harder for them to find a spouse.
“The (Sheedi) men want to marry outside to dilute the skin tone of their offspring, leaving Sheedi women with no option as the wider Pakistani community is also looking for fairer skins for their spouses,” she admitted.
The recent Qambrani’s appointment to the Sindh parliament in 2018, by Bilawal Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was hailed as a huge victory by Pakistan’s marginalised communities.
Now a solid and well-known voice for her community, Qambrani explained that for many years her comfortable middle-class upbringing had shielded her from deep-seated prejudice against Sheedi people.
“I used to live in a bubble where I couldn’t realise what all my community was suffering,” she concluded.