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Being queer was not always a crime in Pakistan

Updated September 29, 2014

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My privileged ‘liberal’ friends amuse and horrify me at the same time when they speak of the current political problems that Pakistan is facing and envision a utopia where no one is oppressed but exclude queer people from this dream. -Photo by AFP
My privileged ‘liberal’ friends amuse and horrify me at the same time when they speak of the current political problems that Pakistan is facing and envision a utopia where no one is oppressed but exclude queer people from this dream. -Photo by AFP

This Friday saw an extraordinary development in the UN, when the top human rights council called for nations to protect the rights of individuals regardless of sexual orientation, adding that “tradition was no excuse for the violence and discrimination”, while formerly procedural moves were used by many countries to strip any such resolution of significance by removing all references to sexual orientation and gender identity.

Pakistan, along with Saudi Arabia and some other African states, voted no, appeasing the privileged Westerner whose neoliberal conscience that loves to portray Pakistan as ‘the land of the oppressed’ felt reaffirmed.

The vote also appeased many Pakistanis including a bigoted breed of ‘liberals’ who are affronted by the mere mention of such an 'abomination'.

I couldn’t decide what I found more ironic – the UN presenting itself as the ultimate protector of queer individuals around the world when it blissfully ignores, and often times perpetuates, the neo-imperialist pink-washing carried out under the garb of “LGBT rights”, or Pakistani people cheering the denial of rights and recognition to the desi queer community when in fact, South Asia has such a rich history of recognising queer subcultures.

Also read: History repeats itself

The UN should not be telling us how to treat our gender and sexual minorities. We should be the ones telling the rest of the world how to respect our queer citizens, given that we coexisted with them for hundreds of years until the devastation wrecked by a colonial regime.

Sadly, the reaction of Pakistani people to the idea of acknowledging queer rights never fails to surprise me. Our obsession with adopting a pan-Arab ‘culture’ often contributes to glossing over the rich histories of gender and sexual non-normativity, which are as diverse as South Asia itself.

While many so-called ‘developed’ Western states either failed to acknowledge or grossly mistreated their transgender communities, the Mughals of South Asia celebrated them by appointing them as high court officials. References about intersex and gender ambiguous individuals appear in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions alike.

Similarly, the practice of appointing eunuchs in royal courts reportedly existed in the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Mamluk and Safavid dynasties. Chief eunuchs in Mughal courts served as army generals, harem guards and advisors to the emperors. They also supervised the education of princes, protection of the harem women and also served as messengers and watchmen. Many such gender and genitally ambiguous people reached high status and accumulated riches.

The eunuchs, historian Laurence Preston maintains, were entitled to public revenue, received grants in the form of cash and land, and even had the official right to beg. The Khwaja-sira community of Pakistan draws its history and identification from this time. Hijra communities sought devotion to both Bahuchara Mata and Muslim saints.

 Left: An exact reproduction of a late 18th century miniature from Nagor by artist Kailash Raj. Right: Eunuch Khawas Khan of Bahdur Shah I from the Saeed Motamed Collection.
Left: An exact reproduction of a late 18th century miniature from Nagor by artist Kailash Raj. Right: Eunuch Khawas Khan of Bahdur Shah I from the Saeed Motamed Collection.

Similar acceptance or at least tolerance existed for queer sexualities.

Anthropologists often delve into the subject through queer reading of Sufi poetry, which they supplement with historical accounts. An oft-quoted example is that of Muhammad Sa’id, who had a male lover by the name of Abhay Chand. I have an excerpt from Bulleh Shah’s Sufi poetry framed in my room in which the legendary Punjabi poet beautifully depicts the suffering of separation from one’s lover by imagining oneself as a woman.

Emperor Babur's autobiographical Tuzuki-i-Babri contains a sentimental recollection of his erotic love for a teenage boy. Acclaimed South Asian author Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf is considered a classic text in contemporary queer literature.

 Shah Abbas I of Persia with a boy. By Muhammad Qasim (1627).
Shah Abbas I of Persia with a boy. By Muhammad Qasim (1627).

Wise readers will be able to see where I am going with this.

Come the colonial times, the gender ambiguous and intersex people of South Asia are labelled as the ‘criminal classes’. What follows is a period where the British systematically exclude queer people from mainstream society by imposing their gender-binarism on the indigenous culture, thus highly stigmatising the queer communities of South Asia.

The Khwaja-siras, who were royal court officials, and Hijras, who were feared because of their power to bless or curse, now became a marginalised section of society because the British, with their hegemonic colonial project, were unable to comprehend and appreciate the local queer cultures.

They erased our queer narratives and criminalised our gender minorities. The section 377 of Pakistan Penal Code that criminalises homosexual conduct is a remnant of colonial times. Never was seen such a massive project of destruction of queer cultures in the name of ‘civilising’.

This is not specific to South Asia – the colonial project singlehandedly managed to erase or stigmatise the queer narratives in many other cultures of the world.

It’s the legacy of these colonial times that we are dealing with to this day when Hijra and Khusra have become a curse word and serial killers take it upon themselves to kill gay men. We gained our independence in 1947 but colonialism never ended.

The point of presenting this historical narrative is not to suggest that South Asia had been a heaven for gay and transgender people – some of my peers maintain that it still is (provoking suspicion from my side, of course).

The purpose is not to glorify the pre-colonial past – which, after all, was patriarchal and heteronormative – but to highlight how the indigenous culture recognised and coexisted with queer communities for a long time.

The more immediate danger that such a post-colonial reading of queer history poses is that, if not treated carefully, it marks the beginning of a slippery slope that tends to gloss over the predicaments of the current times.

We live in a capitalist system that regulates sexualities and produces a heteronormative discourse that manages to oppress the very people who perpetuate it. The narrative of “LGBT rights” itself is used as a tool of oppression. Hate crimes against queer communities are very much a part of our lived realities.

Queer people have to face ghastly socioeconomic pressures; they are blackmailed, kidnapped, sexually assaulted – or worse, silenced. Structural violence is waged against queer communities not only through the legal system but also through patriarchal, heteronormative and cissexist hijacking of culture and religion.

Also read: Protests in Pakistan over US gay rights event

My privileged ‘liberal’ friends amuse and horrify me at the same time when they speak of the current political problems that Pakistan is facing and envision a utopia where no one is oppressed, but exclude queer people from this dream.

Dearest ones, you cannot expect to topple a hegemonic system when you refuse to acknowledge the systematic oppression of other marginalised groups.

You cannot talk about the violence waged by an imperialist system against the third world without talking about the violence that you are complicit in waging against queer people.

You cannot expect to solve the problems of a war-waged country without integrating queer communities in your struggle.

Oppression is never isolated; it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Your queer friends live in the same world as you, we face the same problems as you (even more so) and we are more than eager to play our part in the struggle to end all forms of discrimination and violence from this world – if only you would let us.

All we want is an end to an imperialist, hetero-patriarchal and capitalist system that is the source of this structural violence, and this cannot happen if you negate our experiences and life choices.

It is time that Pakistan talks about respecting its queer communities and giving them equal opportunities and rights.

It is time we live with the human dignity that should define the core of our South Asian culture.