The Color of Civil Rights: Carving a Pakistani Identity

International spaces is a weekly column alternating between an international student at the Claremont Colleges and a student abroad. If you’re interested in writing for us, email Rachel at 

It wasn’t until I was 16 years old that I realized I
was a woman of color.

Even today, I don’t fully understand what the term means or
how I am expected to embody all that it represents. It’s not that I am unaware
of the tale of mankind written in the shades of race and ethnicity, the
sacrifices expected and made, the aggression systematically administered and
silently borne; I am not unfamiliar with the indomitable spirit
and immutable voices that have rallied and struggled throughout history, to be given not what they
deserved but what all others had for so long taken for granted.  

For the first time a few summers ago, I looked at my tan
skin, the color of the fields of golden wheat in Pakistan, and saw more than healthy
melanin. Perhaps that delayed realization can be attributed to the fact that
everyone in Pakistan was on the same shade gradient, even the ivory of the
mountain people warmed by the plentiful sun. White is a color just as black and
brown are, so by that logic, everyone around me was ‘colored’ too.

As I have acclimated to the more American definition of the
word and tried to negotiate my identity in that binary, I’ve come to recognize that there’s
a balance I need to find based on one precarious question: How do I view myself?
As a proud outsider who revels in how she differs ethnically and culturally
from all those that surround her? Or as an individual who seeks inclusiveness by slowing edging away
from my differing perception and experiences of social reality? 

The feeling is
stifling. A whip pulled taut, waiting to slice through the air.

What may come across as perhaps the most superficial analysis of race and its effect on my life is a notion of great importance
to me: the idea of beauty and how it has been shaped by Pakistani
sensibilities. My upbringing in that environment made me blind to the bigotry I
was socialized into. I grew up watching national marketing campaigns geared to
attract post-colonial South Asians still in awe of pale skin and the English language. 

More importantly, I unwittingly succumbed to these complexes by reaching
for skin products lighter than my actual skin tone. Many events in the last few
years have helped me see the flaws in that internal logic and have drawn a
surprising parallel to the civil rights movement for me.

Among these moments of realization is the image of my
19-year-old brother, Ahmad. Clad in a plain black T-shirt that hung on his tall frame, he seemed determined to carry the weight of the world on his
scrawny shoulders as he marched to the indescribably volatile Pakistan-Afghanistan
border as part of an anti-drone air strikes rally. 

The demonstration aimed to
bring an end to the use of unmanned aircrafts by the U.S. Armed Forces to bombard
the mountainous terrain that killed between
2,562 and 3,325 people in Pakistan, including 176 children in a four-month
period, according to a September 2012 Mic article.

Ahmad and the other protesters reminded me of the African-American
community in 1963 in places like Birmingham and Albany who questioned the
status quo. They reminded me of the March on Washington. Of the men and women
who believed that every injustice against man, every inequality, was
unacceptable and that the color of one’s skin—or the sociopolitical and economic superiority of one nation—did not warrant infringement on the civil liberties or sovereignty of another.

A similar belief forms the basis for the existence of my homeland.
In 1947, the fight for Muslims in colonial India was twofold. The partition of
the Indian subcontinent not only signified an effort to combat the British and their
pervasive culture but also exemplified the need for the Muslim community to assert
its identity and stand up for the basic human rights it was denied as a
religious minority.

My grandfather would often narrate firsthand accounts of
atrocities and injustices carried out against the Muslims in India. He spoke of
impotent anger that builds when people are ostracized based on communal lines.
When people are told to carve an identity for themselves, to find their niche, as long as it does not challenge or in any way mingle with the
prevalent values of the majority.

In present-day Pakistan, the nature of this subservience has
changed. Now it is our corrupt politicians and convoluted foreign policy that
force us to beg and grovel for foreign aid. And I find myself yearning.

I yearn for my identity. Not a possible terrorist Pakistani,
not a fundamentalist Muslim Pakistani or an oppressed Pakistani woman. What I
want is simply to be a proud citizen of a sovereign country. Just a plain old
Pakistani. I want to be proud of my rich cultural heritage, of the land that nurtured
me so that I could take flight. I want to proud of the very color of my skin, which reminds me of it every single day. 

This article was originally written as an academic essay. 

Aiman Chaudhary PO ’17 is a politics major and pseudo-philosophizing poet. She hails from Lahore, Pakistan.

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