A few years ago, Rafaqat Laal and some of his relatives were waiting for their food to arrive at a restaurant in Gojra town of central Punjab’s Toba Tek Singh district. Shiny clean crockery was laid out in front of them but they were wondering whether they should use it or not.
In the end, they decided that they would not eat in it without informing the waiter that they are Christians. As soon as the waiter heard this, he replaced the crockery with older utensils which were obviously kept aside for people of their faith.
A young man with a wheatish complexion and a strong built, Laal possesses a masters degree in economics and works as accounts manager at a poultry company in Lahore. His home, however, is still in Gojra which is the same town where a Muslim mob set a local Christian settlement on fire in August 2009 over rumors of blasphemy. The fire resulted in the death of seven members of a single Christian family. He, therefore, is always cautious lest his words or actions enrage a member of the Muslim majority.
Laal, consequently, always reveals his religious identity to the owners or waiters of a restaurant before eating there. Another reason for doing so, according to him, is that he knows about many local incidents in which a Christian would eat in utensils being normally used at an eatery but, after knowing about his religion, its owner would demand he also pay for the crockery as it had become impure with his touch.
This sort of prejudice is not just restricted to eateries, he says, but also extends to workplaces. Sometime ago while he was working with a private company, he noticed that food and tea were being served to him in the same utensils everyday. “Initially, I tried to ignore this biased treatment but when there was no change in it, I decided to report it to the company’s owners,” he says.
Upon hearing his complaint, the owners expressed shock and resentment but, rather than making improvements in the work environment, they put the entire blame on a boy who prepared tea and snacks for the office staff. He was fired but, according to Laal, all the other employees remained as prejudiced towards him as they always had been. Consequently, he would not eat at work for the next three years.
Riffat Basheer belongs to a Christian family and has been a nurse for the last 15 years. She is currently working as a head nurse at Lahore’s Social Security Hospital. Her first posting was at a government hospital in Kasur district where her subordinates refused to work with her because of her religion, she says. “Let alone eat and socialise with me, they made it loud and clear that they would not even work under a Christian superior,” she explains. The problem became so severe that some people started threatening her which led her to seek a transfer, she adds.
Shakeela, another Christian nurse posted at a large public sector hospital in Lahore, has gone through similar experiences. The Muslim staff has always had an insulting attitude towards the Christian staff, she says. Whenever a Christian nurse is promoted to head the nursing department, she points out, Muslim nurses react contemptuously by saying, “why has this Choorhi been appointed to lord over us”. (Choorha or Choorhi is a derogatory term used in Punjab for those who are deemed lowest in social status because of their caste, colour and religion.)
Shakeela has been working as a nurse for the last 25 years and is also an official in a labour union representing hospital employees. “Muslim nurses not only avoid eating with non-Muslim nurses but they also do not share scarfs with them even in an emergency situation,” she says.
Where such prejudices are comparatively less frequent, non-Muslims face some other problems. Sharing such experiences, Basheer says that her Muslim colleagues often advise her to leave her religion and convert to Islam. A doctor went as far as to tell her that her face and skin colour “did not seem like those of a Christian so she should become a Muslim”.
Shakeela also describes a similar incident. “A few months ago, a Christian nurse told me that a Muslim nurse always accosts her that she should read up on Islam and change her religion”. When the news of this incident reached the union, its officials explained to the Muslim nurse that she has been hurting the religious sentiments of her Christian colleague.
Third class citizens
Arseen Sami, 48, belongs to southern Lahore’s Christian settlement of Youhanabad. A mechanical engineer by profession, he works in an institution where Christian youth are given vocational training. Most of its employees are Christians like him but some of them are Muslims who, according to him, "hesitate to mingle and eat with us".
He, in fact, has faced such treatment his entire life, he says, so this situation is not new to him. “When I was nine or ten years old, I lived in Sargodha (a central Punjab city) along with my family because my father had a job there. Once my father and I ate Dahi Bhallay from a shop there but as soon as the shopkeeper found out that we are Christians, he started scolding us that we had ruined his utensils by making them impure,” he says.
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A few years ago, when Sami was working at a factory in Gujranwala, not only did people say insulting things to him but they would also have his drinking utensils separated from those of the rest. Similarly, at a company that manufactured surgical equipment in Sialkot, he says, “my utensils were kept separately in the canteen. Even my chair and table were set apart from others during meals".
Community World Service, a non-government organisation working for social development, has recorded numerous such incidents in its 2020 research study. It concludes that study that almost all non-Muslim Pakistani citizens experience biased treatment nearly everyday because they are seen as untouchables. Christians living in Punjab, though, are worst off in this regard. If the 2017 census is taken into consideration, one in every 20 residents of Lahore is facing the same mistreatment (because about five per cent of the city's population is Christian).
Peter Jacob, a researcher on the rights of religious minorities and also the director of the Centre for Social Justice, a non-government organisation based in Lahore, points out the same problem. “Untouchability in Pakistan has not yet been abolished although its constitution does not allow any discrimination on the basis of color, race, caste and religion,” he says.
He, however, explains that non-Muslim Pakistanis working as office workers, technical hands and management staff in both the government and private sectors face less discrimination as compared to illiterate non-Muslim sanitation workers. “Yet, it is common that people with a belief system different from that of the majority are considered third class citizens who have no right to join high ranking or even mid-tier professional positions,” he says.
Published on 7 Sep 2022