It is time to talk about caste in Pakistan and Pakistani diaspora

There are about 40 castes in Pakistan [File: AP/K.M. Chaudary]

On September 29, Manisha Valmiki, a 19-year-old Dalit girl succumbed to her injuries from a gang rape committed by four Thakur (upper-caste) men in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. News of the incident caused outrage across India and the rest of the world, including in Pakistan and the diaspora.

I and many fellow Pakistanis have actively participated in social media campaigns demanding justice for Valmiki. But few of us have said much about another horrendous death of a Dalit woman.

On September 30, just a day after Valmiki’s death, 17-year-old Momal Meghwar took her own life in the village of Dalan-Jo-Tarr in Sindh province, Pakistan. A year earlier, she had been brutally raped and filmed by three men who have remained at large.

Meghwar was the 58th woman to take her own life this year in Thar alone. There is a multitude of reasons for this macabre statistic and all are at the intersections of gender, religion, class, and caste.

Yes, caste – a word which many of us Pakistani feminist scholars and organisers, especially those with sectarian, caste, and class privileges in the diaspora, remain unfamiliar with, whether willfully or out of ignorance.

Of course, due to the untiring work of mostly (but not exclusively) Indian-origin Dalit feminists and organisations such as Equality Labs, those of us Pakistanis who have not thought about caste before are learning about caste in India and its diaspora.

However, concerns raised by Dalit and anti-caste thinkers from Pakistan often remain ignored and outright dismissed, especially by caste and class privileged Pakistani Muslims who refuse to see caste, let alone the caste dominance and caste terror prevalent in Pakistan and its diaspora.

Pakistanis need to stop believing that Dalits live only in India. There are about 40 castes, 32 of which were listed as scheduled castes under the November 1957 Presidential ordinance of Pakistan. Meghwars are one of these listed castes, along with Bheels, Kolhis, Baghris and others.

While there are Dalit Muslims in Pakistan, because of the belief that there are no caste hierarchies among Muslims, the castes mentioned as scheduled are necessarily read as Hindu only. It is important to point out the infusion of upper-caste Brahmin supremacy that has coerced and contained lower-caste people into the category of Hindu. Many Dalit-Bahujan people see themselves as part of Indigenous cultures and traditions and reject Hinduism as their religious identification.

Moreover, the majority of Christians in the country are also Dalit – pejoratively labelled as Chuhra. As a recent New York Times article on Dalit Christians taking up scavenging jobs in Pakistan notes, according to the 1998 census, Christians made up only 1.6 percent of the population but filled 80 percent of the sweeper jobs. This caste apartheid is prevalent in Pakistan and yet there is no authentic caste census available.

Just like in India, Dalits face discrimination by society at large and by the state. In a 2007 report on the condition of scheduled castes in Pakistan, journalist Zulfiqar Shah points out that a 6-percent government job quota for scheduled castes from urban and rural areas put forward in 1948 was never ethically implemented and was simply scrapped in the 1990s.

In other words, no political or economic security measures are extended to scheduled caste people who continue to be seen simply as “religious minorities” in Pakistan and marked for violence with impunity.

That is why it is important to call Momal Meghwar’s rape and death by suicide what it is: caste-based sexual violence. While Pakistani mainstream media has mostly stayed silent, in some instances where the incident was discussed, it was made into a case of her being Hindu, a religious minority, effectively erasing caste which is also one of the main factors legitimising violence against lower-caste people by both upper-caste Muslims and Hindus.

The murder of social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch in 2016, which was widely covered by the media, was also linked to caste, but journalists and scholars overwhelmingly ignored that aspect. One of the people who drew attention in public to the role caste played in the killing was anti-caste activist, Auwn Gurmani.

As he explained in a July 2020 tweet: “We remember Qandeel and we also remember she was killed because of her gender, class and most importantly caste background: Qandeel’s caste was Mehra (ماہڑا in Siraiki). Mahar, Mehra, Mehar, Mahara – all these castes have the same origin, scheduled caste in Madhya Pradesh.”

Caste dismissal in Pakistan often comes from the belief that because we are Muslim, caste does not exist in our communities and societies. Unlike Hindu scriptures, the Quran does not establish and condone a caste system. Moreover, unlike India, Pakistan does not have Brahminical cis-heteropatriarchy and Islamophobia governing the nation-state.

The ritualistic, religious, familial, social, economic, political and gendered aspects of caste have their own tones in Pakistan. It is not saffron-tinted, as Hindu nationalism is, but rather it takes a green, Islamic traditional, hue. This is not to say that the importation and translation of Hindutva ideology are not happening across the border and do not affect Pakistani Muslims’ conception of caste.

As Sindhi anti-caste scholar Ghulam Hussain, who has contributed ground-breaking work on caste relations in Sindh, notes, Sayedism and Brahminism are infused with each other. Sayed supremacy – which Hussain labels as Sayedism – comes from the (unproven) belief that Sayeds are genealogical descendants of Prophet Muhammad and therefore have a more authentic grasp on Islam and all social and political matters.

Another anti-caste researcher, Haris Gazdar, points out that “the public silencing on caste contrasts with an obsession with it in private dealings”. There is always violence attached to caste hierarchies of which Gazdar names several examples, such as having pejorative labels to strict taboos around eating and drinking together and sharing of utensils to stealing land to beatings and rapes of men and women of lowered caste people with impunity, all to “keep them in their place”.

Islam is often evoked by upper-caste Muslims as the reason for some of these practices. Pakistani Muslims would argue that lowered caste people from Hindu and Christian minorities eat “haram” (forbidden by Islamic law) food. However, eating with upper-caste Hindus and Christians is not frowned upon.

These Brahminical notions of ritual purity become aligned with concepts of “paak” (pure/clean) and “naapak” (impure/unclean) under Muslims’ casteist interpretations of Islam. Even when lowered caste people from religious minorities convert to Islam, they continue to meet with the same caste-based violence. Conversion to Islam in Pakistan does not de-casteise the lowered caste people who continue to be treated as “untouchables”.

There is also the commonly circulated argument that caste exists only in rural areas of provinces like Sindh and Punjab. But caste dangerously circulates as common sense in large cities as well.

A recent example of this, even among young people who are usually understood as more progressive than their parents’ generation, is a student-led survey at the University of Lahore in Punjab in which students were asked on camera questions about how caste informs choices they make about romantic relationships and friendships. Every single one of these students knew their caste from Sayeds to Arains (a predominantly agricultural caste) to Sheikhs (a lower caste stereotyped as having a business acumen). In the almost nine-minute-long video, it is quite clear that caste is an active and everyday experience for university students in an urban setting.

More survey work needs to be done in urban and rural areas, as well as in the diaspora to fully understand the forms which caste takes at our dinner tables, in our kinships, our attachments, workplaces, and every other aspect of our lives.

As many of us diasporic Pakistanis become invested in liberatory projects of Black Lives Matter and Indigenous sovereignties in the west and educated about caste politics in India, it appears that this is indeed the right time to turn inwards and explore our own experiences with caste. Sayedism – a prime example of upper-caste dominance and hegemony – is quite prominent among us and should be studied both in Pakistan and in the diaspora.

In our pursuit of understanding caste, however, we also need to be very careful, particularly us western-educated, class- and caste-privileged diasporic scholars. Some of us go to Pakistan to focus on caste violence in the menial jobs lower castes are relegated to, such as scavenging or sanitation work.

While I think these anthropological studies have their place and must be done, I am also reminded of scholar Joby Mathew’s remarks in the book Hatred in the Belly: “If any intellectual wants to emphasize the pathetic condition of Dalits through these derogatory images [of scavenging], that itself amounts to symbolic violence”.

Furthermore, when looking into caste-based, gender-based violence and trying to understand a figure such as Baloch in all her complexities, our analysis needs to move beyond the binaries of lower-caste women as either vulnerable victims or heroes. Therefore, it is urgent that we engage with Dalit feminist theory.

And finally, we also have to remain aware and mindful of how Islamophobia and anti-Pakistan violence can be disruptive in our critical work on complicity in various structures of domination. To talk about violence in Pakistan is difficult because of how quickly nationalist non-Muslim Indians – and even those Indian Muslims invested in the idea of Brahminical India – latch onto our critiques to further malign Pakistan as a terrorist Muslim state.

But the intense Islamophobia, casteism, and colonial violence – in relation to Kashmir, for example – in India should not be a reason not to have these important conversations and studies in Pakistan and the diaspora. After all, these violent paradigms are interconnected and know no borders.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.