We were lounging on oversized floor cushions in my parents’ living room in Karachi when my friend Ali Mehdi Zaidi told me he was moving to London. The talented photographer said he couldn’t stand living as a gay man in Pakistan, where the gay scene was too focused on one-night stands, abuse, and subterfuge. He wanted to be able to live as who he was and to have meaningful relationships.
That was in 1988.
Ali’s desire to have normal gay relationships was at odds with South Asian culture, where being gay was something you did, not something you were.
Yet homosexuality is, and has always been, a part of Pakistani culture, much as it is all over other countries of South Asia — India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka. The concept of “purdah” or drawing a veil over sensitive topics simply kept it under wraps.
The purdah literally becomes a metaphor in Urdu fiction writer Ismat Chughtai’s controversial 1942 short story “The Quilt.” Told through a child’s eyes, it implies a lesbian relationship between a lady and her servant maid who massages her. The lady is in an unhappy marriage with a much older lord — who is more interested in men.
The story caused a furor when it was published in pre-partition India, five years before India and Pakistan both became independent. Chughtai’s mother, a devout Indian Muslim, admonished her daughter, asking why she had to “write about these things so openly” — as Chughtai recalled in Bombay in the 1970s when my mother, an old friend, visited her.
Traditionally, identities have been less defined, more fluid. Young men walk holding hands or arm-in-arm, or sit entwined under bushes in public parks. These are accepted public expressions of male friendship. Society turns a blind eye to homosexuality as long as it is within the bounds of don’t ask, don’t tell.
Yet the real-life situations of Chughtai’s protagonists continue to play out in the lives of queers across South Asia. Unlike Ali, most succumb to family pressure to marry and have children. In the case of gay men, friends and family in their close circles are often well aware of their sexual preferences but do not talk about it.
Queer women’s lives are even more hidden — partly because their domains tend to be more private and partly because the issue of female sexuality is even more contentious. The Victorian-era law against homosexuality in Britain, which applied to India as its colony, makes no mention of lesbianism.
Flouting these sensibilities was Canada-based Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film, “Fire,” set in India. Featuring a relationship between two sisters-in-law, “Fire,” which was initially cleared by the Censor Board of India, was banned after protests from Hindu religious right-wing groups claiming that it countered Indian culture.
A few years after Ali went to London, his parents accepted his sexual orientation. They were initially reluctant. His father’s primary concern was that as someone from a family claiming lineage from the Prophet Mohammad’s family, Ali should be “active” not “passive.” The son burst out laughing.
His devout mother was concerned that Ali and his partner, Keith, were committing a sin by “living as gay boys.”
“Ma,” Ali told her, “I’m not living ‘like a gay boy.’ I am who I am.”
Ali’s story has parallels in the recent star-studded Bollywood movie “Kapoor and Sons” hailed as a torch-bearer for India’s LGBT movement. As with “The Quilt,” the film never explicitly touches homosexuality. It contains no words that the censors might axe. There are no scenes of the leading man, played by Pakistani heartthrob Fawad Khan, with his live-in partner in London. Yet many have applauded Khan’s courage for taking on this role that three leading Indian actors had turned down. The mother finally accepts her erstwhile favorite “perfect” son with his “imperfection.”
The abhorrence towards gays in South Asian society is at odds with the traditional acceptance of Hijras or Khwaja Seras — as transgender people there prefer be called — who are considered harbingers of good luck. Dressed in women’s clothes, many transgender people eke out a living by singing and dancing at births and weddings or begging for alms at traffic lights. At the elite level, there’s Ali Saleem, whose alter ego, Begum Nawazish, had her own TV show.
Pakistan officially recognizes transgender as a third gender, and, recently, the Council of Islamic Ideology ruled in favor of marriage between transgender people identifying as being from the opposite gender. It’s the middle class that refuses to accept both trans and queer people. Being cursed by a Khwaja Sera is still considered bad luck.
Conservative South Asians who blame the West for degrading their values also forget the rabid homophobia in much of Western society. As Yale law professor Muneer Ahmad reminds us: “Countless other hate crimes have been perpetrated against LGBT individuals” in the United States.
Ahmad is one of the few South Asian academics in the United States to be out. Another was the late flamboyant Chicago-based Iftikhar “Ifti” Naseem, considered the first openly gay Urdu poet of modern times.
But in Pakistan, where purdah affords gays some protection, Ali’s mother still made him promise not to make public his sexual orientation. That was back in the early 1990s. For years, he thought she was just fearful about social disapproval — but it went much deeper. Recently, she told him she hadn’t wanted to see his butchered corpse flung outside their home in Lahore.
The vulnerability of queers in Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria has increased with the rise of militancy that falsely claims legitimacy from Islam. Even transgender people, traditionally accepted as a third gender in society, are now under attack.
Most Muslims, even those with progressive interpretations of Islam, believe that the religion, like other Abrahamic faiths, forbids homosexuality. “It is not for us to judge anyone,” says Imam Ismail Fenni of the Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge. “That is not Islam. People can have differences of perception, and we have to accept them.”
The Cordoba Initiative in New York, which aims to promote a moderate interpretation of Islam, goes further. The verse about Soddom and Lot “is actually against rape and promiscuity, not homosexuality,” explains Dr. Asmi Jamil, a Pakistan-born physician who volunteers with the initiative.
But for all the efforts at tolerance, many South Asian Muslim queers tend to keep the purdah and share information only on a need-to-know basis. A queer college professor who doesn’t see the need to reveal her sexual orientation to her parents and older relatives tells me that her young cousins in Lahore are aware of it: “We don’t talk about it, but they all know. Things have changed a lot with more people traveling, social media, everyone’s conversant with the language and ideas. In fact, talking to them, sometimes I feel old fashioned,” she says.
Things are changing for some young people in Pakistan. Many, even those who have never been abroad, now see sexual orientation as a basic human right.
In the Boston area, younger Muslims may have no problem with sexual orientations — but they may get a different message at home, says Mario Moreira, a Portuguese convert to Islam who is president of the Islamic Center in Wayland.
The Orlando massacre prompted news discussions on Islam, inclusivity, and homosexuality among Pakistani and Indian Muslims in the United States. Many are trying to forge a more inclusive and tolerant narrative of their faith. In a telephone conference just after the attacks, Mohammad Hasan in Houston, who volunteers with a nonprofit called the Alliance for Compassion and Trust, talked about the need to go beyond condemnations and assertions that violent extremists don’t represent the Muslim community.
A dental surgeon, Salman Malik, of Londonderry, N.H., agreed. “We evolve with each tragedy,” he said. Like his friend and colleague Ehsun Mirza, a physician in Rhode Island, he has been joining LGBT rallies and addressing demonstrations in New England. “We need to join hands across the board regardless of religious or cultural beliefs,” said Malik.
Other participants in the meeting, like lawyer Zahid Ali Akbar in London, stressed that social media offers a platform for progressive Muslims to make their voices heard and counter the narrative that extremists propagate.
Toronto-based blogger and illustrator Eiynah has been tackling such issues by writing about sexuality, initially for a Pakistani audience. Fed up with encountering homophobia, “even from people who had same-sex encounters,” she told me, she produced an illustrated children’s book, “My Uncle Is Gay,” a couple of years ago.
No school or bookstore in Pakistan will carry the book. One bookstore that initially expressed interest backed off after realizing what the topic really was. One newspaper published an article about it but later changed its editorial policy to “avoid printing such articles in the future.”
The conflict unfolding before us is a long way from being resolved. But one thing is certain: Being religious and being gay within Islam are no longer as mutually exclusive as they once were. A forward movement is visible and the struggle continues.