Every early morning you find her there.
Day in, day out – Kiran Masih broom in hand is sweeping across Ayub Market, in F- 8 Markaz Islamabad.
The dust settles on her tired face with wrinkles and those sturdy callused hands, all while she shrugs off and brings back the dupatta to cover her hair.
She tells me it’s over a good fifteen years that she has been a sweeper in Pakistan’s Europeanized capital boasting of international missions. Her whole demeanor shows the personal acceptance in her social realities.
Kiran Masih is one of the thousands Pakistani Christians that are relegated to the sectors of cleaning and sweeping in our country. While Christians make up around 4% of the population, nearly 80% of them are involved in sanitary department and cleaning jobs that are considered impure for Muslims.
A fact that Kiran herself confirms as she mentions that, “Baji most of my colleagues are either from Masih (Christian) community or Hindus. Over these years, I have worked with very few Muslims; this is how it works here. Once a Chura, always a Chura, my mom did this, I am doing it and maybe my daughter will do it too.”
The word “Chura” is a derogatory term Pakistan has inherited from its past, when the Indian subcontinent was divided into 1947 and Pakistan seriously was not really carved out in the name of Islam. Ultimately, there was a merging of Brahmanic Hinduism “ritual impurity” with Islamic ceremonial uncleanness in regard to sweepers – for almost all of them were Hindu “Untouchables or Dalits” converts to Christianity in late 19 century. Over the course of years since we were born as a nation, the mentality continued to cling and you might find even educated families discriminating Christians on basis of this “nonsensical” impurity that has really nothing to do with Islam or any Books of the Heaven that all Muslims must believe in and respect.
In South Asia, particularly Pakistan to be a sweeper means something more worse then being illiterate and poor. Under Indian caste system, the untouchables were given this occupation and the Hindu religion subsequently alienated them from main stream society. Therefore, “Untouchables” used to live outside the main villages, in the miserable Untouchable slum villages and used to do road and public place sweeping in early mornings. It is no coincidence that today most Pakistan is cleaned by Christians and Hindus and that they are living in inhumane conditions in outskirts of those cities that they are expected to clean day in and day out.
Almost 69 years post partition, Kiran Masih and others in sweeping community have been unable to recover their dignity while in an occupation considered ritually impure in South Asia for thousands of years. Archaic mentality and ignorance in Muslim majority populations make it possible that a job considered beneath the status of Muslims is handed over to the Christian population of this country. The icing on the cake is that today, we will still find names like “Chura bastis” (untouchables residential zone) in our country.
I walked along Kiran as she continued sweeping and speaking with me until she was done with her day’s work. I learned that she has two children but none of them seem inclined to join her profession. She asked me, “Why being a Christian equates that we will get a job of sweeper only? Aren’t we good enough for any other jobs, I am illiterate but my children completed matriculation and hold technical diplomas, but they couldn’t get jobs that didn’t involve sweeping roads. Just because, we come from the Chura community.”
Kiran Masih’s questions reminded me of the many other instances where many underage children work as domestic servants in people’s homes. The injustices of our society that have put brooms and cleaning pens in those little hands, which otherwise should be in schools holding pencils.
Additionally it also reminds me of this societal problem we have inside our country, where “churra” is the most derogatory word one reserved for the sweepers and considered by some as almost tantamount to being ‘Christian’. If that is not all, we have other colorful slangs’ like “bhangi” (“sweeper”) and “jamadar” – yet again other offensive titles given to these workers.
Kiran Masih tells me that even the Church does not want to enter the equation and help the Christian sweeper community, despite many complaints launched by her and others. For reasons best known to them, the Pakistani Church leadership does not want to tackle this problem therefore many like her are left alone to fend for themselves in a society where minorities live on the fringe.
And where they are accepted and expected to do all the dirty work but otherwise the same people generally don’t want to mingle with them socially. Others Christian laborers that I interviewed also informed me of similar problems and were clearly frustrated and angry.
In such a climate, if Church management will turn away their own, how can minority communities get any justice at all? The sad state of affairs in my homeland breaks my heart and makes me very concerned because why cannot we accept that there is still widely accepted discrimination against certain communities in our society.
What makes Pakistani Muslims relate so unjustly towards those who are different? Why don’t Pakistani Muslims read the Quran and understand this religion which states clearly that dignity of work is equal and no job is to be held in contempt and inferior. Why we forget that Islam’s Prophet set an example of doing his chores with his own hands, he swept the house, he milked the animals and rejected mistreatment of manual laborers.
Moreover, Islam stresses that every job is important for the welfare of the society so why Muslims imagine that it’s normal to go around arrogantly hurling words like “chura” “bhangi” to our minority brethren.
Stop it please.