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From Slavery to First Lawmaker of African descent in Pakistan: Interview with Tanzeela Qambrani

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Tanzeela Qambrani (41) created history in Pakistan when she became the first Sheedi Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) of Sindh Assembly in 2018. Her election to the Sindh Assembly was significant for many reasons.

As the first Sheedi lawmaker, she fought hard to rise above prejudices and discrimination. She reclaims her identity as Sheedi and proudly calls herself a Sheedi. She is also recognised as one of the 100 Most Influential People of African Descent Worldwide.

Ms Tanzeela talks to Women For Politics and  Behan Box, about her experiences growing up as a Sheedi,  the dehumanisation in her personal and political life and her fight back. She also talks about her plans for education in Sindh and what the elevation of women politicians like her means for young girls and women in Pakistan.

This is part of a new series titled “Women, Power and Politics”, where we bring you conversations with radical and progressive women leaders from South Asia.

What was it growing up as a Sheedi in Pakistan? What is the social condition of Sheedis and how has it changed?

I was born in the Sheedi community in the coastal district of Badin in Sindh. Ours is the fourth generation of Sheedis in Pakistan. Not much is known about our place of origin in Africa but some records suggest that our ancestors came from Zanzibar. Sheedis in Pakistan do not have an authentic recorded history- the only book is called ‘Azaadi ja Ghulaami da Ibratnaak Nazara’ (Horrific sight of slavery and freedom) written by Mohammad Musaafir Siddiqi, a poet and teacher of African descent. Our religious identity before our migration to Pakistan is unclear. Once in Pakistan, Sheedis converted to Islam.

I was born in a family with a very good social standing and respect in the community. I am the youngest of seven children. My father was a well-known advocate and my mother a headmistress of a government school. So, as far as we were concerned, we had kicked out slavery from our lives. I always felt like I belonged to Pakistan.

That is until I went to university.

At the University of Sindh, where I went to study for a masters in computer science, I was made to feel different for the first time. People would say “Oh, you are a foreigner”. I would tell them that I was a Sheedi and a Pakistani, they would quip “Oh, so you are a local foreigner”.

I was the lone black Pakistani in the entire university, although there were black people from other African countries. As with the rest of Asia, students from other African countries were valued more than the local Black person.

How did you enter politics?

After my Masters degree,  I stepped into local politics while working as a teacher. I began working with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), as my family were also associated with the party since the days of Bhutto sahib (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) and Benazir sahiba (Benazir Bhutto)- the former Prime Ministers of Pakistan.

I took over as the Taluka president after Zainab, the incumbent president, passed away due to cancer. The government announced the local government elections in Pakistan in 2017. In our country, 5% seats in all elected bodies are reserved for women, religious minorities and even youth.

[Editor’s Note: The Sindh Local Government Election Ordinance, 2000 in Pakistan provides for 33% reservation for women and 5% each for peasants and workers and religious minorities in local bodies. In the National Assembly, there are reserved seats for women and religious minorities]

PPP was elected in all the 12 wards of Matli tehsil and I was chosen as a councillor on one of the reserved seats by the party. Candidates nominated on reserved seats enjoy the same privileges as directly elected members except that they cannot become the Prime Minister of the country.

What challenges do women from Sheedi backgrounds have in Pakistan today? 

A week after the elections, the chairperson to the Municipal council of Matli tehsil was supposed to be elected. Since all the councillors belonged to the PPP, the party would nominate a candidate who would then be chosen unopposed. The party chose me.

Only one woman was nominated for the position of the chairperson in the entire Sindh province. And it was a Sheedi woman. It was a huge deal.

This did not go down well for the rest of the members of the party.

I was a woman from a middle-class family and a family of ‘ slaves’. Women from my community worked at their houses and cleaned the shit of their kids.

‘How can a woman from such a community give orders to us? We are the elites of Sindh’, they said.

So they formed a delegation and went to the party president, Bilawal Bhutto to withdraw my candidature. He plainly refused to rescind my nomination on the basis of my identity, class or gender.

After Bhutto refused, they asked me to step down and even offered me money.  I refused.

For the first time in my 40 years in Pakistan, I was made to feel like an ‘Outcaste’- my identity as a Sheedi mattered more than anything. I was a finance consultant for the Asian Development Bank (ADB), knew everything about the legal and budget making process. But in that moment, all that came to a naught. What mattered was that I am Black  and that  my ancestors were ‘slaves’ . I felt excluded for my birth.

But I was determined not to be punished for reasons I had no control over.

I was physically threatened and verbally abused and intimidated. The fear was looming so large that  I had to move in with my parents along with my two little children. It was really difficult to fight off so many people in a small town.

I get emotional speaking about this because it was a really difficult time for me. At the time I thought that I was also putting my children and the rest of my family at risk with myself.

Through all this the party supported me and we tried to convince the members but to no avail.

[video: Tanzeela Qambrani speaking at TedX, Lahore, Pakistan on her journey as a Sheedi in politics]

In the run-up to the elections, things got even more dramatic and traumatic. One of the members of the party quit in protest. Many assumed that the party would let go of me. The PPP, however, officially declared that they were standing by me. Following this, 14 of the 19 elected councillors quit the party and contested independently against me in a  fresh election for the chairperson.

How did you navigate the political space in the How did you overcome the challenges?

On the day of the voting, I went to the court to challenge the election because I had already been announced as an unopposed candidate.  I kept waiting at the courthouse until 5 pm only to find out that the election took place and I was ousted.

I was no longer the chairperson. I was down for a bit but I told myself that this was not the end of the world.

What life teaches you during hard times are the lessons worth learning. These moments are like exams where you either get promoted and move up or stay in the same class. You do not go down.

Faryal Talpur, the president of the women’s wing of the PPP asked me to take the role of the president of Badin district of the party, which I accepted. Everyone said the party had given me a ‘lollipop’ after the loss of such a huge position.

I saw this as a new path that opened up in front of me. In many ways, I rediscovered myself in those hard times. I started mobilising women for the party. I was able to organize events which broke all previous records. More women were coming in truckloads and supporting the party. It was as if a new wave of women had risen in Badin.

When the 2018 elections to the Sindh Provincial Assembly were announced, I put forward my name once again. The Election Commission had put a condition that parties submit the list of their reserved candidates upfront along with all their contesting candidates. There were 24 reserved seats for women in Sindh Assembly. Parties could nominate the women from the lists based on the proportion of seats they gained. I was unsure if the party would consider my name after the chairperson fiasco. But I submitted my name nevertheless.

Surprisingly, when the list was published, my name was on the top of the list. It meant that my seat was secure. There were some who feared that the party would be forced to remove me. But the party and I stood firm.

[Editor’s note: Women members for reserved seats in Pakistan’s Provincial and National Assembly are elected through an indirect proportional representation list system, whereby political parties submit their lists of women candidates for reserved seats to the Election Commission prior to the election]

Now, as a Sheedi woman, I realised I had to work twice as hard.

PPP won the maximum seats in the 166 member Sindh provincial assembly. This meant that many more women were able to become Members of Provincial Assembly (MPA) due to the reservation. I was one of them.

In the Sindh Assembly, I  am also the chairperson of the standing committee on education

What is the importance of being a Sheedi woman in politics today? What are the opportunities for women from a minority community in Pakistan today?

Because we are the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’, religion is the basis for categorizing minorities. As such, Sheedi community is categorised as a majority since we follow Islam. In reality, the majority does not consider us part of their own. Minorities, on the other hand, have legal safeguards and privileges. There is a separate ministry that looks after their affairs. Technically we are a majority community with legal and constitutional safeguards but socially we are treated worse than the minorities.

Sheedis are treated as criminals. If there is a fight locally, they look for a Sheedi. When we walk into a shop, people hide things and safeguard their purses and wallets. Our women are treated as sex objects. As a woman, if I am seen in the company of men, my character is questioned. We have to constantly produce our character certificates. All this happens both overtly and covertly. Many of these are very silent messages that do not seem apparent but hurt us.

We have to work hard to prove ourselves that we are respectable women. Every time, my superior got transferred at work, I would shudder because I would have to start the process of proving myself all over again.

Our children are discriminated against in schools. The reserved seats in university and jobs, etc are cornered by the wealthy families who belong to minority communities. Children who belong to lower socio-economic classes do not make it above grade 5.

In Pakistan, women who are able to move up professionally are those from elite families who come with the privileges.

So, if someone like me who is Sheedi or from a lower social class or minority is able to occupy office of power, we become objects of scrutiny and criticism. But our election itself is also a symbol of power and mobility.

Today when young girls and women look at me who is a Sheedi or Krishna Kumari, who belongs to the coolie community and is now a senator in the National Assembly (Pakistan’s parliament), they aspire to dream big.  Krishna did not have a toilet inside the house or proper clothes while growing up but today she is a Senator. She sits in Pakistan’s highest legislative house.

Even five years ago, I had not imagined someone from the Sheedi community would become an MPA. Being elected a municipal councillor was how far I thought I could go. But here I am today, sitting in the Sindh Provincial Assembly.

When I meet girls today, they say they want to be like me.

There always is that one girl who says that she wants to go even further ahead than me. They are not just aspiring to be in the provincial assembly but in the Senate and National assembly too.

This is a very positive wave of change. It is easy to change laws and regulations. The real change comes when attitudes change. For things to change, we have to be vocal and talk about the multiple discriminations and not brush them under the carpet.

A position such as the MPA gives us the power to bring changes in legislation. But, the tougher battle is to bring about a change in the attitudes of people and prejudices they hold. This is where institutions, such as parties and quotas, play a major role. The PPP’s decision to nominate Krishna for senator and me as an MPA has accelerated that process of change.

What's your message to minority women in Pakistani politics today and those aspiring to join? 

In our society, it is really hard for a woman to claim her rightful place in positions of power and to have a strong personality. Most parliamentarians feel that female parliamentarian should only talk about women’s issues. Every issue is a women’s issue. For example, if a woman talks about the scarcity of water for the public, she is questioned by her male counterparts. Nevermind the fact that women do face a major burden of water scarcity in Pakistan.

Initially, we were told that women members were to sit separately from the male members in the legislature. Our health minister, who is a woman and had been elected on a general seat, refused to accept such an arrangement. Some men justified it saying that men tend to be rude and inappropriate. To which she responded ‘at least this way you all will learn some manners’.

Men find our very presence threatening and uncomfortable.

Now that women have started to speak up, men find their presence uncomfortable. Even now, we have to fight to be accepted and recognized by our positions.

We need to perpetuate the narrative that we are not inferior. We are equals.

“Auratein behtar zaroor hain, badtar nahin”

(Women are equal, if not better, to men)

[ with additional inputs from Aleena Ahmed ]

Also published here.

Read previous interviews here, here and here. For updates, follow us on Twitter & LinkedIn.


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