Imagine you belonged in a racial minority of South-Eastern Asia, a people brought over from East Africa centuries ago. Imagine your people were once accepted by society and integrated but they were gradually marginalised and completely shunned from all public appointments. Imagine you decided to dedicate your life to making a difference, to giving back to your community the dignity they were denied. Will you be heard?
Today, I am inspired by Tanzeela Umme Habiba Qambrani, born in 1979 in the Badin district of Pakistan. Badin is in Sindh, the third largest province of Pakistan, located in the south-eastern part of the country.
Tanzeela belongs to the Sidis, also known as the Sheedis, a racial minority group of African descent found in India and Pakistan. Though the exact African origin of the Sidis have been forgotten over the years, they are believed to be descendants of merchants, sailors and soldiers of East Africa.
Many were brought to Asia as slaves as far back as the 1st century by Arabs and Ottomans merchants and later by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British. Historians estimate that about 4 million Africans were taken from East Africa to South-Eastern Asia during the Indian Ocean slave trade.
During the Mughal Empire, which was founded in 16th Century, Sidis occupied high level positions such as soldiers or guards. One of the most famous Sidis was Malik Ambar, an Ethiopian slave brought to India as a child and who rose to become a General and even a Prime Minister in Gujarat.
Things turned sour for the Sidis during the British rule, where they were actively discriminated against, and they ended up completely absent from Pakistan political circles when the country was created in 1947.
Today, only a small community is identified as Sidis in Pakistan, less than 50.000, and they are concentrated in Sindh. The Sidi community is often the object of mockeries because of their physical appearance and they face racial discrimination both in India and Pakistan.
Sidis have made efforts in recent times to reconnect with other Sidis in the South-East Asian sub-continent, but they’ve lost any direct connection with the motherland and have long forgotten their languages of origin. Their music and songs however are undeniably African, a blend of Swahili and local languages.
Tanzeela traces her origins to Tanzania. Her great-grandparents were brought to Pakistan a century ago and her family has maintained ties with Africa. One of her sisters married a Tanzania man and followed her husband in his birth country. Another of her sisters is married to a Ghanaian.
“When my sister married a Ghanaian husband, local youths and guests from Ghana put on such a show in our neighbourhood. They danced those typical Sidi steps to the Mogo drumbeat which they say comes from Ghana but which we’ve traditionally played in our homes. You couldn’t tell a Sidi dancer apart from an African.”
Her parents were both educated. Her father, Abdul Bari, was a lawyer and while her mother was a headmistress. Her parents worked all their lives to try and change the way their community was viewed in the country.
Tanzeela parents raised their daughters to believe in themselves and aspire to have an equal place in society and their male counterparts. The young lady was passionate about science and she decided to pursue IT studies at the University of Sindh from which she earned a master’s degree in Computer Science.
It comes as no surprise that Tanzeela followed their footsteps and became involved in community activism as soon as she finished her university education.
Her main battle was to make women economically independent, strong and empowered so they can play an active role in the country’s decision-making process. Through her community work, she tirelessly sensitised families, especially mothers, to educate their daughters.
“There is no progress without education and empowering Sindh and Sidi women.”
In 2010, she joined the party of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first woman prime minister, and became a local councillor in her native Badin.
It wasn’t long before she was noticed in the party’s leadership, and in 2018 Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of the late Benazir Bhutto, nominated her to a seat reserved for women in a provincial parliament in Sindh.
She took her oath on August 13, 2018, becoming the first woman of the Sheedi tribe to become a member of Sindh Assembly.
It was a very emotional moment for the 39 years old mother of three.
“Arriving at the oath-taking ceremony I was overwhelmed by emotions. I thought I am Nelson Mandela. As I descended the stairs of the Sindh Assembly, I felt like kissing the ground, the very ground that has blessed me with so much respect, love and acceptance,” she told the media.
Today, Tanzeela Qambrani name has travelled across all the way to her ancestors’ land and beyond, making her the face of this small tribe many had never heard of before her election.
“As a tiny minority lost in the midst of local populations, we have struggled to preserve our African roots and cultural expression, but I look forward to the day when the name Sidi will evoke respect, not contempt.”
She is the first African-Pakistani parliamentarian of her country, but she is very much intent on not being the last. Her country needs many more Sidi in their elite political circles and in all arenas of the country’s life.
“I can already feel the weight. I’m a Sidi, and all these middle class, lower-middle class and working class Sidis know that I’m one of them. And this means there will be expectations.”
Do not worry, Tanzeela, your ancestors are watching over you.
Right Your Legacy, Tanzeela! Thank you for shedding light upon life in your corner of the Greater Africa!