Black Lives Matter – for Pakistan's Sheedi community too

Two Sheedi girls in Karachi, Pakistan.

Two Sheedi girls in Karachi, Pakistan. Image: Luke Duggleby/The Sidi Project

Zahra Bhaiwala
Sikander Bizenjo
Manager - External Engagements, Engro
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale

• 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.

Have you read?

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.

Anti-Black racism is a reality among South Asians, themselves often victims of prejudice
Anti-Black racism is a reality among South Asians, themselves often victims of prejudice. Image: @southasians4blacklives

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.

Mural tribute to George Floyd painted by truck artist Haider Ali in Karachi, Pakistan, reading: “This world does not belong to white or black people, it belongs to the ones with a heart.”
Mural tribute to George Floyd painted by truck artist Haider Ali in Karachi, Pakistan, reading: “This world does not belong to white or black people, it belongs to the ones with a heart.” Image:

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?

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.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum