August Issue 2009
She calls it the U-Trip. Setting out from Karachi, 15-year-old Rosheen Birdie plans on visiting every major hub of Zoroastrians in the world, just so she can find one to marry. It’s not so easy to locate a ‘match’ in her homeland anymore. Colloquially known as Parsis, Zoroastrians in Pakistan seem to be on a fast track to leaving the country. With, according to most community leaders, almost 95% of the younger generation moving away, very few members of this unique community remain in Pakistan. In Lahore, the times of Zoroastrians being ubiquitous is already fading into distant memory, as sources claim only 45 remain in the Punjab.
The problem seems to have spread across socio-economic lines. Most affluent Zoroastrian families send their children abroad for higher education, with the unspoken expectation that they will carve a life in the West. Meanwhile, recognising this inexorable desire to live abroad, the Karachi Zarthushti Banu Mandal (KZBM) and foundations set up by families like the Cowasjees, Mehtas and Captains sponsor the education of Zoroastrian children from cash-strapped backgrounds. Kermin Parakh, vice-president of the KZBM and principal of the BVS school, estimates that a maximum of 5% of the three students they have sent abroad annually for the last decade have returned. In fact, she tells me, the less well-off are more likely to emigrate, because they have little attachment to the creature comforts which make life more than bearable for most of Pakistan’s elite. According to Parakh, the fact that so many Zoroastrians are already established abroad eases the process of integrating into new societies for those who move. This process becomes even less of a chore once one considers that many Zoroastrians hold fairly liberal, Western values in terms of clothing and family life. Mama Parsi Headmistress Parveen Rabadi says, “We [Zoroastrians] adjust wherever we go,” an opinion echoed by most. Such emigrants usually end up moving to the community’s hubs in places like London, Los Angeles, Houston and Toronto. However, the reasons behind this emigration en masse are not limited to the community’s link to Western culture; in fact, the three major causes are surprisingly general.
Security is a key issue, if not a community-specific one. The Taliban and the rise in violent terrorist attacks across Pakistan are making normal life more and more difficult for everyone, and Zoroastrians are fleeing this instability. This is perhaps because security lies in numbers – and the Zoroastrians simply don’t have those anymore. Byram Avari, President of the Karachi Parsi Anjuman and a prominent hotelier, asserts that Zoroastrians who claim that they want to leave for other reasons are simply lying, and that, for every emigrant, “The real reason is that they are worried about Talibanisation.” He underscores the frustration that members of his community feel, watching the Islam they have “been very comfortable with” being pushed aside by extremism. As 27-year-old emigrant Shahpur Kabraji notes, “The Zoroastrians [have a] fear because they possess an economic influence far greater than their numbers.”
This concern for security is much more pressing for the older generation than the youth. Branding the Parsi colonies a “bubble,” 17-year-old Anushae Soli Parakh reveals that life outside is shocking and intimidating for her. But she, along with other young Parsis, feels that security is more of a worry for their parents. This view seems to be shared by those slightly older than her. An advertising executive in her mid-20s, Rovina Ghadially believes “Muslims stand a greater chance of being victimised by their brothers than we do, because today’s fight is about which is the real road to Islam.” Indeed, for some, like 29-year-old Farzain Messman, the lack of security holds no weight at all. “Death is written ‑ it will come, no matter which part of the world you live in.”
Another push factor is the lack of professional mobility Zoroastrians, and talented young people in general, face in Pakistan. Shahpur Kabraji, a lawyer trained in the UK, explains that intelligent, skilled young Zoroastrians stay abroad because “they think their talents are better employed where they have maximum utility,” something lacking in a country where bribes will get you ahead faster than any sort of merit. Sheheryar Kabraji, his twin brother, elaborates on the inherent problems of the system here: “Pakistani governments have mistakenly instituted policies that exclude many minorities from opportunities for political, economic or social advancement. These poison our national consciousness and sow the seeds of enmity whose bitter harvest we reap today in Swat and Waziristan.”
Additionally, the fact that innovation and newer developments rarely, if ever, reach the country, makes many of the youth regard emigration as a necessity. Eighteen-year-old Yashaan Mavalvala, for instance, cannot find employment or educational opportunities in Pakistan, as the field he is interested in, forensic anthropology, is simply not offered or in demand here. The jobs that are available here, according to Anushae Parakh, do not give one a sense of satisfaction. Even when young professionals do choose to work here, 18-year-old Arish Noshirwani feels “it is more difficult to become established in Pakistan,” a belief shared by many like Rabadi, who cites numerous examples of relatives who have faced workplace discrimination because of their religious beliefs.
Those who stay do manage to compromise and find a niche they can flourish in. Messman and Ghadially both speak of enjoying their jobs and being afforded respect in the workplace. Avari believes “Parsis are at a premium,” stating that he has heard of employers actively seeking skilled Zoroastrians, as being a minority they are considered more loyal and seem to value their jobs more. Yet the brain drain continues, and those in their teens seem determined to add to it.
As the nation moves towards being a more closed society, teenagers like 16-year-old Almitra Mavalvala speak of their annoyance with the social restrictions that they are subjected to. In today’s Pakistan, they argue, leading the kind of social life they would like is very hard. The difficulty of dating or even normal boy/girl interaction seems to be a major grievance, perhaps the ultimate symbol of the “narrow-mindedness [and] judgementalism” Almitra complained. Fareshteh Aslam, External Communications Manager at Unilever, explains that such feelings arise from the obvious disconnect between the liberal upbringing they have been given and the values of the culturally-restricted areas that they live in today. Things weren’t always this way: Tannaz Minwalla and Kermin Parakh reminisce about the freedom they enjoyed in their youth, and regret the increasing limits on their children. Making matters even worse for what’s left of the younger generation of Zoroastrians in Pakistan, Zubin Sethna, 29, and Ghadially regretfully state, over 70% of the friends they grew up with have left, and, considering the trend, the percentage rises every year.
In addition to these social restrictions, Zoroastrians face the unique problem of attempting to find a match within the increasingly dwindling community. Thus, the youth think of things like ‘U-Trips,’ and are resigned to looking for a Parsi soulmate around the world. Adding to the appeal of the West is the fact that, unlike priests in Karachi and Bombay, those in Houston, Russia and Canada have begun converting people, including prospective spouses, to Zoroastrianism. The conversion policy is controversial across the board, with the youth agreeing with it, but the older generation seeming reluctant and sticking to the concept of the born Parsi. However, with globalisation, even grand old families like the Mehtas and Kandawallas have started to give in, accepting the marriages of their children to non-Zoroastrians. But the priests stand resolute. An ancient pact, agreed upon with the Mughals when the community first landed in India, forbids them from converting people in the subcontinent, so their stubbornness is understandable. Still, this obscurantism is alien to the younger generation.
The mass move of the Parsis to the West is not entirely a personal choice. All the young Zoroastrians Newsline spoke to revealed that their parents actually wanted them to move abroad. Parents like Rabadi and Parakh claim that, while they are sad that their children cannot stay in Pakistan, it is ultimately the only option left. On the other hand, those with strong roots here, like Sethna’s family, actually pressure their offspring to stay and take care of the family businesses. Yet they are clearly in a minority, for most Zoroastrians now work for large companies instead of owning their own industries. As Noshirwani, whose family once owned Parsidom’s most famed enterprise, puts it, “We can’t just set up another Murree Brewery.”
Intriguingly, the large-scale emigration does not mean that Zoroastrians are any less connected to their roots. As London-born Nadine Bomanji explains, a religion is a religion, wherever one is in the world. “Just because there are [only] a few Parsis here, I do not think it is an excuse to be brought up with different morals and beliefs,” she elucidates. Bomanji’s parents encourage their children to meet up with the other Zoroastrians in London, and to attend the different YZ (Young Zoroastrian) events. They also go to the Agyari (place of worship) on birthdays, the Zoroastrian new year, etc, and Bomanji feels that they they have done the best they could, living in London, and still managing to raise their children as Zoroastrian followers. The new hubs in the West seem poised to take the place of Karachi in the Zoroastrian diaspora. All, therefore, is not lost. Avari tells me the tale of the Young Mens’ Zoroastrian Association, an almost-defunct group revitalised by the enthusiasm of the younger Zoroastrians. Clearly, as the younger generation defiantly states, chorus-like, the community will continue to flourish – wherever they may be.
Professor Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, Washington, DC and author of The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam.