Zehra*, an old friend of mine tells me:
“When I started at school, the kids asked each other if they were Shia or Sunni. I have no idea why a first-grader would start off an introduction like that, but they did. And, as soon as I told everyone I was a Shia, no one wanted to befriend me.”
“I wished I could disappear when girls would make teams to play and no one would pick me for their team… I was told every day by the little girls that I prayed wrong, that I was crazy for doing ‘maatam’ and more.”
Zehra’s experience of religious discrimination as a child hit me particularly hard, because while she was being bullied and labeled a ‘non-believer’, I remember kids in my class raising the Shia-Sunni debate as well. I remember being asked which of the two I was. I did not even know what Shia or Sunni was at the time.
Growing up, I had the hardest time figuring out why someone’s religious practices were up for debate and why it had become a custom for so many to vilify the beliefs and practices of others.
As a member of the religious majority in this country, I am aware of the privilege I enjoy, having been, for the most part, sheltered from religious discrimination and the threat of violence that targets many other religions and sects in Pakistan.
When you are in the majority, it is easy to become blind to the kind of discrimination your friends, acquaintances and fellow citizens face regularly and in the most unexpected of places, even from people they have known for a very long time.
Maria*, a Pakistani Christian tells me, “I have friends – really old friends – who still try to convert me: ‘Maria, you know I love you, but I don’t want you to go to hell’. I’m so used to it now, I can’t even pretend to act surprised,” she says, smiling wanly.
Speaking to Maria and Zehra, I felt not only incredibly ashamed and guilty, but also incredibly angry.
It takes a great deal of patience to withstand a near-constant barrage of ‘guidance’ and questioning of one’s religious beliefs, no matter how well-meaning it may seem.
Being a religious minority in Pakistan means constantly having to be on your toes, to be always anticipating the happening of something tragic.
Almost everyone who narrated their experiences to me spoke about the constant threat of danger to their and their family members’ lives, which lingers in the back of their heads daily.
In the wake of terrible attacks of religious violence (like the Karachi bus attack targeting Ismailis, the recent twin church bombings in Youhanabad and a bombing outside a Bohri mosque during Friday prayers), the fear is not unfounded.
Some argue that in this country, each of us is fair game for terrorists, but it would be both blind and unfair to deny that some of us seem to be more so than others.
According to the South Asian Terrorism Portal, there have been 20 incidents of religiously-motivated violence in Pakistan in 2015, which killed 143 and injured 214 others.
Can you imagine living each day with the fear that someone you love may be taken away from you just because of their surname?
Because you express your spirituality a certain way?
Because you frequent a certain place of worship?
Rashna* told me about a boy at work who, after inquiring about her religious beliefs, began extolling the virtues of his own religion, and asked her why she didn’t convert.
She says, “I wasn’t scared of practising my religion or visiting our places of worship until all these bombings targeting various places of worship started.”
Ayesha*, a member of a major religious sect in Pakistan, married a boy who is not. She has mentioned the possibility of moving abroad because she’s afraid he may be targeted for his religious beliefs.
“I’m afraid every time he steps out of his house, especially knowing that he’s an extremely pure-hearted person and that he doesn’t think of himself as a member of a particular sect. So yes, it is sad when he is defined by a particular label.”
Fiza* says she feels lucky to not have experienced discrimination firsthand, but adds that a number of her friends express curiosity about what happens in their community mosque, and why she attends so often.
“I never went about revealing more than I was asked. Living in Karachi, anyone can be victimised, unfortunately – and members of our community have been. We are not involved with any [political] parties, nor do we wish to be. Peace and a ‘live and let live’ policy is our motto.”
Iman’s* family has always been afraid of revealing their identities, preferring to adopt ‘neutral’ names. She has this to say:
“Being a member of a particular sect, my family has faced a lot of security issues. For the past five years, there has been a constant threat of being targeted. My father has stopped going for morning walks. The males in our family try not to leave their houses in the same car and restrict their movements. Boys are asked not to stay out too late.”
Fatima’s* family has fallen victim to sectarian violence many times over the years.
“Recently, a close relative was shot dead,” she says. “We don’t know for sure if it was because of a business rivalry, or a religiously-motivated attack. However, most of us believe it is because of the latter.”
She said several of her relatives were casualties in attacks on her community and their places of worship, while others had been victims of target-killing, most of them young men who were a support for their families.
“My brother was sent to Australia because of security issues, and my parents want to shift our entire family to a much safer foreign country,” she concludes.
Fatima told me one of the most horrifying stories I came across in my research for this article. She told me about her experience as a schoolteacher in an impoverished settlement.
The community where the school is located consists largely of a group of people who are quite radical in their interpretation of religion.
While speaking to students about the brutal Army Public School attack, they touched upon the topic of targeting people for their faiths. A child, one she had tried hard to instil racial/religious tolerance and compassion in, said outright that all people of a certain religion should be targeted because they are ‘infidels’. ( the Deobandi terrorists of the Sipah-e-Sahaba (ASWJ) are not only killing Shia Muslims but also Sunni Sufi and Barelvi Muslims.)
“It felt like a punch in the gut,” she says.
These may not be experiences you or I have to face, but they are the realities of many people in Pakistan – about 4,832,140 people.
How would you feel if one person in your family was perpetually subjected to discrimination? To harassment? To death threats? Around five million people in Pakistan feel like this on a near daily basis.
Why do we discriminate? I’ve come across a number of opinions ranging from ethnocentrism and stereotyping to “we fear what we do not know”. Perhaps greater awareness and religious literacy could help us get past discrimination.
Drawing from my experiences as a child, I don’t believe discrimination that leads to violence, or enables violence, is an inbuilt impulse. It is a social construct. And social constructs can and should be challenged.
*Names changed to protect identity