I saw a religious man, who had fallen in love with a fellow to such a degree that he had neither strength to remain patient nor to bear the talk of the people but would not relinquish his attachment, despite of the reproaches he suffered and the grief he bore, saying:
I shall not let go my hold of thy skirt
Even if thou strike me with a sharp sword.
After thee I have no refuge nor asylum.
To thee alone I shall flee if I flee.
I once reproached him, asking him what had become of his exquisite intellect so that it had been overcome by his base proclivity. He meditated a while and then said:
‘Wherever love has become sultan
Piety’s arm has no strength left.
How can a helpless fellow live purely
Who has sunk up to his neck in impurity?
You may think that the conservative cultural forces arrayed against gay union (or marriage) in the US present a formidable challenge. They do, but look around you and you will find a culture that has made remarkable progress in the last 30 years in terms of gay acceptance. A more somber view emerges when one looks at a society where gay life hides in shadows and secrets. Such is the picture provided in Boston Globe’s article, Open Secrets, on gays in Pakistan. Let me first state my objection to the tone of the essay which I find rather alarmist and hyperbolic – as usual – in its attempt to present Pakistan as a Talibanized society repressed under religious law. Neither does the article make the slightest effort to research the history of sexuality in Islam where there remains a certain amount of ambivalence about normative sexual contact nor does it look at Islamicate societies in general. Of course, the few verses of the Qur’an that address gay sex revolve around the fate of the people of Sodom and are fairly unforgiving. But at the same time, there is remarkable acceptance of homosexual love from both pre-Islamic and post-Islamic Arabian and Indo-Persian worlds – abundantly clear both in poetry as well as Sufi literature. Given that, the article is pretty accurate in its depiction of gay individuals in Pakistan. However, I would like to elaborate on two distinct aspects of gay experience that are only hinted at in the Globe piece.
First is the sexual act usually categorized in Western literature and law as pederasty. It could very well be that the romanticization of prepubescent boy has passed on in Perso-Islamicate culture from Grecian times – I don’t really know. I do know that it is quite common in Sufi poetry to cast ‘the boy’ as one of the many personifications of the Beloved (God). One of the stories often used – esp. in the ghazal tradition is – the romance of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (d. 1030) and his slave boy Ayaz (Mahmud gifted the throne of Lahore to his young lover). Another example used is the grand love of Rumi and Shams Tabrizi. However, it is very hard for the historian to say that either of these loves were physical in nature even if the expressions of longing and desire are often manifested in physical terms.
Presently, in some parts of Afghanistan and NorthWest Pakistan (or in the metropolitan areas of Lahore or Karachi), there remains a tradition of keeping a young lover amid certain classes – even though this relationship is often one of exploitation of the lowest classes by the haves. The article does not point out that this exploitation of children is gender neutral and that girls who find work in the homes of middle or upper class urban homes are just as likely to be assaulted and raped. The sad realities of these innocent children is not a gay issue and should be addressed unequivocally.
Second is the issue of those who identify themselves as gay having a safe, public life. This is where Islam-inspired homophobia, repression and denial emerge as overriding public sentiments. Pakistani gays exist closeted, marked by secret signs and settings. You know when someone is gay but you can never acknowledge that because what would be the use? Silence becomes the primary medium. There are many lifelong bachelors and aunts in a society geared explicitly toward marriage and procreation. In many ways, the repression of Victorian era England comes to mind – a stark departure from the pinings for the Beloved that had their space in Perso-Islamicate culture [there is some research that pins the blame of this repression on British colonial rule]. The only community of fringe-dwellers publicly able to exist as pseudo-gay are the trans-gendered hijira who provide much needed “sexual release for the straight males”.
Gay Rights, unlike Women’s Right or Minority Rights is not on the public spectrum of reformists or moderates in Pakistan. AIDS education is non-existent as well. One necessary step is to eliminate the abuse of children. The rest will be a long march. And some brave souls, like the Al Fatiha Foundation, have started on the path.