Rising Above The Stigma of ‘Sheedi’

By Sonya Rehman

Pakistan’s Sheedi community can trace its roots back to East African slaves brought to India by the Portuguese, hundreds of years before the partition of the subcontinent. Marginalized and overlooked for decades, the group has found its commanding, charismatic voice in Tanzeela Qambrani — in the halls of the Sindh provincial legislature.

Tanzeela Qambrani. Photo by: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

The 40-year-old lawmaker, whose ancestors came from Tanzania, is proud of her Sheedi heritage. But for a majority of her people, “Sheedi” is a word steeped in shame, often used as an expletive by racist non-Sheedis. The xenophobic undercurrent, still prevalent hundreds of years after the slave trade in South Asia, Qambrani reveals, is the reason behind her community’s lack of progress and visibility in society. The group has never been formally surveyed, and estimates on its size vary between 50,000 and 250,000 people spread across coastal areas of Balochistan and Sindh provinces.

“Over 95 percent of our people send their children to school,” she says, “but when they’re repeatedly humiliated, bullied and called Sheedis in the classroom by their classmates, do you think they’d ever want to go back to the classroom?” The mother of three adds that teachers take part in the bullying too, with comments such as “You’re only good for manual labor” leading to high dropout rates.

As a result, Qambrani has devoted her legislative term to education. But solving those deep-seated problems won’t come easy.

Born into a middle-class family (her father was a lawyer and her mother a teacher), Qambrani was lucky to have endured better circumstances than most Sheedis while growing up in the coastal area of Badin, where she still lives with her husband and daughters.

Sprightly and self-assured, with the kind of confidence that comes from being the youngest of seven in a close-knit family, Qambrani was a high achiever throughout school and college, earning a slew of awards in debate competitions. After earning a master’s in computer science from the University of Sindh, Qambrani was drawn not to technology but to social work. “Tanzeela always had a penchant to help others ever since she was a child,” says her brother Altaf Hussain Sheedi. “Therefore her decision to make a career in politics didn’t take us by surprise; it’s in her blood to work for her people. She feels it’s her responsibility.”

Encouraged by a friend, Qambrani officially joined the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in 2010, drawn by its fairly progressive views on gender. “Walk into the Sindh Assembly and you’ll notice there’s no segregation between men and women, everyone sits together,” she says. “Women are encouraged to participate as much as the men.”

Still, her ascent has not been without resistance. In 2017 when she was nominated as chairperson of the women’s wing of the party in Matli, for the Badin District, Qambrani says a powerful opposition forced her to pack her bags and move — with her children and husband in tow — to her parents’ house until the backlash died down. The “threats,” Qambrani says, were more “indirect” in nature, a tone and body language from people she had considered peers that made her feel unsafe.

Photo by: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

“They said: A woman, a Sheedi, a middle-class woman, a slave’s daughter giving us orders? Unacceptable!” the lawmaker revealed during a charged TEDx Talk in Lahore. It was then, pressured to give up her position in the party, that Qambrani was reminded of a passage in a book by the famed historian of Sindh Muhammad Siddique Musafir, describing how families were torn apart when the ships arrived from Africa — men, women and children were sold off as slaves with abandon.

“I felt like a character in [Musafir’s] book and it was then that I thought: That’s it — a Sheedi will never be sold again,” Qambrani says.

Not long after, Qambrani was elected as the president for the women’s wing in her district. In August 2018, she was officially sworn in as the first lawmaker from the Sheedi community in the Sindh Assembly, after being nominated by PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari for one of 29 seats reserved for women. For Qambrani, it was a profound moment.

“We’ve been here for a long time,” she says, her voice full of emotion. “And to finally be recognized was beyond overwhelming. Climbing the stairs of the assembly was surreal. I felt like Nelson Mandela and thought of all of those before me who had struggled their entire lives and endured so much. The Sheedi community doesn’t exist for menial work; we can achieve anything we want. The only thing that needs to change in Pakistan is the deep-rooted mindset so that our saplings can one day bloom like flowers.”

Not only is Qambrani breaking ground for Pakistan’s minorities in local politics but for women as well, says lawyer and human rights activist Nighat Dad. “It’s easy for women politicians to integrate women into parliamentary conversations; for male ministers, not so much,” Dad says.

Away from work, Qambrani loves talk shows and thrillers from Bollywood and Hollywood — Speed is a favorite — while she eschews “too predictable” romantic films. She prefers unexpected twists.

In office, Qambrani has focused intently on education. She successfully pushed through a resolution in March to penalize educators who display racist behavior in the classroom toward Sheedi students. She’s hoping for more quality educational institutions for Sheedis — for those who have dropped out, and programs to keep kids in school longer. But that requires money, which she’s trying to raise locally and internationally.

Qambrani recently presented a proposal to the Sindh government, detailing the dire need for schools in Badin, but she’s confident her own community leaders can pull together funding for at least one school if all else fails. “In fact, a few retired teachers in the area have even volunteered to teach free of charge till we get the school up and running,” she says.

Unsure about what the future holds for her promising political journey, Qambrani sounds earnest when she talks of changing Pakistan’s “corrupt image” in the world. For now, though, her focus is on the Sheedis.

“Over time I’ve learned to build my success from the stones my naysayers have thrown at me,” Qambrani said in her TEDx Talk. “The day will come when my community will be treated as human beings and our children will say: ‘I’m free.’”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s