This Is Why the Desi Community Needs to Rethink Our Use of the Word “Habshi”

The moment I came across this image – a Black man’s face in a children’s book for learning the basic Urdu alphabet to enunciate the letter ﺡ (H sound in English) – I knew I had to say something. 

It says H for Habshi. Technically, if the book were for learning ABC’s, this would be nothing more remarkable than A for Abyssinian instead of Apple. So, why did all the sirens go off in my mind warning of covert racism wrapped up in the delicate fabric of innocent school learning? Because there’s a background to the word Habshi in the context of Indo-Pakistan history.

Urdu was born in the Indian subcontinent. It became the national language of Pakistan after its creation in 1947, marking the end of British colonization of India. We are a race of predominantly non-Black people of color who have internalized hatred for dusky complexions so much that even in 2020, we have a thriving billion dollar industry of skin whitening creams helping women be “fair and lovely” so they can land the perfect husband/job/life. Men want fair-skinned wives so they can have beautiful children (Black being not so beautiful in this region). Not to mention the fact that the term Habshi Ghulam (Abyssinian slave or Black slave) was used such in our region’s literature that Habshi itself became synonymous to slave or dark-skinned, and not in a polite context. 

The word Habshi in itself wasn’t racist or a slur. It was Persian for Abyssinian (or African in general) and referred to identity based on a region (modern-day Ethiopia). But it was introduced to Indo-Pakistan with a strong reference to slavery. Enslaved Abyssinians were brought to India by Arab merchants as early as the 7th century, and later on by the Portuguese and the British as part of their flourishing slave trade. These enslaved peoples were sold to local royalty and elites, who admired them for their great physical prowess, lack of local connection that prompted loyalty to the master, and preferred them for specialized jobs as soldiers, palace guards, and bodyguards. Some of these men rose through the ranks to become generals, admirals, and administrators, earning their freedom and an honorable title of Siddi, a possible derivative of the Arabic word Sayiddi meaning “master.” Malik Ambar of Ahmednagar who became a prominent ruler in Western India after taking on powerful Mughals of the North is one such success story. 

However, despite such conquests, Dr. Sylviane A Diouf of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library) notes that although these important African figures are not forgotten, their ethnicity has been erased: “The people who have heard of Malik Ambar, for example, generally do not know he was Ethiopian (or Habshi). Does it mean that these men’s origin was so irrelevant that it was useless to mention it or is this historical erasure the product of a conscious denial of the African contribution?”

Today the Siddi people live in isolated rural pockets all over the subcontinent. In Pakistan, they are an ethnic minority called the Makrani people inhabiting the Coast of Makran in Baluchistan largely as fishermen, and the Sheedi community of Karachi and lower Sindh. Without any political representation, they face a constant threat of complete erosion of their ancestral identity. An excellent example of that would be the painful fact that when confronted with the word Habshi, most Pakistanis don’t even think of their very own Sheedi community, but directly associate the term to enslaved Africans – or Hazrat Bilal (RA), since he is such a convenient poster boy to help dismiss any self-reflection on all our racial biases. 

Given this backdrop, how do you feel about the appearance of that image and the word Habshi in a brown child’s schoolbook? 

Of course, it’s fucking racist!

If you’re not talking to your children, if you’re not careful about what they’re learning, if you’re not being actively anti-racist, you’ll carry your biases everywhere you go, and feed into racial discrimination everywhere. You’ll become part of this plague and its spread.

So naturally, I got on my soap box, prepared an essay with pointers, and posted it in two different groups: one with an all-Desi (Pakistani) membership, and another a multiracial group created specifically to learn about racial sensitivities and issues.

One of the comments from my multiracial group was so profound that it captured everything wrong with the image:

“I do think this is covert racism. It means it is concealed in the fabric of society. This type of racism is the hardest for the privileged to see. It is taught to children who are white or children of lighter skin building the foundation for obvious racism and indifferent racism. It also teaches children of color or children of darker skin to dislike their skin and build the billion-dollar industry of skin whitening. (I mean, you’re telling me that there is no neutral everyday object that starts with that letter that could have been used?!).

The only way this is not racism is if it was a book about various cultures directed at teaching about cultures around the world with all in the same light. In this case, it would be impossible to do that in an alphabet book.”

And that was exactly the point!

The only feature defining that picture of that man as Habshi is his skin color. Skin color alone should never be a defining factor for anyone, and as we have seen within our own Desi community, has become the basis for colorism, where lighter skinned women are preferred.

Looking at this picture, what exactly is the child learning about Abyssinia other than the fact that Abyssinians are Black? Unless, this is a book on the various races of the world, an Abyssinian’s race is irrelevant because it isn’t the race of a nation that’s a symbol for any country. It is its customs, traditional dresses, it’s flag. Why couldn’t they put an Abyssinian flag instead of a Black man’s face? Maybe if they had, they would’ve realized that Abyssinia doesn’t exist anymore, and it would be more beneficial to teach the children about Ethiopia that actually happens to be a real place they can point to on a map! 

Also, is anyone even sure this man is an Abyssinian, and not French, or British, or Cambodian, or an African American?  

I explained all that to my Desi group but the comments I received went like:

  • Everything comes in racism since it is the hot topic right now.
  • If it’s wrong to say Habshi then what about Hazrat Bilal Habshi?
  • Why don’t you stand up for abused children?
  • Habshis look like that so what else to put there?
  • So being black is a shameful thing you mean?
  • You should take it positively; this is diversity.
  • It’s sad we have made fun of this word, but this is not racist.
  • Habshi is not a bad word. It’s not like they’re calling him Black.
  • If someone called me Paki, I will be proud because it means Pakistani so what is wrong with Habshi?
  • I read E for Eskimo in a book so why is this bad? People say Negro all the time too.

I didn’t have the brain cells to scale that mountain of ignorance, and it left me terrified for the future of my Desi community. Many of these members had George Floyd’s video plastered on their walls. Many cried about Islamophobia. And yet, they were all so thoroughly blind to their own biases.

Words don’t have a meaning of their own. We give them their meaning, and once a word takes on a negative connotation, you don’t get to decide how the ones at the receiving end of it need to feel or behave about it. It’s them who get to decide that. And with that in mind, I’ll just leave a quote from an African American member of the group who discussed this image with me:

“Thank you so much for sharing! I think with the history of the word and the common reference to Habshi as slaves, this would definitely be considered racist, especially with this being an alphabet for children in a predominantly non-Black community.”

If you’re not talking to your children, if you’re not careful about what they’re learning, if you’re not being actively anti-racist, you’ll carry your biases everywhere you go, and feed into racial discrimination everywhere. You’ll become part of this plague and its spread.

Think. Learn. Reflect. 

Be a proud anti-racist!