It's risky but easy to be a homosexual in this country.
[Text by Mayank Austen Soofi; author's picture by Faisal Khan]
During my first trip to Pakistan in 2006, I found the country teeming with homosexuals. In the 20-hours long bus journey from Lahore to Karachi, a bearded missionary of Tablighi Jamat, an Islamic movement that advocates extreme austerity, advised me to convert to his religion. I politely nodded at his persuasions but was forced to vigorously shake my head when his hand started caressing my thighs. The massage was relaxing but the vibes were clearly sexual.
Later while strolling in the early-evening heat of Karachi's Clifton Beach, a charming kulfi seller got fixated on me. He promised to show me the "real" Karachi. I would have been a game if not his tendency to hold my arms a little longer than usual. Even that would have been fine, but the pressing and rubbing was just too disconcerting.
These were just few of the queer moments of my Pakistan excursion. While returning back to Lahore in Allama Iqbal Express train, a Bahawalpur trader suddenly confessed in the midst of our Musharraf conversations that he liked sleeping with boys! The ultimate was when an old Karachi Pathan, with kohl-lined eyes, escorted me to a seedy shop at Saddar Market and offered the pirated DVD of Brokeback Mountain at bargain rates. (I bought it!)
Such experiences appear unreal. After all the website of the International Lesbian and Gay Association quotes the Pakistan embassy in Hague making it clear that "the homosexual is not accepted as a decent individual, and homosexual acts constitute an offense punishable with imprisonment for life or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years."
Indeed it is difficult to conceive Pakistan as a place where individuals could be free to celebrate sex, and different sexual orientations. But that is what everyone seems to do. In his 2004 essay, appropriately titled The East is Blue, Sir Salman Rushdie claimed that more than 60 percent of Internet users in Pakistan visit porn sites. Unfortunately we do not have figures of Pakistanis who access gay porn sites.
Few years back a news story in the Boston Globe concluded that across all classes and social groups in Pakistan, men have sex with men. "In villages throughout the country, young boys are often forcibly "taken" by older men, starting a cycle of abuse and revenge that social activists and observers say is the common pattern of homosexual sex in Pakistan," the newspaper reported.
In fact, in the conservative regions of North Western Frontier Province it is socially acceptable for Pashtun men to take up young boys for sexual pleasure. But don't rush to fancy the country as some liberal San Francisco outpost where life is all about celebrating individual choices. Many homosexual relationships here are not a result of two gay people wanting to make love but consequences of aggression and abuse by the strong on the weak. It is less love and more rape.
In her acclaimed book The Dancing Girls of Lahore, British author Louise Brown who established intimate friendship with a Pakistani prostitute and her family made the following observation:
Homosexuality is derided in public, but it is accepted, provided it remains a secret. The men involved in homosexual acts don’t perceive themselves to be homosexual, and the men’s families won’t perceive them to be homosexual either...Having sex with other men or boys is not associated with stigma providing a man takes a dominant role in sexual encounters. It may even reinforce a man’s masculinity and status because he is sexually dominating others. It is the receptive partner who is despised and ridiculed.
Obviously chivalry codes exist among gays too. But even then if a homosexual lifestyle is risky option for men, it is unthinkable for women. In June 2007, the Lahore High Court sentenced two ladies in love to three years imprisonment.
Yet there are reasons to hope. Following the capture of Islamabad's bra-and-underpants clad Chinese masseuses by the dreaded burka-clad students of the all-girls conservative Islamic school Jamia Hafsa in June this year, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who leads the man's school, drafted a new ruling. He declared, "If you want massage treatment, men should go to men, and women should go to women." Gay Pakistanis should gleefully catch the hint.