Hope for them lies in the constitutional change and culturally located critiques such as Bol. Only through these, and not US cultural imperialism, shall they be able to be reintegrated into a social fabric they were so brutally de-rooted from by the last imperial cultural project
This more than any other article I have written before requires that the audience for it is defined before one sat down to write it. It also requires that I define myself and the particular sense in which I am situated within these debates.
The article has four audiences. First: those western intellectuals, activists and governments that wish to ‘help’ the LGBT community of Pakistan. Second: members (English-speaking only) of the LGBT community of Pakistan. Third: non-members of the LGBT community who support their cause. Four: those who find the idea of being LGBT repulsive to their faith and their notions of what it is to be human.
All ideas articulated in this article are for all four – unless otherwise stated. The need to speak arising out of the genuine fear members of the LGBT community that I know have experienced after the US Embassy in Islamabad’s intervention [On June 26, 2012 the American Embassy in Islamabad held its first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride celebration], purportedly to ‘protect them.’ Never have I seen such fear come after a promise to protect from a superpower. Nor has such a non-story ever been played up as much.
Within Muslim cultural history:
The first point shall be to run through my own story. Situate myself and to allow the reader to re-situate their understanding of a part of Muslim culture that may have been hidden from them, withheld or they may have otherwise ignored.
I think we may best be served by choosing a reference urban bourgeoisie culture in Pakistan will identify with. Let’s work with a couplet from Iqbal’s Shikwa:
Aik hi saf mein kharay ho gaye Mehmood o Ayaz
Na koi banda rha na koi banda nawaz
[Mehmood and Ayaz stood in a single file
Neither remained servant nor master]
Iqbal chose to present them by isolating the historical metaphors attached to them. Iqbal chose the metaphor of master-slave becoming equals. What Iqbal conveniently ignored was that Mahmud and Ayaz, in the Sufi tradition, became the quintessential Muslim male lovers. The theme under which they were historically represented was love, not equality. The same sets of stories are translated across a number of narratives considered distinctively Muslim.
Male love, as a means to intellectual and spiritual growth, has been integral to Sufi traditions in Persia, Arabia and the subcontinent. The fundamental rupture that produced both Rumi (with Tabrez) and Bullah (with Shah Inayat) comes from a male possessing supreme spiritual depth. There are other Sufis that find that inspiration within an innocent youth.
The influx of Muslims into the subcontinent itself gave credence to such. Ayaz, the fabled lover of Mahmud, has served as governor of Lahore. Babur, the first Mughal king, himself expresses his love for another male, Baburi, in the Baburnama.
Thus – even late manifestations of sub-continental Muslim culture were able to integrate a more fluid understanding of masculinity.
A tryst with British cultural imperialism:
And it is this that brings us to the second point I wish to make: the significant influence of earlier British imperialism (colonization, you may call it) in re-shaping the legal and cultural contours of being LGBT in the subcontinent. The effects of these shifts are integral to how the late hegemonic Muslimness has imagined masculinity and femininity.
First, at the level of discourse, a run through of the British Gazetteers (and I do encourage you to read any) on the subcontinent reveals their discomfort with sub-continental sexuality. A prime concern remained, what the British would read, as gender fluidity. And it could not be digested under heavily Christian Victorian values.
Thus, this translated into how the British employed power – and importantly how one could legitimately consider the clear, categorical distinctions between male and female that sub-continental urban spaces are intimate with, as being a product of the colonial period.
Second, at the level of law, it was the British that introduced laws criminalizing being ‘LGBT’ (if the category could be read into history).
Being transgender was made a crime under the Indian Penal Code 1860. All hijras were added to the Criminal Tribes act and the legal requirement to try someone for being transgender was merely cross-dressing.
The consequences of this legal shift have, sociologically, not been fully traced out. But, in a recent research project I supervised, traces of the discourses of criminality affiliated with the transgender community (which also found themselves into the Supreme Court of Pakistan judgment granting them ‘third sex’ status) took formal roots within State practice.
The transgender became the criminal. And so comes to be that Pakistan’s hijra community continues to suffer (uniquely) from police harassment.
Speaking from within culture:
Third, at the level of Muslim discourse, it is in the colonial period that Muslims, accused of being morally and sexually lax, began to reinvent themselves and constitute a new set of fundamental values. One of the new values set up was the strict separation of male and female genders – a binary that did not know itself in history quite similarly.
Thus we move to the third point: to turn to existing cultures within Pakistan that are open to the idea of being LGBT – and doing so while being ‘culturally located.’
Here, I must make a candid admission. History is the subject I am more comfortable with. Existing culture is a matrix that requires much careful study.
The sense is however that Seraiki masculinity and masculinity with segments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa operates on a different node. Within urban spaces, the fashion circle is also understood to operate with different understanding too.
Again, these are not clear-cut derivations. But again it is important to realize these exist.
What is also important is to realize that not all turns to queerness are healthy or voluntary. It is a question that a number of people have narrated from their experiences in same-sex boarding schools during the age of their puberty.
A student, otherwise of the devout variety, suggested that it would be impossible for one to not have a queer encounter at a particular private boarding school and then he narrated his own story of frustration and desire.
In so many ways, the imposed silence on questions about sexuality remains a key note for people of all persuasions reading this article. Anyhow the boarding schools example may give those who condemn being LGBT more ammunition than I would like them to have.
So, we must remind them of madrassahs and the repression around child molestation that prevails within them. Again, as a journalist, I have encountered an instance of a madrassah student backtracking on an expose because of fears that he shall be murdered by groups sent after him.
Again, this is not to stereotype, but to demarcate areas where silence and jokes cover up for the lack of serious discourse.
A turn to social sciences and Bol:
And at this note about discourse, I turn to the fourth point of the article: to turn to discourses from within the social science to articulate a distinction between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ – which if a step be taken back is very much common sense.
It is clear that our understanding of gender comes from social mores. I was cultured into being a male – according to the culture that surrounds me. I accepted. Female culturalization operates similarly. There are specific disciplinary regimes that go into constructing one’s gender.
The question to ask is: if gender was natural, why would anyone need to tell what being a male or being a female is?
It is a powerful moment within Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol when the sister slaps her transgender ‘brother’, dressing up in female clothing in front of the mirror, and says, “Is this how men behave?,” in ignorance of the real biological sexuality of him.
The question the movie is able to articulate is: how are we to deal with alternate biological sexualities?
The question engaging in LGBT discourse makes you ask is however a bit different. It is: how are we to deal with alternate social sexualities?
I have my answer. But there is no point to imposing it here.
No to Western cultural imperialism:
But it is important to make this articles fifth point: that the US declaration of support was not needed and should not be welcomed by LGBT activists.
That is the only normative claim in the article that I stress upon.
While homophobia seeps deep into the social contours of postcolonial Muslimness, the space for acceptance has been more than it has been in the traditional west.
The need for violent LGBT struggles in the subcontinent has not been needed in the same way these were needed in the West. The liberal discourse in the West, the change in the stance of the Christian Papacy is the product of the particular socio-material conditions of the West – where persecution has known itself to be worse and more systematic than anywhere, or any period, within Muslim societies.
Postcolonial Muslim perspectives, even if keeping queer identity a pedestal down on the social ladder, had not declared them worthy of persecution (doctrinally).
The current declaration of exile of ‘all such individuals’ by Jama’at i Islami is in fact unique.
And it is so due to the attempt by the new imperial power (US) to create a cultural hegemony over what it is to be queer.
It would have been best for the US to stay out of matters in Pakistan. And it would be best if it learns before a systematic persecution of LGBT actually begins.
As a concluding note, however, it must be said, that all that has been said above, promises nothing for the most systematically discriminated against queer community in Pakistan: the hijra (transgenders).
Hope for them lies in the constitutional change and culturally located critiques such as Bol. Only through these, and not US cultural imperialism, shall they be able to be reintegrated into a social fabric they were so brutally de-rooted from by the last imperial cultural project.
Let us hope that US cultural imperialism does not do more damage to the queer cause in this already fractured socio-polity we label Pakistan.
- “Hidden Voices” brings awareness to LGBT Muslims (michiganjournal.org)
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