Pakistan’s first lawmaker from the Sheedi minority is on a mission to fight centuries-old discrimination against her community of African descent, saying it has been held back by entrenched racism.

“Being penalised for something that is beyond our control – our black skin – is a reality all Black people face every day in big and small measures in every country,” said Tanzeela Ume Habiba Qambrani, a member of the Sindh provincial legislature.

“The majority brown skin community considers itself the white community of America and superior to us,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the Southern Badin district, where many Sheedis live.

Many of Pakistan’s Sheedi people – whose numbers are unclear due to widely differing estimates – are descendants of East Africans who were brought to South Asia as slaves or soldiers by Arab traders.

Qambrani, 41, who traces her own roots back to Tanzania, lodged a protest resolution in the provincial assembly against a “wave of racism”, condemning last month’s killing of Black American George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

“This House strives to nip the scourge of racism in the bud through this resolution and aims at seeing our society free of such inhuman tendencies,” her letter read.

Deeply entrenched

Persistent negative stereotypes about the Sheedis in Pakistan limit the community’s educational and employment prospects, keeping many in poverty, Qambrani said.

“We are considered ‘jahil’ [ignorant] and ‘jungli’ [wild] and assumed to be involved in criminal activity. This stereotype has kept our community from progressing,” she said, and called for educational funds to be allocated for young Sheedis. “Education is our way out of poverty,” she said, noting the prejudice that many young Sheedis face at school.

“Most young people from our community are bullied and ridiculed in school, not just by their peers, but teachers as well, who tell them they are good for nothing,” said Qambrani, daughter of a lawyer and a headteacher.

The mother-of-three said Sheedi women often face a double discrimination due to South Asian beauty ideals that make it harder for them to find a spouse.

“The [Sheedi] men want to marry outside to dilute the skin tone of their offspring, leaving Sheedi women with no option as the wider Pakistani community is also looking for fairer skins for their spouses,” she said.

Qambrani’s appointment to the Sindh parliament in 2018, by Bilawal Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party and son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was hailed as a huge victory by Pakistan’s marginalised communities.

Now a well-known voice for her community, Qambrani said for many years her comfortable middle-class upbringing had shielded her from deep-seated prejudice against Sheedi people. “I lived in a bubble and never realised what all my community suffered,” she said.

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.