Eye on Queer Pakistan

Posted by sepoy on July 12, 2004 · 6 mins read
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?

Sa'adi's Gulistan

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.


Marlowe | July 12, 2004

What a great post, Sepoy. I only know enough about Islam to offend Mohammedans, so I'll limit my comments to a comparison of Christian theology and Western/Christian culture relative to homosexuality. 1500 Years of Whatever, then Calvin Applied (that is to say harmful) Christian theology in this regard has very little to do with text, if you're Protestant, or text & tradition if you're Orthodox or Catholic. Leviticus 20, the chapter of sexual prohibitions forming the basis of pre-Temple Judaism, tells us that if "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them..." [as an aside, most Christians relay on the same chapter when opposing abortion. Verse 4 warns against offering one's seed to Molech, the Assyrian-Canaanite god whose thirst could only be slaked by the blood of burning children...] But in its more poetic Solomonic passages, the Hebrew Bible speaks to more complex relationships. One is the relationship between David and Jonathan, e.g., "...[a]nd Jonathan caused David to swear again, because he loved him: for he loved him as he loved his own soul..." Oscar Wilde infamously and vociferously relied on this passage and an impromptu exegesis of Plato's Symposium in his sodomy trial, to his own detriment. The fashionable treatment about Sodom and Gommorah in Christianity is to treat the destruction as brought upon by mistreatment of strangers, not an inclination to fuck them. In the New Testament, Jesus doesn't seem all that uptight about sexuality--as opposed to St. Paul, who seems to loathe his own flesh and abhors the libertine views of some of his coreligionists. Jesus is mostly upset by the lax attitudes with which people approached the contractual and relational aspects of sex. He's miffed about divorce, lying, greed and the mistreatment of children. The vengeful Apocalyptic Christ of St. John's visions does a lot of metaphorical housecleaning, but, again, he's motivated by general decadence, not so many particulars. In the late middle ages one of the major charges against the Knights Templar was that they liked to fondle one another's naughty bits. The Catholic Church teaches now that homosexual acts are sins, but homosexuality itself is not. This is a noble attempt to reconcile Leviticus with common sense, but I'm afraid it makes even more sense to regard Leviticus as a relic--most Christians do anyhow. We divorce, we cheat on our spouses, our unmarried fornicate, blah blah blah. There's no reason that homosexuality should be different, is there? Michael Moore is famous for asking gay-baiters whether after stoning gays what he should do with his slaves, a question Leviticus also treats. Point being conservative America's religiously inspired hissyfits about gayness aren't firmly grounded in theology. Like image negatives of the pre-Islamic homoerotic relics scattered along Alexander's switch-hitting footprints, some Western homophobic influences seem to come from pre-Christian or a-Christian ideas. Religion seems to be a veil. I believe, like most human-rights warts in America and Europe, our fears of homosexuality stem not from religion, but from economic nonsense. Gay men and women simply do not produce more factory workers or farm hands, and therefore a serious taboo was in order. The relative prosperity post-WWII allowed many people to start looking at life in terms of desire, and also allow the majority of tsk-tskers to be "tolerant." Gays, Blacks, Jews, Jesus and my Country Club Add to this that protest and change have become institutionalized and process driven. The process goes something like this: 1)identify an immutable trait; 2)lobby for legislation incorporating that trait into the federally protected civil rights classes; 3)leverage pop culture to emphasize the trait holders most non-straight-honky-threatening common aspects. This predictable and stable process has greatly accelerated the acceptance of insular minorities in the US and Europe--what took a hundred years for black folks to acheive after the 14th Amendment was passed has only taken 30 for homosexuals. The Nordic countries seem to fall all over themselves legitimizing what they see as progressive ideas in the realm of sex, contraception, euthanasia, etc. In the US, particularly, lobbies for new protected classes and rights are met with a shrug. Except from the fundies, who blame Jesus for their resistance to change. This is because they associate a time when generalized acceptance of Christianity as the de facto American faith with America's "golden age." In 1951, for instance, prayer was common in schools and the mainline denominations still held full pews. What's more, evangelists had just discovered the powers of radio and television. It would be forty years before scandal made the evangelists a true laughing stock. But it would be only a few years before black folk got the right to go to school with white folks and only fifteen before the Civil Rights Act--a supreme court decision and a piece of legislation that came concurrent with the speeding wane of Christianity as an unchallenged force in American public life. In a culture-wide acceptance of the worst example of post hoc ergo propter hoc in human history, many Christians came to believe--helped in this by major American religious figures allied to the right wing--that America's decline (read Christianity's decline) was the fault of the anti-Christian left and their secular humanism (read blacks [many black leaders being ordained ministers, but whatever...], gays, "secular" Jews, etc.), and that the only hope for our civilization (read uptight WASPYness) was to "take back" our government by taking legislative stands against the onward march of "immorality." This is one component of how homosexuality became a staple of American Christian sermons and broadcasts, and how many American Christians got in bed with the right wing. Theology has little to do with it. It has everything to do with the perception that what was once one's has been lost, usurped unrightly by the unentitled. Christianity and human rights are not natural enemies. Moreover, Christianity and the underdog are not natural enemies. Nietzche was right, but wrong in his vitriol: Christianity is a religion of slaves; it went awry when the slaves became the masters. The modern Christian argument comes typed in script from the right wing and stems not from theology, but a fear of cock rings and ABBA retrospectives. It is in large part illegitimate. Pakistan Will Have to Decide This Too, So We Might As Well Have It Out Now: My main worry--and this is where I get yelled at by many of the gays and lesbians in my life--is a libertarian one. I loathe any government restrictions on sex, save those protecting children, animals, corpses and the unconsenting. In fact, I celebrated the recent supreme court decision in Lawrence v. Texas by petitioning my lovely for a little sodomy, of course declined. We're clearly moving in the right direction, but in America, we don't have the patience for slow change or any apparatus for it outside of legislation and courts, save insidious dreck like Will and Grace. While the Civil Rights Act is nearly perfect--every single person reading this is covered by it in one way, or another, sexuality moves us into a more inchoate area, more complicated than race or sex or national origin. People express themselves in myriad sexual ways, and operate on a vast spectrum of desires, etc. Much of sexual behavior is likely immutable, like skin color, but as much of it is genetic or situational, as well. And the social benefits concurrent with sex, i.e., marriage? I'm not sure government has a place there for anyone. Straight people should be taking a hard look at the institution's usefulness. It's worth noting that marriage is one of the few contracts that trigger punitive damages upon breach; it's good for many [has worked thus far for me and my bride], but would likely be just as "real" if merely a religious or cultural affirmation. At any rate, I think the appropriate direction for society to move is in the direction of less governmentally entangled civil bonds. Gays shouldn't be pestering courts for marriage, they should be pestering courts to kick government out of it altogether. I laud human rights advances for gays in countries like Pakistan, where there is a quadruple standard for complicated social issues like these. Kick down the closet door, by all means. Deal with pederasty inasmuch as it is pedophilia and not June-December canoodling. Approach the class-related issues and how they affect who gets to be on top. But I'm not sure what to do about those who come blinking out of the closet, into the light--should they be met as people who happen to be gay, treated by government with appropriate indifference? Or should they be made a new protected class--gay people? I invite your thoughts.

Deevaan | July 12, 2004

Sepoy, some interesting observations. Permit me to pose a different opinion on deevaan.blogspot.com Posting a long comment sections feels like I am trespassing and infringing on your space. You are more than welcome to comment on mine.

desesperanto | July 12, 2004

hijira who provide much needed sexual release for the straight males. oh brother, on so many levels.

sepoy | July 12, 2004

Marlowe: Can I say Thanks! for that? Plus, I need a t-shirt saying "Offer Your Seed to Molech, the Assyrian-Canaanite God". As to your question, I think that the construction of public space in Pakistan is so very different from US that I cannot even hazard a guess what kind of reception gays can expect from govt. I doubt that they will get any "protected" status - since the historical precedent for that is completely missing (as opposed to US where the Civil Rights prove fair example). Naveed: Thanks for your comments on your site as well. I have responded there.

Deevaan | July 12, 2004

Thanks Sepoy, appreciate your comments on my site but responding to you here. I guess living in Paksitan, I subject myself to socio-cultural propreity more often than I did in the US. I just want to understand one thing to make sure if I understood you before the ìletís agree to disageeî option is exercised :) I am not contesting for a second that there are no homosexual themes in Persian poets that you have mentioned. I am only saying that a verse whose sufic content is beyond doubt will not be confused with a one that is unabashedly homosexual (and vice versa). We may very well be talking two different things and it could be very well be the difference in the way the Persians approached the subject as opposed to their South Asian counterparts. So let me qualify my earlier comments and restrict them to south asia sufi poetry. So, as far as sufi poets of Punjab and Sindh are concerned, I have not found the content to be suggestive of an underlying theme. I have not found homosexual reference in Punjabi/Seriaki/Sindhi sufi poetry. Sufi themes in South Asia have encapsulated the indegenous ethos so I can relate to them better, without considering them to be complex. They are neither verbose nor taxing on the intellectual level so as to restrict their reach from the common man.

sepoy | July 12, 2004

Deevaan: You ask me to drudge up my faded readings of Bulay Shah/Latif Bhittai/Sachal and I don't know if I can rise to that occasion. But from my hazy recollection, you may be right that the Sindhi/Punjabi/Sirayki sufi poets approached the Beloved in a slightly different fashion. Still, I would beg to assert that there are themes in that corpus and I will be more than happy to refresh my memory and post on that in the near future. Actually, I will do so as any chance to read Bulay Shah or Shah Husain is a boon from the gods. Lets continue the conversation about sexuality in South Asian Sufi poetry in a few days.

Deevaan | July 13, 2004

sepoy, appreciate your sentiments. i look forward to any verse that you can refer to so that i re-look at it from your perspective. i have no problem in appreciating a new angle to a verse if there is no doubt on its significance. but please do so at your convenience. like you, i am also relying on my memory. Cheers. Naveed

tosheeb, umar | March 29, 2005

does any one familiar fith the 16th centuary sufi poet and his lover madhu lal. Shah hussain loved madhu so much that he changed his name to madhu lal shah hussain. t.u.

UNKNOWN ZONE | June 15, 2009

i m gay and citizen of Pakistan,,,being gay and in pak is really a taboo thing and believe me really hard atleast for me,,,i m well educated and just about to join civil services ,,,,but who do I balme for my gayness...believe me it was not my choice i did not opt for tht as i was not asked to opt....but in pakistan there are sum additional problems for gay men,,,first religion(i m not clear waht islam say about this gayness),,then a weird hypocratic society (where the biggest sin in sex not murder,fraud or cheating)....and above all no one wants to be disclosed as GAY as it is against the masculanity (so weird it is) ,seriously speaking i m in a state of war with my inner....but still happy(all my apologies for being happy as i m hypocrt too)

Ochre | June 15, 2009

If you really want protection of a sort, do away with the absurd colonial-era legislation and "Shariah" courts; separate mosque and state, and revamp the Pakistani economy so that individuals aren't necessarily enervated by their own upbringing. It is much easier to come ever so timorously out of the closet when one has the ability to financially, socially and legally continue to live one's life. Admittedly, my opinion is only really relevant to those of a "middle-class" (I'm not sure this is the time or place to launch into discussion of the poverty divide), but I think that those people are the ones who can drive the change. And in a country where wage scales are, quite literally, geared towards remuneration based on age and/or marital status (it's complicated, but short version: "Accha, give him the promotion, he just got married"), financial--and subsequently, ideological--independence goes a long ways towards turning the key in the closet's lock.