“They hired a Pathan?! I thought it was for smart people”: Pakhtun stereotyping is not ‘just jokes’

Published: November 14, 2018

Some of the Pakhtun stereotypes prevalent in Pakistan are that of illiteracy and religious extremism. ILLUSTRATION: JAMAL KHURSHID/EXPRESS TRIBUNE

I recently moved to the United States for my graduate studies. At the Denver International Airport, a large poster of Malala Yousafzai welcomed me. I wished this would not be the only time I felt at home, but I remained sceptical. Only recently had I read a news article about the increase in race and religion-based violence in America. I decided to reserve my judgement for later. Inadvertently though, this brought back memories of another relocation I experienced three years ago.

On June 10, 2015, a week before I graduated from the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute (GIK), I received a job offer from a renowned fertiliser manufacturing company. I was ecstatic. But a quick Google search revealed that the location, Rahimyar Khan, was exactly 1,000 kilometres away from Malakand, my hometown. During the arduous bus journey, I kept wondering if I was prepared for the unique challenges of the job. What if my GPA was too low? Upon my arrival at the plant’s township, I realised that none of these factors were relevant. In fact, a wholly unrelated aspect of my identity would be the centre of attention – my race.

I was not new to racial stereotyping. Racist jokes have always found comical appreciation from our culture. Yet somehow, in a company of close friends, jokes were “just jokes”. It was not until I was surrounded exclusively by people of races not my own, at professional positions much higher than mine, that I realised how detrimental “just jokes” could be. In the following paragraphs, I recall some events that highlight my ordeal living as a Pakhtun in Punjab.

Enter the dumb Pathan

I was hired into the instrument and control (I&C) department, reputed for being the department with the smartest people. On my first day, I met a young engineer who had been working at the plant for five years. Prompted by my accent, he asked me where I was from.

“Malakand,” I said.

“Oh, they hired a Pathan in I&C! I thought it was for smart people,” he remarked.

Unlike the people around me who laughed uncontrollably, I struggled to find the right expression. I tried to assure myself that this would be an isolated incident, but over the next two and a half years, I would hear hundreds of racist slurs, jokes and inquiries based on stereotypical notions ranging from terrorism to homosexuality. Shockingly, the offenders did not come from a single race or even age group. I was marginalised and mocked by children as young as six, and department managers as old as 56.

The jaahil/extremist Pathan

Wit aside, another Pakhtun stereotype prevalent in Pakistan is that of illiteracy and religious extremism. As someone who has always stood for interfaith harmony, I was the farthest from this stereotype of all. This, however, did not stop an elderly mechanical engineer from confiding in me that he was a huge admirer of Omar sahab. Upon my polite inquiry of who Omar was, the gentleman replied, “Mullah Omar”. I nodded, thinking that if he was going to pigeonhole me into a box, he should have at least used the right box.

Other incidents involved questions about how much land my father owned to afford to send me to the GIK Institute. The effort to engage in debate about prejudice and stereotypes did not appeal to me. A knowledge of the fact that my father was a doctor and an author of two books, would only elevate me to the title of an “exception”. But would that stop further stereotyping?

The gay Pathan

I am a straight man and hold nothing against gay people. But the idea that an entire race can be homosexual eludes me. Two Pakhtuns walking together would be no less than Pakistan’s own pride parade, a spectacle to enjoy for both the young and the adults. On the spectrum of stereotypes from positive to neutral to negative, I did not know where to place this one.

The confusion did not end here. Conforming to the stereotype about Pakhtuns being assertive and powerful, I was expected to display masculinity. How can I both be gay and manly at the same time? The stereotypes were not even consistent, and it agitated the critic inside me.

Is it all bad?

Reflecting on the idea of positive stereotypes, is it really always bad to be stereotyped? What harm could the stereotypes of toughness, strict religious adherence or bravery do to me? After all, these are desirable qualities in Pakistan. It turns out to be more complex than that. Positive stereotypes like athleticism, righteousness and intrepidity set the bar very high for people like me who may not fit well with them. I played a fair bit of sports, but seeking constant approval of the other two was beyond me.

Proposing peaceful solutions to office fights was too ‘un-Pathan’ of me. I was the go-to person when there was confusion about which dua (prayer) to recite during a lunar eclipse. I did not like the extra pressure of conformity to positive stereotypes. No matter how hard I tried, I always fell short of their expectations. A pedantic knowledge of the solar system could never fill the gap a dua left. Consequently, I was always vulnerable to the internalisation of unwarranted doubt in my abilities as an individual.

This disconnect from my own race, in addition to the alienation from other races, effectively denied me a sense of belonging. In moments like these, I would find solace in books; the words never changed based on who was reading.

The Pathan on television

Television, however, was not an option. Prominent Punjabi comedy shows airing on news channels reinforced the stereotypical image of Pakhtuns. Even the state-owned Pakistan Television aired an extremely racist poem in the name of humour in June 2017.

Earlier in 2013, one of the biggest mobile operators in Pakistan aired a TV ad which depicted Pakhtuns as dull-witted. Images of turban-clad Pakhtuns have been used to represent terrorists with impunity. Media thus is arguably one of the biggest contributors to the normalisation of racist narratives.

The aftermath

In October 2017, I resigned from my job and moved to Peshawar. This is a personal, rather perfunctory account of my experiences. However, let that not take away from the massive scale on which Pakhtuns are stereotyped on a daily basis. I dismissed a lot of these incidents as involuntary misfiring of the amygdala, an unwanted consequence of millions of years of biological evolution. However, I cannot help but mention how detrimental stereotypes, prejudice and racism can be for a community.

Seemingly harmless stereotypes can turn into ugly scapegoating, especially in the time of crisis. A local example is that of blaming Pakhtuns and Afghans for terrorism. From a global perspective, the issue is similarly manifested in the institutional racism in enforcing immigration laws.

Stereotyping comes naturally to all of us. Fortunately, human beings are capable of not only learning but unlearning. We have already unlearned numerous primitive behavioural traits which were not useful anymore. We just need to add stereotyping to the list. And until that happens, we always have the choice not to act on them.

Kamil Khan

Kamil Khan

The author hails from Malakand, and is currently pursuing his Masters degree in the United States.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Kashif Mehmood

    Kamil, brilliantly articulated and well dealt with. I applause your patience and let me assure you that their thinking doesn’t make any difference. We are excelling in whatever we do and that’s what we are bestowed with!Recommend


    Totally agreed with you brother Kamil Khan, our whole nation need to be educated in terms of ethics and morality.Recommend

  • Rigour Mortis

    Very true and well written. I am a Pakistani and non-Pakhtun from Karachi. By and large, I have found Pakhtuns to be wonderful people regardless of their educational or social status. From my school chaukidar to my college principal. Simple, forthright and affable. All traits I would expect in decent human beings. As a young man, you would do well to just ignore the jaahils who peddle these stereotypes.Recommend

  • Zulfiqar Shinwari

    History brother history,
    We come from a completely different worlds.
    You will have a far more better understanding what you are dealing with & you will feel pity for such minds.
    Study history of Subcontinent better grape.Recommend

  • Gandhi Jinnah

    Kamil, don’t worry, you are in a land where all Pakistanis will be given the adjectives, “stupid, religious fanatic, unclean, sexually frustrated.” This is how minorities are treated by the majority, who happened to have access to all the opportunities while minorities struggle a lot.Recommend

  • Fahad Khan

    Fair enough, but I don’t think you could call this a one way street. There are many jokes about Punjabis in Pashto and vice versa, same is true for most other races. Agree that these jokes can be in bad taste sometimes, but I don’t believe this has as much to do with racism as it does with cultural ignorance or crass humour.Recommend

  • Humza

    All of the races of Pakistan are stereotyped by others to a degree and Pakhtuns are no exception. The difference now is that education, work ethic and performance matter more to educated people which is why you’ll know see people of all backgrounds in every conceivable management or professional position. It goes on in every country of the world including the US where New Yorkers are seen as pushy and abrasive and mid Westerners are labelled are more simple and down to the earth etc. Then they have sterotypes on the ethnicity in US be it Italian background or latino or african american. Or in Germany North Germans are proper and reserved whereas the Swabians are thrifty. So in Pakistan the media has made out silly stereotypes that most educated people understand to be nonsense. The majority Punjabi race is seen as simple or stupid but hard working, Sindis are seen as spiritual but lazy and following feudal system, Urdu speaking Muhajirs from India are seen as small, dark and clever but corrupt like Hindus since they come from India, Pakhtuns are abusive and conservative and Kashmiris are jovial but cowardly since they couldn’t get freedom or Baluchis are abusive to women but brave. If you let yourself get taken in or defined by the stereotypes of others, you have only yourself to blame because I find that most Pakhtuns are strong enough to laugh off such sterotypes as ill informed or reflective of someone else’s own insecurity.Recommend

  • Zeeshan Ajab

    Brilliantly portrayed the cancerous issue of our society. As a pathan i’ve absolutely experienced what you’ve expressed, but it shouldn’t hurt our goal & vision, cus thats the rumours they believe in, we’re here to prove them wrong.Recommend

  • wasi

    gentleman, love the way you approach all this. I have somewhat different ideas. For me As a pathan i hate to bring my justification to a kind of country/world which had lost its credibility several decades/hundred years ago. We are stupid yes i agree but Others are not that All Right. Stereotyping is the product of Masses. Love and RespectRecommend

  • qayum abdul

    Very Well Written.

    I must say ,I’ve been through such incidents countless times. Believe me it just brings me closer to my roots and identity. The true jahils are such hypocrites who just dont get it.Recommend

  • Stupid Intelligent

    Homosexuality is quite common among Pashtuns, but it’s taboo to talk about it; because, one ends up being labeled an enemy of their ethnicity.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Sure, right. Ya’ll descended directly from Alexander the Great, strictly Macedonian, armies.
    [there, were Persians, Medes, Assyrians, Akkadians, Mesopotamians, Romans, Turks, Palestinians, Arabs etc. etc. and other fortune hunters who joined Alexander for the loot, a big horde. Plus there were camp followers, it was like a traveling city, going from battlefield to battlefield, one conquest to another conquest]Recommend

  • Humair

    Great article. You must understand that the people who stereotype are what I like to call ‘Parhai Likhai Jaahil’. Despite all the knowledge they have acquired, such people lack basic etiquettes when dealing with other human beings. What good is that knowledge? To class an entire race as so and so is just shameful. For a talented individual such as yourself to resign mainly because of the lack of respect shown by your colleagues is very upsetting. Inshallah, I pray you enjoy your Masters course in the US and soon find a career with humans as your colleagues. All best!Recommend

  • Zaraq K Bangash

    you are stupid not us…Recommend

  • sterry

    I would suspect that there are even more jokes about non-Pakhtuns by Pakhtuns and they are even more crass and racist ! Ever heard of a Pakhtun mother curse her son or daughter for ever considering marrying a dark Karachiite or non Pakhtun ? Non Pakhtuns are felt to have no sense of honour so it really is a two way street. Fortunately, Pakistan has come a long way in terms of integration. The number of Pakhtuns in positions of power at government levels and military levels is higher than other ethnic groups if you look at the percentage of the population.Recommend

  • Ahmmad Gulzaib Khan Tareen

    I have faced the same fate,
    And still going through it.
    Well hopes for best.Recommend

  • Muhammad Asif

    I have always defended Pashtoons and have load of Pashtoon friends. Smart, Friendly, Loyal and amazing people they are. Very well written. We need more exposure to such issues that are not really considered an issue in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Farhan Khan

    We the pakhtuns also no different as we feel the same and even worst, we even not respecting punjabis or other races and look down at them as in our culture as our believe is that we are more superior to them. This world is not perfect so be brave to face criticism and give an answer to those that becomes rude, and let it be enjoy the jest if they joke with you in good humour.Recommend

  • # Confident26

    Nicely written article. Those who stereotype are ignorant people themselves.Recommend

  • Mian Akram

    My observations regarding this issue is that weak nations make jokes against the strong nations as they can’t compete the strong people like pathans and sikhs. so don’t be dejected just check the reality and history how they defeated and conquered other nations in the pastRecommend

  • Nauman Afsar

    I can totally relate.
    All my roommates in hostel are Punjabis (They are really good people that’s why i chose to stay with them) but from time to time they used to say “Pathans are gay/terrorist” to me or in front of me. It came to a point when i couldn’t tolerate it anymore, so i threatened one of them in front of them all and then they stopped saying those things.Recommend

  • Aqib Ali Shah

    This is very true, I too being a Sindhi has faced a lot of discrimination and racism at the hands of such people in Karachi and Punjab to be specific. However, the situation faced by lots of millennial Sindhis is much worst.

    At least, most of Pushtuns don’t face discrimination, hatred and racism in their own cities, unlike the millions of Sindhis who are treated as a third class citizen even in their own cities i.e. Karachi and Hyderabad to be specific and are termed as lazy, lethargic good for nothing folks.

    This needs to stop. This vivacious attitude of these racist is alienating your very own fellow country men.Recommend

  • Parvez

    You have made a valid point but its time we expand our horizon and become more tolerant, more forgiving more humane. I remember a nice quote on this subject and it went something like this ….. The best determining factor on how comfortable we are with ourselves, is our ability to laugh at ourselves.Recommend

  • yousaf

    Agree with you broRecommend

  • Tariq khan

    Homosexuality is common in every other race, every race has good and bad and worst, so why you only think Pashtuns have this or that problem and blame their whole race,

    We should not label anyone as enemy or blame their whole race for some or the other reason and its not true their whole is such, collectively we need to teach manner to those fools that lost respect for others and branding their whole race for some wrong doings. respect should be meted out to everyone not hateRecommend

  • Ahmad

    Same happened to me at numerous occasions while I was in Pakistan Petroleum Sui Gas files, SNGPL Multan. Also, when I worked as postdoctoral fellow at NUS, Singapore and now at Heriot Watt Uni. People (non Pushtun Pakistanis) can’t just realize we can be smart too. I think its because we are very simple in nature.Recommend

  • Ironic Me

    “How can I both be gay and manly at the same time?” I hope you realize that you are reinforcing one stereotype to shun/disprove another.Recommend

  • Khan

    Very well written but I would like to add here that most of these people (Stereotyping PATHAN’s) either have the traits that they associate with PATHAN or have tendency towards those traits, they just need a company.

    By the way, regarding jokes the easiest way to handle it is to find some jokes that they associate with PATHAN and replace PATHAN with the JOKER’s RACE and then see their reaction……….

    I have been through this and do what I wrote above. Interestingly the JOKER either stop talking with me or keep his mouth shut atleast in my presence.Recommend

  • Khan

    Very well written but I would like to add here that most of these
    people (Stereotyping PATHAN’s) either have the traits that they
    associate with PATHAN or have tendency towards those traits, they just
    need a company.Recommend

  • qayyumabro

    You proved their 50% of the point.Recommend

  • Zarwesh

    Not agree with you what nonsense you talking about, we are not Homos and everyone knows we always at front row whenever war happened against our country. not surprised by what you wrote in your comment when someone look at your first name, also one can assume how much intelligent you are. use your intelligence instead of using your stupidity when you write a commentRecommend

  • Stupid Intelligent

    Being a homosexual is not a problem or a medical condition.Recommend

  • vinsin

    So true.Recommend

  • Kamil Khan

    Please read the next sentence. “The stereotypes were not even consistent”. I am merely pointing out that the stereotypes were wrong but not consistently so.Recommend

  • Sindhi pakhtun

    Every race is subjected to one or the other problem and no one is spared, its not only here but all over the globe, we also all do this to the punjabis that have majority in the country so why should we complain instead of changing our attitude with one another live in brotherly environmentRecommend

  • Ironic Me

    What logical inconsistency specifically? The way it is framed, makes it seem like you are saying, the two stereotypes for Pathans being gay and masculine are inconsistent with each other, as you cannot be both at the same time. If what you meant is, the two stereotypes for Pathans being masculine and gay, are inconsistent with the stereotype that gays are feminine, then it is not clear from the statements written (both in the way its phrased and because you make a statement about gays without specifying it to be a stereotype hence the only comparison for inconsistencies falls on the two stereotypes mentioned). Makes it seem like you are supporting the notion that gays are feminine, hence the two stereotypes for Pathans are inconsistent with each other. Of coarse all three stereotypes are inconsistent with reality.Recommend

  • Stupid Intelligent

    There is nothing wrong with being a homosexual. Pashtun community is brave, but it’s connected to their warring tribal culture; a metric which has worked both for and against Pakistan’s health.Recommend

  • Rafay Ali

    Sorry, But I disagress with you. You said that “Wit aside, another Pakhtun stereotype prevalent in Pakistan is that of illiteracy and religious extremism”. If your statement is true than how Pakistan elect their PM who is Pakhtun. Imran khan got majority in Punjab and Sindh’s capital karachi.Recommend

  • Gul Muhammad

    I swear to God, this is my story, i felt every word of it right in my heart, i don’t want to talk about the time i spent in a Punjab based organization, but it was like living in hell.Recommend