WHILE American culture wars have been dominating global news cycles, a quieter but no less significant one has been simmering in Pakistan, where a movie called Joyland, Pakistan’s official submission to the Academy Awards, has become a flashpoint between two sociocultural poles.
Conservative Muslims have fiercely opposed the film for its controversial storyline, while Pakistanis who espouse a more open worldview have been vociferously championing it. Between these two factions has raged a necessary debate about Pakistani values, art, and the right of citizens to make their own moral choices.
The film, directed by Saim Sadiq, is an independent production which relates the story of a conservative, middle-class Lahore family. The jobless younger son, Haider, gets a job in a risqué dance theatre, where he meets and falls in love with Biba, a trans woman struggling to succeed in show business.
She is also fighting to survive as a member of the khwaja sira community, Pakistan’s unique expression of gender fluidity and non-binarism. Meanwhile, Haider’s wife Mumtaz must fight her way through the diktats of Haider’s father and older brother.
Khwaja siras have existed in South Asia since the Mughal Empire, where they were employed in the courts as advisers, keepers of secrets and courtiers entrusted to serve female nobility. Their name translates to the ‘third gender’, and while in recent years they have found allies and empowerment by connecting to global transgender rights movements, their status has always been that of a beleaguered minority in Pakistan.
Ostracised by their families, they have organised into closed communities and survived through erotic entertainment, sex work, begging, and jobs in places like beauty salons. Violence is never far from their lives, and they are attacked by the very men who court their attentions.
The film highlights many of the contradictions surrounding intimate relationships in Pakistan, where homosexuality is criminalised but relationships between straight men and transgender women are not strictly considered homosexuality.
Still, falling in love with a khwaja sira is a huge taboo, and Joyland’s searing portrayal of the desire and despair that shadow Haider, Biba and Mumtaz’s lives won it two Palmes at the Cannes Film Festival.
It has since been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, will be shown at the prestigious Sundance Festival in 2023, and was submitted as Pakistan’s official Oscar contender.
People said they wanted to decide for themselves whether or not they would see the film.
Yet qualification for the Oscars was almost out of reach, as Joyland’s torturous journey to cinemas in the country of its own origin became an epic tale worthy of its own Hollywood-style retelling. As soon as it was announced that the film would be screened in Pakistan in late November, a fashion designer called Maria B. posted a series of Instagram Stories denigrating the film.
She said it pushed a Western agenda of promoting homosexuality that was endangering Pakistani families. The propaganda resulted in a conservative senator filing a petition against the movie. Suddenly, Joyland was banned even though it had been cleared, with cuts, by the Pakistani Censor Board.
There was more to the banning of the film: the same bad faith actors also started a campaign to roll back the Transgender Protection Act of 2018, which has been hailed as one of the world’s most progressive laws concerning the rights of transgender persons to safety, economic and educational opportunities, and their ability to identify as a third gender represented by an X on passports and other identification documents.
The Act was approved by all stakeholders, including representatives of Pakistan’s religious groups, who recognised that khwaja siras are deserving of dignity and life choices available to every other citizen. But these newfound opposing voices make the false claim that the Act is meant to promote LGBTQ rights, and that it will lead to the destruction of Pakistani society.
Even just a few years ago, using religion in a debate used to be a trump card that would shut down the debate. In a nation with blasphemy laws and horrific, religiously inspired lynchings, who would dare defy it? But somewhere along the way, Pakistanis have become aware of how religion has been misused for political ends.
They are wary of charlatans who set themselves up as religious authorities on the basis of zealotry rather than knowledge. And the proliferation of social media and exposure to many different points of view in global Islam has made Pakistanis more willing to explore matters of faith and seek interpretations of scripture which better match their everyday lives, which encompass all the desire and despair that has been repressed for so long in this country.
As soon as Joyland was banned, a social media outcry brought the controversy to the highest quarters. People said they wanted to decide for themselves whether or not they would see the film. Those who did not want to could stay at home. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif ordered a full board to review the movie again.
The film was cleared to be screened for the second time, and reached Pakistani cinemas in Sindh and Islamabad in time for the seven-day screening period that qualified it for Oscar submission.
The film has been playing for almost a month now to audiences of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Anybody who watches it has been shaken by the treatment of khwaja siras in Pakistani society, and there is certainly nothing in it that would make anyone feel safe or happy being anything other than heterosexual in this country.
But the more Joyland plays, the more its opponents’ claims are discredited: the film’s only agenda is to humanise everyone — not just transgenders — by showing them as worthy of love, and deserving of security. Whether or not Joyland wins an Oscar, that’s a message Pakistan should be proud to relay to the world.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2022