Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Sheedi community of Pakistan are the descendants of East Africans brought as slaves by Arab merchants between the eighth and nineteenth centuries. There is no reliable figure regarding the size of the community’s population, with estimates ranging considerably from 50,000 to just under 1 million according to the Young Sheedi Welfare Organization (YSWO). Nevertheless, Pakistan is recognized as having one of the largest populations of Afro-descendants in Asia. Sheedis are based in southern Pakistan, with an estimated 50 per cent residing in lower Sindh, 20 per cent in the city of Karachi, and 30 per cent in Baluchistan. The majority of Sheedi are Muslim, but have distinct cultural traits linking back to their particular history.
Sheedis are a community based in southern Pakistan, the descendants of East Africans brought to this area as slaves between the eighth and nineteenth centuries by Arab merchants. Most are Muslims and believe their lineage can be traced back to Hazrat Bilal, the freed Ethiopian slave who was subsequently appointed as Islam’s first muezzin.
Nevertheless, since coming to the subcontinent, Sheedis have been continuously discriminated against, first for being slaves, then (under British colonial rule) for being black. Little has changed since Pakistan came into being in 1947: in a caste-conscious society where fair skin colour is still valorized, Sheedis continue to be stigmatized as a result of their African heritage.
Although community members no longer have any direct contact with Africa, they still retain some African cultural traits. For instance, at festivals they play a tall drum, the mugarman, and dance the leva, both believed to be of East African origin. The elders still speak some words of the African languages spoken by their ancestors. However, these are continuously under attack from mainstream culture and are at risk of dying out.
Sheedis still live in the same areas of the country to which their ancestors were brought as slaves: their status and economic prospects are still much the same now as they were before emancipation. Most still work as farm labourers for high-caste feudal lords.
Sheedis face widespread discrimination in Pakistan from other community groups due to their appearance and the colour of their skin, especially in social matters such as marriage – the only other social group to intermarry with Sheedis are the low-caste fisherfolk clan – as well as in the workplace. Women, in particular, often encounter discrimination in livelihood opportunities and are badly paid by their employers.
However, there has been evidence in recent years of increased mobilization among the community, including the formation of organizations such as the Young Sheedi Welfare Organization (YSWO), focusing on expanding access to education, health and livelihoods for Sheedis and other marginalized communities.
Updated June 2018
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