A new badge of pride

Observations on racist insults

Though I am not actually from Pakistan - my mother is an Indian of Portuguese and Dutch-Sri Lankan extraction and my father is British - I know all about the sobriquet "Paki". At primary school, I was called "Jackie Paki". When I worked at a call-centre, staff were told not to phone Asian names because "Pakis" were "tight". Nobody distinguished between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh: more than a billion people were all Pakis.

Now, Abdul Rahim - who runs the Peterborough-based Star Crescent Cloth-ing company - says he wants to make the word Paki as fashionable as "nigger" has become among African Americans, so that it simply means "brother" or "friend". He wants to stretch "Paki" to mean any person of south Asian descent.

He has recently introduced the PAK1 clothing line. Adverts show a wall covered with graffiti saying "PAKI" in large letters. An Asian man then comes along and sprays: "PROUD 2 B A . . ."

Not everyone in the Asian community thinks this a good idea. Two Asian television stations, Ary and B4U Music, have banned the advert, increasing Star Crescent's profile in the national press, but causing sales of its clothing - T-shirts, sweatshirts, hooded tops, tracksuit tops and accessories - to fall.

Rahim's original mission statement, still on his website, reads: "Our mission is simple - to offer the Muslims of this country an alternative to European and American clothing." But according to the 2001 census, there are only 658,000 Pakistani Muslims in the UK. So to make his fortune, Rahim has to appeal to the non-Muslim market. He points out that in its original meaning - Urdu for "pure" - Paki was not a derogatory word.

Pakistan was created by partition in 1947 (before this, everyone on the Indian subcontinent called themselves an Indian); the name itself means "pure land". "Paki" became an insult only when Asians came to Britain in the 1960s. "If you go to Australia or America, they call people Paki and it doesn't mean a thing," Rahim says.