Racist attitudes

June 15, 2020


The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

ONE of the most beautiful images of George Floyd that I have seen is painted in an unexpected place: on the wall of truck artist Haider Ali’s home in Karachi. Floyd’s portrait is adorned with the bright flowers and fluorescent flourishes typical of truck art, and the words ‘equality’ and ‘justice’. Ali told the press the image is a “message of love … from all of Pakistan”.

The image stands out because Pakistan’s response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the US and elsewhere has been muted. Solidarity protests have been small and sporadic, and frequently dominated by images of under-curfew Kashmiris and the Indian prime minister — the appropriation of a global debate in a regional context.

The movement is still largely perceived as America’s problem. Most countries have taken the turmoil in the US as an opportunity to point out that country’s double standards. Developing countries’ leaders have condemned the harsh treatment of US protesters in the same way the superpower has historically critiqued rights violations in their own countries.

This is a fair response, but the concerns of the BLM movement are closer to Pakistan than we may care to admit. BLM is anti-racist, and that core issue is relevant for us. Pakistan is imbued with post-colonial racist attitudes; these are embedded in our language, in our preference for fair skin, in the sales of skin-lightening creams. We are home to South Asia’s largest African diaspora community, but rather than celebrate this diversity we have, at best, treated it as a curiosity, and at worst discriminated against Sheedis, leaving them marginalised and in poverty.

Pakistan is a prime candidate for a BLM movement of its own.

Racist attitudes also underpinned West Pakistan’s relationship with East Pakistan, and the response to Mujibur Rehman’s 1970 election victory. The rest, as they say, is history.

But as BLM protests spread across the globe, the movement is becoming about more than race alone. It is an attempt to shine the spotlight on structural inequalities, produced by complex histories and perpetuated by contemporary complacency. Under this definition, Pakistan emerges a prime candidate for a BLM movement of its own.

The multifaceted and cross-cutting ways in which Pakistanis are discriminated against and marginalised is overwhelming. Ethnic discrimination is the most obvious, with Punjabiness implicitly treated as the default against which all other groups are measured. This discrimination has historical precedent, further shaped by British rule during which Pakistan’s present-day provinces of Balochistan and KP were the empire’s frontiers — the edge of acceptability, whose populations were recast as mercenaries meant to protect more valued agricultural and industrial heartlands.

That colonial inequality persists today through the centre’s unfettered resource extraction, securitised responses to local groups’ demands for rights, resources and autonomy, and through collective justice laws that until recently dehumanised complete communities. Historical resistance to this prejudicial British rule and its sickening persistence continues to shape political dynamics today: the insurgency in Balochistan and the PTM movement are outcomes, not accidents, of history.

Along with centre-periphery inequalities, we are plagued by economic inequality in our social structures. This is most obvious in our feudal system, with the top one per cent of landowners owning 20pc of arable land. This too is a vestige of colonial rule, when feudals were granted land tracts to facilitate revenue collection and sepoy recruitment. But post-Partition land reform efforts have failed, driving much of our population into poverty.

This trend has been exacerbated through the industrialisation process. Over 70pc of non-farm labour is employed in the informal sector, a euphemism for lack of job security, labour rights and benefits.

Pakistan’s complacency was recently highlighted by the horrifying killing of Zohra Shah, an eight-year-old domestic worker. A similar case in Brazil has been the main driver of the BLM movement in that country, with its own difficult history of racism and slavery. There, a five-year-old black boy fell to his death from the ninth story of a building after being left alone in a lift by his mother’s white employer. The employer’s disregard for the boy’s safety is being perceived as a manifestation of Brazilian racism.

Zohra did not need to be a different colour than her employers to be mistreated and killed. Her poverty, gender, and rural origins were enough to dehumanise her. She is not alone. There are 12 million child workers in Pakistan.

The complacency Pakistani society exhibits to its poor extends to discrimination along linguistic, religious, sectarian and sexuality lines — and more. The first step toward tackling these deep-rooted inequalities is accepting our complicity.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2020