Pakistan, Islam and Homosexuality

Homosexual desire generally manifests itself in the parks and underground clubs of Pakistani cities. It is indeed ironic that moral condemnation serves to exacerbate an issue than alleviate it. Hiding from family members and peers, differently oriented persons venture out to separate their religious identity from their inner disposition and hence find themselves in internet chat-rooms looking for something they hopelessly fail to find. Many come to divorce the value system shaped partly by their faith in order to accept the other more pressing part of their existence, whereas others find themselves wearing a cloak of hypocrisy; after all the doctors of faith have sentenced them to gruesome punishments, so there is no hope of finding a solution to their concerns. In a nutshell, many gays and lesbians want the same mundane but loving relationships as their fellow responsible striaght citizens of Pakistan. Religious sermons and rulings prevent them from doing so, but in condemning gays and lesbians, such rulings only serve to encourage a culture of secret rendezvous which in turn perpetuates the homosexual stereotype.

The problem indeed stems from a lack of understanding of the issue by both religious and professional experts. Homosexuality is treated as a willful act of choice, an outcome of keeping bad company, a product of a lewd environment and at best a remnant of some childhood abuse. Moreover the entire discourse on the issue is fixated on one penetrative sexual act. Anecdotal evidence from the NWFP and from the reports on truck drivers seems to perpetuate the manner of the discourse, which makes it all the more difficult to get past the sexual act to really focus on the issue at hand. Cultural notions of the issue peppered with the fire and brimstone of the religious texts make the task quite difficult if not impossible for the rational members of the clergy and other professionals. To lend voice to alternate understandings and interpretations really requires a great amount of patience and determination in the presence of a forbidding scriptural legacy and the risk of being labeled as a deviant oneself.

However, the year is 2009; many Muslim voices have stirred the air with alternate opinions and thoughts. A whole range of scholars, theologians and activists that includes luminaries form across the globe like Abdel Nour Brado, Pamela Taylor, Siti Musdah Mulia, Ghazala Anwar, Siraj Kugle, Imam Daayiee Abdullah and Sheikh Muhsin Hendricks, to name a few, have strongly called for igniting the debate in Islam to find a just solution to the plight of religiously observant Muslim gays and lesbians. Some amongst them like Imam Daayiee have gone so far as to sanction Muslim same sex unions. However, all these heroic efforts and voices exist in freer societies of the world and the situation here in Pakistan is miles away from realizing the objective of Muslim same sex unions. It is then clear that the Pakistani discourse needs to revolve around addressing religious and cultural misconceptions on the issue.

The alternative voice in Pakistan in a predominantly Muslim context would revolve around clearing any misconceptions on the issue apart from addressing the scriptural prohibitions that are assumed to exist within the majority traditional Muslim circles. The first point that needs to be strenuously made is that anal sex is not synonymous with same sex relationships. Internet googling would indicate that many gay couples do not indulge in that activity let alone lesbian couples. In fact a sexual act cannot be tied with inner disposition whether gay or straight. After all many straight couples indulge in anal sex apart from those males that casually indulge in same sex behaviour out of sheer frustration or thrill. Yet, the act of anal sex does not assume as much of a taboo in the straight context as does it in gay context. In fact as undesirable as it may be in Shia jurisprudence, anal sex is permitted contingent upon the wife’s consent. It also needs to be clarified that men who have a predilection for casual encounters with other males are not necessarily gay, for a gay relationship goes beyond a five minute thrilling encounter toward a more holistic life that includes companionship in sorrow and happiness, in sickness and health, in youth and old age and through all the trials and tribulations that life has to offer.

The other misconception, that a person’s inner constitution or orientation is willfully created, needs to be done away with. There is a constellation of biological, hormonal, prenatal etc., studies that are increasingly asserting sexual orientation to be biologically determined and which are exhaustively documented in Dr. Qazi Rahman’s book Born Gay. It may also help to remember that eminent physicians like Al Razi, Qusta Ibn Luqa, Hunain Ibn Ishaq, apart from several Muslim authorities had no qualms in accepting a biological basis for some forms of homosexuality. Indeed, a whole Muslim school argued that passive homosexuality was a result of the maternal ‘sperm’ prevailing over the paternal ‘sperm’ at conception.

It would also be instructive to note that the issue at hand is that of nurturing a same sex relationship as responsible and respectable members of a mosque, community or society and that the issue is definitely not about seeking some license or certificate for mere sexual gratification. As such gay and lesbian issues revolve as much around every day mundane life issues as those of the usual straight couples in society. Of course gay and lesbians also have to deal with prejudice and discrimination like any other minority be it Ahmadis, Christians or Ismailis living in Pakistan. Hence the issue at stake is the right (haqq) to have a same sex relationship within the confines of religion and as responsible citizens of Pakistan.

While Pakistani law and its implications for gays and lesbians must be the subject of another discourse, it should be appreciated that the two principal sources of faith – the Qur’an and Sunnah – are silent on the issue of same sex relationships as well as inner constitution. What the Qur’an does address is sexual activity in the context of the people of Lot. In fact according to most exegetes and jurists, all verses – (7:80-81; 26:160-166, 27:54-55, 29:28-29) – in this context specifically refer to anal intercourse between males. The verses are also clear that the sexual act was an outcome of violence and coercion, and this understanding is confirmed in the numerous texts of Tabari, the Jalalyn commentaries, and the Qisas Al Anbiya by both Al Kisai and Al Rawandi. The words of the verse ‘you come to males in lust besides females…’ alludes to the predominant heterosexual nature of the recipients of God’s message in Lot’s tribe. Hence, given the fact that at most 4% of the population is gay, apart from archaeological findings that same sex relationships existed prior to the people of Lot, supports the alternate thesis that the Qur’anic verses are not addressing same sex relationships but acts of violence and coercion perpetrated by predominantly heterosexual people. A glimpse of such horrific conduct has perhaps been documented about the Abu Ghraib prison where Iraqi detainees were subjected to shameful and forced acts.

So far as the Hadith on the issue are concerned, most of them are suspect or weak as none of them are found in the relatively more authentic books of Bukhari, Muslim and Malik’s Muwatta. This brings a traditionally devout Muslim to the entire corpus of Islamic jurisprudential literature wherein widely ranging opinions have usually been formulated and have been observed to evolve with time.  The Hanafi school, for instance, departed from the other three schools by strongly negating any capital punishment on same sex conduct relegating any punishment to no more than 39 lashes. Ibn Hazm, three centuries after Imam Abu Hanifa, distinguished non penetrative sexual acts from anal intercourse and prescribed no more than 10 lashes for those. Four centuries after Ibn Hazm, scholars at Al Azhar understood the word ‘venial faults’ in verse 53:32 as specifically referring to non-penetrative sexual acts, stating that such minor sins even if deliberately and repeatedly committed could be compensated for by supererogatory works.

Based on the evolution of Muslim thought and the richness in traditional Muslim scriptural debates would it be too much to ask the thoughtful and rational members of the Muslim clergy to review the case of gays and lesbians based on the principles of compassion and fairness? Muslim scholarship has never been static, it has always responded dynamically to different situations in various times. It is mindful of the plight of its adherents and finds ways to alleviate their suffering as it has in the past by allowing transsexuals to undergo gender reassignment surgeries and by allowing intersexuals to marry members of either gender, based on their inner constitution. If societal taboos are cast aside, perhaps a very strong case for same sex unions could also be developed based on the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. The fact that Islamic jurisprudence recognizes sex as a basic need coupled with the rule that ‘Necessity trumps prohibition’ points toward a possible institution of Muslim same sex unions.

Both the clergy members and other professionals perhaps need to realize that gays and lesbians do not drop out of thin air but come from good homes where they are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles apart from being teachers and students To use the words of a scholar, ‘They too stand in prayer by night and whole-heartedly spend in the way of God by day. They too love their neighbour the way they love their own selves. They might be nearer to God than many of the righteous we see around us.’ Clergy members, doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers, activists and other experts may all need to realize that it is not for any conformity to nifty ideologies that this issue needs to be resolved but simply on the basis of compassion and fairness to people who, while being different, worship the same God as we do, who are our brothers and sisters in faith and as such deserve the same respect and rights (haqooq) as we do.

Hindutva, Pakistan & Diasporic Sexual Polemics

Coming into my adolescence in Canada, I had immediately identified with anyone being brown, regardless of the person’s national, religious, regional or caste affiliations. It is not that I had not been aware of these differences. I certainly was made conscious of caste and religious differences as a child, in an increasingly fundamentalist and sectarian Pakistan, that came into existence in the 1970s. I witnessed the “othering” of the Hindu and the Bengali in a Pakistan dominated by the West and West Pakistan.

Studying at a French high school in Québec, I was one of the three students of colour. The other two were Vietnamese and Egyptian girls. My siblings were more fortunate to have other South Asians in their English medium high schools. They made friends with other South Asians, and participated in bhangra and garba.

And then I “came out” as gay to many of my high school friends in the early 1980s. Both white and people of colour distanced themselves; the worst were the Black Jamaican and Parsee Pakistani boys. The one or two white gay allies that I thought I could count on, could not believe that I could tackle a conservative Pakistani family like mine. They told me I would never survive. Finally, when I got kicked out of my house for “coming out”, it was the white straight Christian girl who sheltered me until I found my first “real” job.

When I was “coming out” I made alliances with other gay and lesbian people of colour. At a predominantly white gay youth group, the Chinese gay and lesbian members became my friends. We went out for dinner in Chinatown, celebrated the New Year together and shared similar family histories. The following year, I was to meet my first Indian gay person. Rita was born in North America. She came from a Hindu Punjabi family and me from a Muslim one. Religious background did not make any difference. It never became an issue.

Soon afterwards, I was to meet a gay man, Mukesh, brought up in India. He was the first gay man I met whom I perceived as brown. At the sight of me, however, all his stereotypes about Pakistanis came out, even though I did not count as a “real” Pakistani as I had not grown up there. In fact, identifying me as not-really-Pakistani gave Mukesh good ground to voice his Hindu bigotry. Friends with me as he was, but with a brother nominated as a BJP candidate, Mukesh was torn between wanting a Hindu Indian nation and showing other Hindus how Muslims could be good and even compatible as Muslim friends. As for me: was I even Muslim then? Or was that even an issue, except that he made it into one?

I began to learn about South Asia from an Indian perspective. I was taught by many teachers of Indian origin. I loved Indian parallel cinema and was applauded by my teachers when I learnt to question the coming into existence of the Pakistani nation, and think about a united India, a notion I would still like to believe in.

Then the Gulf war happened. I was instantly identified as a Muslim, at airports and at university. With an obviously Muslim family name, I was at two occasions searched at airports, joked about being a relative of Sadam Hussein etc. The West and India shared in the demonization of the Muslim and I came to be perceived increasingly as a Muslim. The notion that Pakistan and the West were allies began to fade, and India emerged as the capitalist, friendly nation. But India could no longer blame Pakistan as being solely allied to the West. In fact, India gave birth to the best of capitalism through the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century. Hindutva forces gained ground, and my relationships with Hindu men became very tense.

It has been argued, by secular diasporic proponents of South Asian community building, that Hindutva had numerically occupied a very small support base from the Indian electorate during the anti-colonial movement.  Aside from the marginal Hindutva ideologues such as V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar, my readings, of the central figure in Indian nationalism and her first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, reveals that Hindutva was inextricably intertwined with the core of this nationalism. By the 1940s, it had constructed the “Muslim” as an outsider to the Indian nation and positioned the nation against the Muslim. It is Nehru’s Discovery of India that talks of the Muslim invasions and the resultant empires as more problematic than any other invaders and regimes, which were always incorporated unequivocally into being Hindu. For example, the Shakas and the Huns became “Hindus” – as if prior settlers did not construct the “other” as worshipper of one god or the other, or classify the majority of the population as untouchable or outside the caste structure.

Once “Muslim” was claimed as the first outsider, it could be concluded that only the Muslim constructed the other as “kaffir” or non-believer, only the Muslim excluded. There was no historical process through which other groups became Hindus or were Indianized. They just naturally were Hindu, set against the colonizer and the Muslim. Secularization in the West and the discovery of the Aryan race theory identified the Semite as intrinsically embodying problematic religion vis à vis the Aryan. Western historiography and Indian nationalism believed that the “Aryan” spread not bigoted systems of belief, but civilization to the entire world. Hence, “Hindu” was rendered indigenous, magically having resolved all its caste and “others” as part of the anti-colonial movement. In the context of the Harijan movement led by Gandhi and this leader’s guilt inspired tactics with Ambedkar, for Nehru, the “Muslim” was the only modern problem India confronted as the colonizer retreated back to England. In reality, however, it is still the colonizer that continues to access visas and unlimited entry into any South Asian territory, while the Indian or Pakistani cannot slip easily into one another’s.

And so it was with some of my friends. The Hindu as a category, as claimed by many Hindu bigots, always existed. There was neither invader blood nor any sense of privilege that some Hindus enjoyed as Hindus under Muslim rule. Unproblematic Hindus they had always been and would always be.

I have watched so many rich Indians and Pakistanis come into Canada and slide unquestionably into Canadian settler society. It is the poor and uneducated immigrant that has no “home” to go back to in the country of origin, nor the possibility of building rich pastures in the new colony. It is the same educated Indian on large scholarship and grants that tells me that Pakistanis are incapable of being anything else but engineers and doctors. Yet they become the sole representatives of leading research in the Sciences and Humanities. The Muslim is uncivilized and incapable of being anything but a terrorist. The only safe identity is to be a “secular Muslim” in which case you are still under scrutiny:  “You’re not a terrorist, are you?” So to the Hindutva forces and the underbelly of Indian nationalism that constructed India, I would like to say: “You also had a very big hand in constructing the Pakistani nation, which you so love to hate.”

South Asia as a construct and South Asian studies in the West, continues to be heavily Indo-centric and biased towards Hindutva. I have been to two reputable South Asian Studies conferences, where the Indian ambassador is the sole spokesperson of the region, and s/he always positions her/himself against Pakistan (and recently singles Pakistan as the terrorist nation that the world should acknowledge). South Asian studies programs as currently constructed favour the study of Hinduism over Indian Islam tenfold. This of course is fuelled by the Islamization of Pakistan. This construction of Hinduism, as a religion, until very recently, has ignored the syncretic traditions such as Sufi poetry of Kabir or the figure of Jhule Lal in Sindh, as revered by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims alike. This results in South Asian Islam being studied solely in the department of Islamic Studies, whereas Hinduism gains more ground in South Asian Studies departments. This may be a result of a lack of innovative research on South Asian Islam, but also is the result of Hindutva ideology which constructs Hinduism itself as more authentic and indigenous to the subcontinent.