Note: I originally wrote this blog for Dawn Newspaper and the published version can be found here. Following is an edited (read: uncensored) version:
This Friday saw an unusual development in the U.N. 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, in addition to the bipartisan masses of Pakistan comprising of those, who, on one hand are affronted by the mere mention of the (supposed) abomination of qaum-e-Lot and, on the other, a bigoted breed of ‘Pakistani-liberals’, who, while deifying Bhutto, love to hide behind the hetero-patriarchal interpretations and use of religion.
I couldn’t decide what I found more ironic – the U.N. 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 recognizing queer subcultures.
The reaction of Pakistani people to the idea of acknowledging queer rights never fails to surprise me. Behind the façade of human rights, the U.N., I believe, in fact co-opts the narrative of “LGBT rights” to further Euro-American homonationalism. The U.N. should not be telling us how to treat our gender and sexual minorities. We should be the one telling the rest of the world how to respect and cherish our queer citizens, given that we coexisted with them for hundreds of years until the devastation wrecked by a colonial regime.
Our obsession with adopting a pan-Arab Muslim ‘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 and oppressed 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.
"Women in Love", Artist: Kailash Raj, an exact reproduction of a late eighteenth century miniature from Nagor
Eunuch Khawas Khan of Bahdur Shah I
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, more commonly known as Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed, who had a male lover by the name of Abhay Chand. Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh was highly influenced by Sufi poet Sarmad Shaheed, whose shrine is in Delhi. The Punjabi historian Shafi Aquil speaks of the relationship between Madho and Hussain as one of “boundless love”. Such was the spiritual love of Madhu Lal and Shah Hussain that the latter is still known today as Madho Lal Hussain – as if the two lovers fused together. 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.
Prince Dara Shikoh and Sarmad Kashani, Walters manuscript leaf W.912
Among the various forms of sex and gender queerness, Islamic law acknowledges intersexuality in a legal as well as social light. Medieval Muslim jurists carefully considered this issue and today the Islamic law explicitly acknowledges intersex individuals and their choice in choosing gender. Scott Siraj-ul-Haqq Kugle discusses the historical evidence stemming from oral and hadith narratives that assert that Prophet Muhammad interacted with several mukhannath (intersex or effeminate men) in his life time. There is evidence regarding mukhannaths guarding the harem of Prophet’s wives, praying with men and women in mosques, and later being employed at Ka’ba and Masjid-e-Nabwi. I will leave it to the readers to further study this topic and fathom the queer aspects of Islamic and Arab history. Scott Kugle’s and Kecia Ali’s works, as well as some Palestinian queer rights organizations like Aswat and Al-Qaws, are a good place to start. Food for thought.
Shah Abbas I of Persia with a boy. By Muhammad Qasim (1627)
[Note: I am purposely refraining from the tedious and reductionist debate on whether being queer is a choice, unnatural or prohibited in religion. If you are that person who refuses to grow personally and chooses to stick with hetero-patriarchal interpretations knowing that there are alternate interpretations out there, then you have got a problem and you need to come out of your cocoon of privilege]
Wise readers would 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 British systematically exclude queer people of color from mainstream society by imposing their gender-binarism on the indigenous culture, thus highly stigmatizing 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 marginalized 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 criminalized our gender minorities. The section 377 of Pakistan Penal Code that criminalizes homosexual conduct is a remnant of colonial times. Never was seen such a massive project of destruction of queer cultures in the name of ‘civilizing’. This is not specific to South Asia – the colonial project singlehandedly managed to erase or stigmatize 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 in the name of honor and religion. 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 men 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 recognized and coexisted with queer communities for a long time. The more immediate danger that such a postcolonial 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 part of our lived realities. Queer people have to face ghastly socioeconomic pressures, they are blackmailed, kidnapped, sexually assaulted, murdered – or worst, 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. 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 marginalized 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 is at the core of our South Asian culture.