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Spotlighting Pakistan's Siddi Community

(cover image sourced from The Sidi Project)

By Humera Ali

When you think of Pakistan and its associated global diaspora, it’s easy to view it as one country sharing one set culture and background.

In truth, Pakistan’s own demographic is diverse and extensive, and some communities are oftentimes overlooked due to their size and history.

The major ethnic groups of Pakistan and their culture and history is well-documented, but there are also many other ethnic minorities found throughout the nation that are underrepresented.

This October was Black History Month – an annual observance originating in the United States, but also now recognised and celebrated every year in Canada, the UK and many other countries across the globe.

Education on such topics should take place consistently throughout the year – especially to be implemented as mandatory learning in schools – but Black History Month specifically has granted an opportunity for raised awareness about black history and culture.

I found myself learning a lot more this month through news articles, documentaries, books, infographics shared across social media platforms and other resources.

During this time, I came across information regarding one of Pakistan’s own ethnic minorities – the black community, known as the Siddi community. Residing in areas of both India and Pakistan (first thought to have arrived in India as early as 628 AD), I was surprised that I knew so little about a community that had inhabited the Indian subcontinent for so long.

In honour of Black History Month and in recognition that we must all do more to educate ourselves, Land of the Pure highlights the Siddi community of Pakistan in today’s culture – spotlighting their history, their culture and what more needs to be done to raise awareness and combat anti-blackness and colourism going forward.

The History of the Siddi Community

The Siddi communities of India and Pakistan originally descended from the East African region. First thought to have arrived in India in 628 AD, some were believed to be soldiers and some were also brought to the Indian subcontinent as slaves by the Portuguese.

As time went on, the communities established in certain areas around India, such as Gujarat and Hyderabad, and served as cavalry guards, as well as other military roles.

During the Partition, many of the Siddi communities migrated to Pakistan, and there is now estimated to be about 250,000 Siddi people now residing in various areas in the country.

The Siddi Community Today

Although Siddis have adopted the language and customs of their surrounding populations, many of their Bantu traditions have been preserved, highlighting a diverse and separate culture that has been celebrated for thousands of years.

The Siddi community in Pakistan typically reside in Karachi, as well as areas of Balochistan and lower Sindh.

This includes certain types of music, instruments and traditional dance forms, as well as annual festivals and dress. Athletics is also an important part of the Siddi community and has been a means to uplift youth and a way of escape from poverty and discrimination.

Anti-Blackness and Discrimination

The pervasive anti-blackness within South Asian communities, coupled with the underlying effects of a caste system have caused the Siddi community to be on the receiving end of discrimination and abuse, both in Pakistan and in India.

Pakistan has the largest African immigrant population in all of South Asia, and yet colourism, racism and prejudice is still seen from mainstream Pakistani society and its global diaspora.

The Siddi community in Pakistan face restrictions to social, economic and political progress, despite the Constitution of Pakistan highlighting that that there should be no discrimination against ethnic and linguistic minorities of the country. They should be granted the same equal rights and legal status and all citizens.

The majority of Siddis have traditionally remained in their same job roles, such as fisherman, dock workers, carpenters, blacksmiths, clothmakers and labourers. They therefore often struggle well below the poverty line.

The Siddi community have also struggled to preserve their African roots and rights to cultural expression due to the societies they have now assimilated into.

Levels of poverty, illiteracy and crime among the Siddi community are higher than in other ethnic groups in Pakistan, highlighting the struggles that many of the community experience due to their place in society.

Tanzeela Qambrani: Progress for the Siddi Community in Politics

In the summer of 2018, history was made when Pakistan brought in their first lawmaker of African descent, Tanzeela Qambrani from the Siddi community.

Nominated by the Pakistan’s People Party (of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto), Tanzeela has a seat in the regional parliament of the southern Sindh province.

Her ascension into politics highlights that there has been some progress in acceptance and understanding for the Siddi community. However, the struggles she has documented in her journey to political work highlights how discrimination against the Siddi community is still widespread to this day.

The Siddi community are also known as ‘Sheedis’, and the term itself has now developed into a widespread, derogatory anti-black term used in Pakistan as well as its diaspora (including the United States and Britain).

What more can be done?

Land of the Pure recognises that progress is being made in Pakistan every day in regards to tolerance and understanding.

However, many South Asian countries, including Pakistan, have a developed sense of exclusionary nationalism which has lasted decades. This can be extremely detrimental to ethnic and religious minorities living in the country, such as is the case with the Siddi community.

This Black History Month, Land of the Pure highlights what more needs to be done by us in order to combat anti-blackness and campaign for the rights of ethnic minorities, including the Siddi community:

  • Refrain from using the term ‘Sheedi’ and other anti-black terminology, and advise others to eliminate the word from their vocabulary (even if you may not mean it in an offensive way)

  • Call out incidents of racism and unfair treatment when you see them – ‘Persistent negative stereotypes about the Sheedis in Pakistan limit the community’s educational and employment prospects keeping many in poverty. Most young people from [the] community are bullied and ridiculed in school, not just by their peers, but teachers as well’ (Tanzeela Qambrani).

  • Support the grassroots efforts in Pakistan which run campaigns to safeguard the heritage and culture of the Siddis in Pakistan.

  • Support any campaigns/efforts that advocate for the progression of minority ethnic and religious rights in Pakistan.

  • Raise awareness on the issue of colourism (this has also been linked to the marginalisation of the Siddi community in South Asia). The colonial-era preference for fair skin is gradually being eradicated from Pakistani culture, but it is still prevalent through the successes of skin-whitening products and the inclusion of whiteness as a criteria in many marriage proposals.

  • Listen, amplify and uplift black voices and listen to their experiences. Push forward difficult conversations with family members and friends about the black experience and what we need to do to support them.

  • Read and share resources that educate – whether they are books, documentaries or stories posted on social media!

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