Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 26, 2020

Embracing both the privileges and stigmas my ethnicity carries

By ZUBIA HASAN | September 5, 2019



A Pathan family gathering, which Zubia wishes she had experienced more.


Apparently, you are made from the places you are from. If that is true then I must be a battlefield because Karachi was made with the blood of the long standing warring factions of the Muhajir and the Pathan. 

For those who are unfamiliar with these terms, the Muhajir — literally meaning “immigrants” — were one of the first people to arrive in Pakistan from India during partition. They pride themselves as the caretakers of the country — the ones who have always been there. 

The Pathan, however, are an ancient Indo-Aryan tribe from Afghanistan who at some point have either come as refugees or migrated to Pakistan themselves due to the political situation in Afghanistan. Pashtun or “Pathan” are known for their fiercely loyal, tightly knit brotherhood, as well as their traditional values of hospitality and courage. 

In Pakistan, however, being Pathan carries a stigma — a not very nice stigma. They are regarded as backwards, uncivilised, uneducated and basically the white man’s terms for everyone they colonized. A large part of their population does odd jobs in Pakistan, unable to rise to a higher social class due to the stigma associated with them, as well as larger institutional problems of the government not giving them citizen status, despite them being born in Pakistan. 

My mom is Pathan. She grew up in Karachi and spoke pashto in a very Pathan household. Her childhood consisted of frequent trips to Manora (a small island a ferry ride away from Karachi) and to their village in Swat. My dad, however, is Muhajir. His family migrated to Karachi from Meerath, a village in Uttar Pradesh, India in 1951. 

My family is both Pathan and Muhajir, but somehow I didn’t grow up ever feeling like I was Pathan. Maybe it was because I would only visit my mom’s family while I lived with my dad’s family. I didn’t speak Pashto — I didn’t even look like them — I didn’t have the blue eyes of my aunt and I certainly didn’t have the blonde hair of my uncle. 

So they became a “them,” and I stayed without a Pathan identity. If anyone asked me what my ethnicity was I would tell them I was both Pathan and Muhajir, but I didn’t ever feel Pathan. 

I didn’t understand why my mom would get upset when we would read out the jokes about the stereotypical dumb but angry Pathan men in the comedy section of the newspaper. 

I didn’t even understand why my mom would get upset when I would tell her — childlike but hurtful — that I wasn’t like her family, I spoke English and I didn’t wear their bright colours and over embroidered clothes. 

I rejected the side of me that was Pathan — I rejected the parts of them I didn’t like, all the while shamelessly profiting off the side that I knew would make me different from the rest of my peers. 

I used the biracial card, I used the culture card and, most of all, I profited off the privilege of being light skinned in Pakistan — a country with a culture that is obsessed with fair skin. Pathans traditionally have lighter skin than all the other ethnicities in Karachi, and Pathan blood made me light skinned as well. So when I would be cast in school plays whereas my more talented, darker friends would be cast aside, I wouldn’t say a word. When I would be told in gatherings that my skin was “glowing” — for some reason glowing, healthy skin in Pakistan is always cool toned — I accepted the compliment. 

Come college admission time, I didn’t hesitate in writing essays about my mixed ethinicity, and when I got accepted, I still didn’t accept that it was partially due to my Pathan heritage.

I’ve been in America two years, and during these years I’ve become more exposed to people who are Pathan. Bloggers on Instagram who proudly document their Pathan heritage- along with the abused and tortured Pathan faces in Pakistani society. 

In my privileged bubble, I didn’t realize that while I profited off of my Pathan features, my people were going missing in refugee camps. 

While I got into privileged institutions of higher education, my people were not allowed to register themselves as Pakistanis despite having lived in the country for many generations. I didn’t realize that the drivers, the cooks, the maids, the street vendors in my city were almost always Pathans. That they formed the backbone of the unregistered employees of this country — the backbone which has become such an integral part of Karachi history.

I would like to say that when I went back to Karachi this time, I magically felt more Pathan. I would like to say that I visited my mom’s family all the time. Truth be told, my interactions with them were minimal. 

But when I was there I could see how my mom’s face would light up, how they would talk in lightning fast pashto, how 50 people would be considered a small gathering, how everyone would sit with their moon faces and their dupattas and laugh and laugh and laugh. 

I have cousins in Chicago who live in a small Pathan community. When I go there I can see how Pashtunistan has embedded itself in America, how the little things like “ishalla” (traditional pancake) have woven themselves into my vocabulary. My aunt lovingly calls me “gadooray” which means girl with curly hair and I respond enthusiastically. 

These words are foreign to me and I only know a few, but someone once told me that culture doesn’t live in languages but in the people and their values. I would like to believe that even though I don’t speak pashto, I’m every bit as Pathan as my mom. 

I’d like to believe I will pass on these values to my children, I would like to believe they will grow up knowing they have Pathan blood and that this comes with stigma but also immense responsibility — they need to know how to make the best ishalla in the street of course. 

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