What It Means to Be Black and South Asian
Afro-Pakistani experiences show that anti-Blackness is a global struggle
When Tanzeela Qambrani became the chairperson of her local council in Matli, a town in southern Pakistan, she never anticipated opposition from members of her own political party. A finance consultant with the Asian Development Bank, who hails from a family of activists, Qambrani was more than qualified for the job.
After Qambrani’s predecessor died from cancer, the 41-year-old mother of two became a councillor, and in 2018, was handpicked by the People’s Party as a local chairperson. The decision triggered fresh resentment in other politicians, who saw Qambrani’s success as rising above her station, and tried to get her removed from her post by contacting Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of the slain Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister. When that didn’t work, Qambrani alleges they tried to bribe and harass her.
“I was everything they hated: a woman, Sheedi, middle class,” Qambrani said. “I realized then, okay, being Sheedi is this bad of a sin? I thought the discrimination I’d face sometimes was because I was a woman. I didn’t realize they were doing this to me because I was Black.”
Tanzeela Qambrani is one of hundreds of thousands of South Asians of African descent, and belongs in particular to the Sheedi community, a term denoting Blackness in the subcontinent. Sheedi and other Afro-Asian communities have lived in Pakistan and India for generations, but still face discrimination and a lack of acceptance because of their physical appearance. Just like other Black Pakistani women, Qambrani has to overcome anti-Black racism, classism, and misogyny to rise to where she is today.
“For others, if you don’t tell your caste, people won’t know what it is,” Qambrani said. “But if I am sitting in a room with a hundred people, everyone will know that I am a Sheedi.”
When George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin this past May, Qambrani put forth a resolution in Sindh assembly condemning the murder, and drew parallels to the racism Sheedis experience in Pakistan. “For us, this was nothing new,” she said. “If there is a fight of four people, and the police come to break it…