Saturday, November 29, 2008
Exclusive - 'Dostana' in Pakistan
The Dawn newspaper refused to print this op-ed on homosexualism in Pakistan.
[By Irfan Husain, columnist for Dawn]
The furore caused by the movie Dostana underlines the hypocrisy rampant in the subcontinent. The film is an exploration of a gay relationship between two men played by Abishek Bacchan and John Abraham, and is in no way overtly exploitative. Apart from one kiss, there are no scenes containing any sex. Nevertheless, a storm broke out when the film was released in Pakistan.
The truth is that we in South Asia are extremely Victorian in our attitudes towards the discussion of sexual mattes of any kind. Given these taboos, it is easy to understand why a debate about homosexuality remains out of bounds in polite company. And yet, this aspect of human sexuality is rampant in our part of the world, much as we would like to sweep it under the carpet.
Foreigners new to the subcontinent are often shocked by the sight of men walking along, holding hands in public. Even in the most liberal western country, such a sight would be rare in broad daylight along a public thoroughfare. And yet, despite this common display of affection among males, a similar demonstration among young men and women is frowned upon. Indeed, it might well cause couples in Pakistan to land up in jail if they don’t have a marriage certificate.
However, despite our prudish pretence, the fact is that we are relatively tolerant of homosexual behaviour. Our literature contains many references to romantic attachment between men. And for years, homosexuality in Pashtun society has been an open secret, although it might well be exaggerated. According to local tradition, many men live by the credo “Women for duty; boys for pleasure.” Indeed, Afghans often dress up pretty boys as girls, and have them dance in public.
According to Afghan tradition, even birds cover their rear with their wings when flying over Kandahar. In our tribal areas, local society was shocked when one amorous man actually married his young (male) lover after a colourful ceremony a couple of years ago. Muslim aristocrats in Delhi and Lucknow in Mughal India were known for their frequent affairs with attractive young men.
In the West, there have been huge strides in public opinion since the infamous trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde for homosexuality over a century ago. Now, being gay is fashionable in New York, London and Paris. While residual dislike lingers in the working classes, homophobia among educated urban professionals is very rare. And as attitudes change and gays move into the mainstream, their rights are part of the public agenda. Thus, the discussion is now about whether gays can marry, adopt children and live life as normal couples. And these relationships are as much between consenting men as between women. Lesbianism, too, is widely accepted as an alternative life choice.
According to biologists, around 2.5% of the male population has a genetic predisposition towards homosexuality. Apparently, some male babies are born with a different gene pattern, and their sexual orientation is therefore preordained by nature. To demand that such people must conform to the heterosexual norm is both cruel and unnatural.
Such social pressures cause huge stresses on these unfortunate individuals: parents want them to get married and have children, while society demands that they keep their natural desires tightly under control. And yet, transvestites are allowed to exist on the fringes of everyday life. Middle class gay men and women occupy a twilight zone in urban Pakistan (and India, too, I suspect).
In truth, while we reluctantly accept the existence of gay men, lesbianism is something we are much more uncomfortable with. And yet, our rigidly segregated society often forces young women to turn to each other. As there are very few opportunities for young people to mingle and meet, teenaged girls can hardly be blamed for experimenting with their own sex. In some cases, this becomes a lifelong preference.
While many people I know express shock and horror at these alternative lifestyle choices, I find it odd that they should choose to express their abhorrence for matters that are really none of their business. What happens between consenting adults in the privacy of bedrooms should not really concern the rest of us. True, the monotheistic faiths contain injunctions against carnal acts between men; but surely it is for the Maker to allocate blame. I, for one, refuse to be my brother’s keeper.
By driving an entire category of men and women underground, we have inflicted untold misery on hundreds of thousands of our citizen. Our penal system and laws reflect a deeply intolerant mindset that demands conformity at every level. And while we condemn any lifestyle that is not in line with the norm (whatever that is), we never stop to think that gays do not harm anybody else. If anything, they tend to be more creative than straight people. A study in the UK found that in industries like fashion and advertising, gays tend to earn more as a group than do ‘normal’ people. Music and the film in the West contain a disproportionate percentage of gays.
The ‘no-discrimination laws’ in the U.S. and the UK mean that more and more gays have begun joining the armed services. Normally, these are the most conservative institutions anywhere, so this change signifies how attitudes have been transformed within a generation. Despite these profound changes in much of the world, we in the subcontinent cling to our intolerant outlook. Indeed, we take positive delight in making life miserable for nonconformists: anybody who looks, talks or dresses differently is mocked or locked up. Perhaps I am overstating the case a bit, but the fact is that we are a deeply intolerant society.
And yet a TV programme like ‘Begum Nawazish’, featuring a man dressed as a woman, can become hugely popular in a deeply conservative country like Pakistan. How to explain such a seeming contradiction? Clearly, we can laugh at a cross-dressing act as a fiction created by show biz, but would probably be very uncomfortable if we were seated next to an overtly gay person at a dinner party.
But until we can accept and celebrate the reality of all kinds of differences within the vast mosaic that makes up humanity, we will continue to struggle with edgy movies like Dostana.