Colour me rainbow

Published: February 1, 2012

The writer is a Lincoln’s Inn barrister practicing in Islamabad and holds a degree in Economics and Literature from Bryn Mawr College, US

Earlier this month, I was in South Africa teaching a course in Stellenbosch, an exceedingly picturesque university town, 50 kilometres east of Cape Town. One afternoon, in a rare gap in our rigorous schedule, a senior British barrister invited a Nigerian British colleague and I to lunch, at one of Stellenbosch’s finest restaurants. During the meal, rendered all the more delicious by the restaurant’s breathtaking setting, our host casually remarked that a little more than 15 years ago, the three of us could not have eaten together at this place. As I then glanced around the table, I realised that each of us sitting around the table, represented the three major racial groups in South Africa: white, black and Indian.

Although I laughed at first, the comment made me uncomfortable and I decided to explore apartheid through the experiences of the people who had lived it. In the course of my enquiries, I discovered that the serene Stellenbosch had not only been an Afrikaner stronghold, but also the intellectual breeding ground of apartheid. I also noticed that despite the repeal of laws that had socially and economically segregated South Africa along racial lines, there was not only little mingling of races but also a tremendous disparity, especially between the whites and the blacks and to a lesser extent, the Indians. Of course, no white South African I spoke with, admitted that he or she had supported apartheid, but equally, no black South African I met seemed entirely comfortable in his or her surroundings.

My initial reaction was one of relief for being born a free citizen in my own country. I also felt somewhat superior due to my Islamic heritage: after all, Islam prohibited slavery. Had not Hazrat Bilal (RA), who had been brought to Arabia as an Abyssinian slave, been set free by the efforts of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) and over time, become one of his esteemed companions. Very soon, I started to feel judgmental: I wondered what it was about the white races that lent itself to so much cruelty and thought, that troubled though it may be, Pakistan was better than South Africa because it did not suffer from racism. I ended on the usual note of victimhood: if only we had a little bit more economic and political stability, our people would be second to none in the world.

My smug reverie did not last. A colleague who had just had news of terror attacks in Jamrud in which 30 people had been killed, wanted to know if my family was safe. I assured him that it must be as Jamrud was in the northwest and I did not have any family there. Although he seemed relieved for me, his eyes had such a look of pity for what it meant to be a Pakistani that the South Africa that barely minutes ago had seemed to be the alien ‘other’, became a mirror, cruelly reflecting the injustice in Pakistani society. I realised that whilst Pakistan may not suffer from overt racism, it had, despite its Islamic pretensions, become an increasingly inhumane society, bitterly divided along lines of religion, class, ethnicity, gender and politics. The only difference being that the oppressors and the oppressed could not be easily recognised by their skin colour.

I wondered, if it was perhaps the legacy of the two-nation theory from which we trace our very existence that has affected our psyche in such a way that we are more attuned to recognising factors that divide rather than join us as a society. However, rather than delving into historical causes, it is perhaps more important to focus our energies on our future, which seems to me to lie in accepting and respecting each other first and foremost as Pakistanis, regardless of all other identities we may subscribe to and, to borrow the concept from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in consciously embracing our diversity as a many coloured rainbow. The day before I was leaving South Africa, I asked an Indian South African, who had grown up in the apartheid era, why Indians had not protested against injustice in their society. “We were not exposed to the world”, he said, “we did not know better”.

What is our excuse?

Published in The Express Tribune, February 1st, 2012.

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Reader Comments (20)

  • Arindom
    Feb 1, 2012 - 1:10AM

    Indians didnot protest too much because they didnot have it too bad. Unlike the blacks, they were not being shot down. Nor were there many Indians working as slaves in farms. Indians were mainly traders and kept their head down. Moreover, the Indians ( especially the vegetarian Gujratis that make up majority of the Indians in SA) had a superiority complex vis-a-vis the blacks that exist even today. Put your hand on your heart – you’ll know it is true. You’d be rather marry of your daughter to a white man than a black?! These are the real reasons Indians didnot protest too much. The whites kept order and order was good for business. Blacks created disorder.

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  • Mirza
    Feb 1, 2012 - 2:35AM

    A real world heart warming experience you shared. Thanks for provoking thoughts and looking into the mirror.

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  • It's (still) the economy, stupid
    Feb 1, 2012 - 2:58AM

    “after all, Islam prohibited slavery” What would you call slave like condition of women in Harem and inhumane treatment of foreign workers (house keepers, construction workers etc) in Muslim Middle East countries; child labour bonded labour on farms and klin workers in Muslim Pakistan, modern day slavery? What colour of rainbow are they?

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  • Observer
    Feb 1, 2012 - 3:26AM

    “I also felt somewhat superior due to my Islamic heritage: after all, Islam prohibited slavery. “

    I am afraid the author is incorrect on this one. I suggest she does more reading and research on this subject.

    As for her statement that there is no racism in Pakistan, again, she is wrong. Most Pakistanis who consider themselves as descendants of Arabs, Persians or Central Asians have always looked down on the “black, short” Indians and Bangladeshis. In fact, an underlying and unstated part of the two nation theory is racism.

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  • Amjad
    Feb 1, 2012 - 3:30AM

    Amber darr now we r being exposed to the world, we have no excuse but to challenge this intolerance & bigotry in our society.

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  • Shock Horror
    Feb 1, 2012 - 3:31AM

    @Amber
    Racism in Pakistan takes a very different form. Pakistani society is perhaps more prejudiced than almost any other community in the world. Sunnis versus Shias; Ahmadis as non muslims; Sindhis versus Mohajirs; Sindhis versus Pakhtoons and so on. And to cap it all the Land of the Pure has blasphemy laws which are seen as abhorrent in the civilised world. Less said the better in relation to the legal and informal discrimination against Christian and Hindu communities in Pakistan. The minority population in Pakistan has come down from 24% of total population in !947 to approximately 3 percent now. Do you still feel superior than South Africans under apartheid regime?

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  • Hasan
    Feb 1, 2012 - 4:18AM

    Nice read but lacking in substance – although I imagine your analysis was impeded by a strict word limit.

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  • Homa
    Feb 1, 2012 - 9:03AM

    And the self-delusion continues. Check out http://www.islam-watch.org for researching islams position with regard to slavery.

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  • Jehanzeb
    Feb 1, 2012 - 9:22AM

    It is disturbing that highly educated Pakistanis, such as the writer, are not immune from readily resorting to a religious framework when analysing a purely social issues. It is even more disturbing that she tries to acquire higher moral grounds on a wrongly interpreted religious premise. While Islam clearly sanctions slavery (officially practised in Saudi Arabia until early 1960s), the writer conveniently assumed otherwise, truly in line with a general assumption that Islam or any other religion for that matter cannot but ought to be compatible with present day standards. A religion has no place in secular matters in this age.Recommend

  • American
    Feb 1, 2012 - 9:31AM

    Islam banned slavery??? read the Arab islamic slave trade. muslim nations were last to ban slavery.

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  • Salim Ansari
    Feb 1, 2012 - 12:01PM

    I also felt somewhat superior due to my Islamic heritage: after all, Islam prohibited slavery.

    Islam is very similar to Communism. Everybody knows that the system has major issues, but everybody is afraid to speak up. And as in Communism, everyone is supposed to repeat and believe that they have the best of everything.

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  • Abbas from the US
    Feb 1, 2012 - 7:38PM

    When it comes to slavery. The Muslim societies were the last to relent. Saudi Arabia officially ended slavery in 1963, slavery still exists in places like Maurittania.
    When it comes to racism, my first hand experience with factory workers not willing to share water coolers, tea utensils with Christians and Hindus from the lower Castes leads me to believe otherwise.
    The case of Aasiya Bibi may on surface appear to be religious persecution, but the particular set of circumstances which may have caused her to protest in desperation has roots in rascism widely practiced within Pakistani society.

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  • Cynical
    Feb 1, 2012 - 9:39PM

    I have been to stellenbosch.It’s really a beautiful town.Reminds me one of those idyllic old european towns.But didn’t know about it’s apartheid bit.Thanks for the information.

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  • HPT
    Feb 1, 2012 - 11:44PM

    Surely a practising lawyer, of all people, would appreciate that prohibition (in religion, law, morality, …) of something hardly implies its absence in actual practice. Pakistan would be free of corruption if were so.

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  • HPT
    Feb 2, 2012 - 12:55AM

    I asked an Indian South African, who had grown up in the apartheid era, why Indians had not protested against injustice in their society.

    It may not be well-known on the planet of Pakistan, but there was a certain Indian called M K Gandhi who kicked up quite a fuss in the apartheid South Africa ….. The rest is history.

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  • ZP
    Feb 2, 2012 - 1:39AM

    @Observer,

    “In fact, an underlying and unstated part of the two nation theory is racism.”

    Oh, what an enlightened thinker. Was the partition of Bengal in 1906 had anything to do with Muslim’s racism toward Bengalis? In your twisted mind, Muslims are always racist to Hindus. Hindus are kind people who are never racist to Muslims. If you want to talk about real racism, go and absorb why Mayawati and Dravidian parties rose.

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  • gt
    Feb 2, 2012 - 2:55AM

    Dear Ms.Darr,

    As a barrister, you must have some faith in the evidentiary process and must yourself be honor-bound to it! Please refer to valid historical sources on the Arab mediated slave trade that spanned the Sahara, right into West Africa. This snowballed into the events that fed the European/American slave trade.

    The vestiges of this history are playing out in the partition of Sudan. You may wish to refer to responsible historians and modern scholars to probe deeper into the modern history of that nation. It will set to rest your sweeping contention that Islam prohibits slavery!

    Further east, the experience of the Indian civilization post the waves of conquerors who expressly described themselves as working for the glory of Islam, [and whose names your nation proudly choose to enshrine in your missiles & weapons of mass destruction] suggest that slavery was a cherished aspect of this “Islamic” culture. Goats were dearer than men or women in your fair city of Lahore! This is the evidence not from some scheming Hindu, but the proud declarations of the historians and court records of the day. Many are available in Pakistan should you wish to consult them. Ali Shariati, in his essay “THE RED AND THE BLACK” offers yet another look at Ghaznavi, this time from an Iranian Shia perspective, that corroborates all of the above. Kindly refer to this work if you have the opportunity.

    You do your cause no little disservice when you trumpet false and misleading claims.

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  • Ahmed
    Feb 2, 2012 - 8:40AM

    Hmmm… Arabs practically co-invented Islam and slavery, and the two have gone hand in hand since the very beginning of time. In fact, a large part of Arab trade was slaves from Africa. The indian subcontinent never had slaves in its long history till it was brought in by Islamic invaders, the Turks of the so called slave dynasty. Really not sure how amber could have gotten it so wrong.

    Ahmed

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  • amlendu
    Feb 2, 2012 - 2:22PM

    I am surprised that there are no comments (either appreciative or otherwise) about the author calling herself “Indian” in the context of gathering at the restaurant.

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  • Raja Islam
    Feb 3, 2012 - 2:29AM

    @amlendu:
    Remember that within the global context, Paksitanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Nepalese are generally referred to as people of Indian descent.

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