• Pakistan has the largest African immigrant population in all of South Asia, known as the Sheedi community.
• The Sheedis continue to face colourism, racism and prejudice from mainstream Pakistani society.
• The South Asian community has a collective responsibility to educate ourselves about anti-Black racism in our countries, and how we have benefited both from systematic oppression of Black people and their efforts to overturn it.
Despite being the largest African immigrant population in South Asia, Sheedis – as they are known – in Pakistan face restrictions to social, economic and political progress. This community was initially brought to the country as slaves between the first and 20th centuries, and entered the subcontinent through the ports of Sindh and Balochistan in present-day Pakistan, where many remain as dock workers, domestic workers, carpenters and blacksmiths.
As they assimilated into local life, many lost their languages and traditions, with several Sheedis deliberately marrying outside of the community. In Pakistani culture and among its diaspora (including in the United States), the very term Sheedi has come to be used as a derogatory term. Many see it as a form of bullying, something that has kept the Sheedi community from progressing, and a public backlash is beginning to build.
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Levels of poverty, illiteracy and crime among the Sheedi are higher than in other ethnic groups in Pakistan. In Karachi, the majority of Sheedis are confined to Lyari, a city slum known for drugs, gangs and struggling education systems.
Sheedi have been historically under-represented in Pakistani government. The groundbreaking election of the first Black Pakistani to parliament in 2018, Tanzeela Qambrani, was marred by dissent, including the resignation of a fellow party member. Qambrani is vocally outspoken on the discrimination against Sheedi people in Pakistan. In March 2019 she pushed through a resolution that penalized educators who displayed racist behaviour towards Sheedi students. She is also leading a protest resolution in the provincial assembly against anti-Black racism in the US, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Many grassroots efforts in Pakistan are similarly campaigning to safeguard the heritage and culture of Sheedis in Pakistan. The most prominent festival of the Sheedi calendar, known as the “Sheedi Mela”, was recently restored after a seven-year hiatus, signaling a major breakthrough towards government recognition of the significance of Sheedi heritage in the country.
“Colourism” has been linked to the marginalization of the Sheedi in South Asia. The colonial-era preference for fair skin is disappearing from Pakistani culture, but it can still be seen in the success of the skin-whitening industry and inclusion of whiteness as a criteria in marriage proposals.
Pakistani people in the US: the 'model minority'
There are clearly parallels between the mistreatment of Black Americans and Pakistani Sheedis. American society is no stranger to bias against minorities, and is seeing the result of that bias in barriers to access to capital and educational funding for minorities, as well as discrimination in hiring and lack of political representation.
The Pakistani diaspora in the US must acknowledging that Black people fought for the very civil rights that allow Pakistani-American communities to exist. After all, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 allowed the majority of Pakistanis currently living in the US into the country in the first place, by eliminating restrictive immigration quotas and allowing family-based immigration. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to grow globally, it is critical for us to support it and acknowledge the contributions of Black Americans that enabled Pakistani and South Asian success in the US.
Where do we go from here?
Pakistani employees of corporations or government entities Take a critical lens to your hiring practices when it comes to Black Pakistanis. Rethink your marketing campaigns; be cautious in the language you use around race and colour, specifically around whiteness as the standard of beauty. Major brands like Unilever and Johnson & Johnson have announced rebranding initiatives for their beauty creams to drop the use of “fair and “light”.
Pakistani and diaspora celebrities and prominent figures You have a platform, use it. Direct your audiences to resources about the systematic oppression of Black people in the US and the history of African presence in Pakistan. Call out the pervasive colourism in our culture.
Academics, photographers and journalists with a focus on South Asia Tell the stories that have not been told. Publish more scholarship to fill in the gaps of our knowledge; use your art, photography, film and pens to highlight the beauty, struggle and the success of the Black community in Pakistan, as well as our solidarity with Black communities in whatever country we call home.
What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?
The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle racial injustice and inequality. In response, the Forum's Platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society has established a high-level community of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers. The community will develop a vision, strategies and tools to proactively embed equity into the post-pandemic recovery and shape long-term inclusive change in our economies and societies.
As businesses emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, they have a unique opportunity to ensure that equity, inclusion and justice define the "new normal" and tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity. It is increasingly clear that new workplace technologies and practices can be leveraged to significantly improve diversity, equity and inclusion outcomes.
The World Economic Forum has developed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toolkit, to outline the practical opportunities that this new technology represents for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, while describing the challenges that come with it.
The toolkit explores how technology can help reduce bias from recruitment processes, diversify talent pools and benchmark diversity and inclusion across organisations. The toolkit also cites research that suggests well-managed diverse teams significantly outperform homogenous ones over time, across profitability, innovation, decision-making and employee engagement.
The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Toolkit is available here.
Everyone – have difficult conversations As the millennial generation, we have the power and the responsibility to engage our parents and grandparents about the past and present in order to shape the future, to challenge our own and their inherent biases, and to normalize the topic of race and anti-Blackness in our homes. Stand up for Sheedis and amplify their voices and the voices of other victims of racism, both in Pakistan and in the other countries we have come to call home.