By Maria Sartaj
February 04, 2016
If you are able to read this column, chances are that you belong to a privileged caste within the Pakistani Muslim society that has access to English medium schools and, more importantly, the social right to move up the hierarchy of life. We do not get to choose the homes we are born into; from our first breath out of the womb the world attaches many identities upon us. Our name, gender, religion and country are preselected on the menu card but for a section of our society, caste labels are tattooed on their foreheads even before they become fertile as eggs in their mother’s ovaries. This social DNA pre-decides their vocation, Mohalla (neighbourhood), friends and lifetime income for them.
Their lives become tainted by the collective Chhoti Soch (petty thinking) of highbrow Muslims. Caste-based social divisions within Muslims are a white elephant in the room. This one may not be as pronounced and as heavy as its Indian counterpart but it carries with it remnants of its Hindu past and the tragedy of its present supporters’ inability to shift it out and make things lighter.
Most marriage proposals stress on the being Khandaani (belonging to a good family) part for the other party, every Khandaan (family) believes only theirs is the best and seeks alliances within similar households. What this really means is “Hum Shaadi Apne Type Ke Logon Main Hee Karenge” (we will marry into our kind only). Here it implies the Ashrafia part of the community.
To recount quickly, present day Muslims of the subcontinent have divided themselves into two major caste-based groups, namely the Ashrafs and the Ajlafs. This division became prominent around the 12th century as more Hindus, especially those belonging to the lower castes, embraced Islam and distinctions based on ethnicity and descent came to the fore. The Ashrafs (noble class) comprise of Syeds, Sheikhs, Pathans and Mughals. The Ajlafs (low caste) are people who have worked tirelessly over hundreds of years to groom the Ashrafs and his/her surroundings. The Nai (barber), Chamaars, the weavers etc. are some of the groups that make up the Ajlafs.
Ajlafs are believed to be low caste Hindu converts who sought refuge in Islam to escape the suffocating chains of social stratification. Ironically, they were meted out a similar fate in their new faith. Imagine being one of ‘them’, waking up daily with the knowledge that no matter what one accomplishes he/she will always be considered as part of a ‘dirty’ clan or Neech Zaat (low caste). The fact that your sky is limited and opportunities are awarded with a sense of charity is insulting to any human being. Lekin Iss Mulk Main Humein Insaniyat Se Kya Lena Dena Bhai (here we do not care about humanity).
We still practice untouchability when we keep separate cups and plates for our servants and expect them to sit on the floor instead of the sofa. The idea of Ghulami (servitude), of fake superiority, massages our ego pretty darn well.
The current day Ashrafs live profusely in the glory of their older days and even amongst them the Syeds (both Shia and Sunni) have placed the crown on their own heads and declared themselves to be the most supreme of them all. This Syed snobbery — as I like to call it — is prevalent in many where they take out their direct-descendent-to-the-Prophet (PBUH) card at every instance to ‘shush’ everyone up. There is a joke that says that there are more Syeds in South Asia than there are in the whole of Saudi Arabia. Arabs, however, continue to treat all Desi Muslims as dirt so Inke Samne Humari Sab Ashraf-Baazi Nikal Jaati Hai (we forget about our Ashraf business in front of them).
Caste-based practices have to be denounced loudly for they are the worst of social traditions. We rob people of their dignity as humans and expect their future generations to serve our kind. It is a cunning way to kill competition for our future progeny because somewhere deep down we know that this hardworking set of people are capable of enduring the toughest of situations. Whenever they have been provided with equal opportunities they have excelled but we fear them and their work acumen.
The funny thing in all of this is the paradox that cannot be ignored; at one end we wish to disassociate ourselves completely from our shared culture with the Hindus yet we practice soft casteism to our benefit. Many Muslims out there bear the surname of Brar, Chauhan, Rajputs, Gujjars etc., which is obvious of their conversion from Hinduism at some point. And for those of us with Arab sounding last names, it is impossible to not have mixed heritage along the way. It is like trying to find the onion by peeling the onion. Culture develops in amalgams; we are products of all the layers that Islam went through over the years in South Asia.
Islam itself has no room for casteism and does not recognise one race as being superior to the other. Hazrat Bilal was a former slave who was the first one to give the Azaan (call for prayer) yet people assume those with darker skin are inferior to them in Zaat (caste).
The Ashrafs keep the Ajlafs chained to their past and continue to cling on to their elaborate yet hollow Shijra (family tree). This Shijra cannot be proven in most cases and can best be described as wishful thinking on paper. Sab Ke Sab Purane Zamane Main Kissi Badshah Ki Aulad Rahen Hain Toh Pata Nahin Aam Admi Kaun Tha (if everyone is somehow related to some emperor or the other, who were the common people back then?).
Shijras should be disregarded anyway but this would make many uncomfortable, especially those that hide their shortcomings behind their last names.
Maria Sartaj is a freelance columnist with a degree in Cultural Studies and a passion for social observation, especially all things South Asian