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Saturday 10 October 2009


Razor Crescent? LGBT Pakistan

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 7th September 2009

Although India has just repealed its antigay Section 377 of the colonial era Indian Penal Code, Pakistan is still opposed to LGBT rights... although there are some signs of hope.

eunuchs.jpg
Eunuchs, considered a member of 'the third sex' are quite visible and tolerated in Pakistan
Pakistan has existed as a Muslim majority nation since the partition of India in 1947 as a prelude to the independence of both nations from British colonial rule. However, its origins go back to Britain's role in the downfall of the Muslim Mughal emperor in 1857, whereupon the British Empire annexed India and Muslim clergy (umma) found their political power and social status sharply reduced. As a response to adverse circumstances, they resorted to forming conservative Deobandi revivalist madrassa (religious indoctrination schools) for boys and adolescent males. In 1918, Turkey's Ottoman Empire fell, leading to a power vacuum amongst the global Muslim community. However, initially the influence of conservative Islamism was blunted by rival ideologies like secular marxism and nationalism in Pakistan.

In 1977, that changed when General Zia ul Haq seized power in a coup. Meanwhile, in adjacent Afghanistan, the political situation was deteriorating, which led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. As a response, the CIA started to provide funds and enabling logistical support to Islamist mujahedin in the neighbouring country. At the same time, General Zia used some of the diverted funds to promote Islamisation of the national economy, justice system and security services. In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew from its failed Afghan theatre of conflict, and Afghanistan collapsed into civil war. In 1996, the Taliban emerged as the dominant player when they took Kabul, the nation's capital, which led to problems in neighbouring Pakistan because Pakistan's Northwestern Frontier Provinces also contain Pushtuns, Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group. In 2001, al Qaeda used Afghanistan as a staging post to attack the United States, whereupon NATO invaded Afghanistan and displaced the Taliban. Civil war flared up again, which has continued ever since. Then in 2004, Pakistan began to experience its own Sunni Islamist insurgency in its Pushtun-dominated Northwestern Frontier Provinces, aided and abetted by cross-border Taliban assistance. Today, Pakistan is facing fierce religious and nationalist antagonisms which may tear it apart.

As a result of the above aggressive religious conservatism, the situation of LGBT Pakistanis is not good. Indeed, many have either emigrated or sought asylum outside their war-torn country in response. To see why, one need only look at relevant sections of the Pakistani constitution, which contains multiple prohibitions that frustrate LGBT organising.

Article 141 prevents gatherings of more than five people if they seek to cause 'mischief' or ''offence.' Article 153 forbids student outreach programmes that encourage them to undertake activities opposed to 'public order'. Article 269 prohibits unlawful or negligent spreading of disease, while Article 270 forbids malicious spreading of disease. The latter severely compromise HIV/AIDS education within Pakistan, although PLWA Shukira Gul does lead an Association of People Living With HIV/AIDS.

Article 290 prevents public nuisance, which may be interpreted against gay male cruising. Article 292 is an 'anti-obsenity' law, while Article 294 prevents 'obscene' performances...including those that may be needed for HIV/AIDS prevention education amongst gay men and sex workers. Article 371A bans sex work. Article 371B bans encouraging women into sex work, or undertaking 'illicit intercourse' outside marriage. As yet, this hasn't been used against lesbians.

As with India's abolished Section 377, Pakistan'sArticle 377 is its 'anti-sodomy' law, Finally, Article 496 prevents 'fraudulent' (same-sex?) marriages.

However, there are some signs of hope. Like neighbouring India, Pakistan has its own traditional hijra/transgender population, and the Lahore High Court ruled that if diagnosed gender identity was at stake, sex reassignment surgery could be undertaken (although hijras are more traditionally eunuchs or intersexed).

Given the arduous prohibitions that deter openness and disclosure amongstLGBT Pakistanis, it is all the more remarkable that two brave lesbians, Kyla Pasha and Sarah Suhail, started up Chay, a South Asian LGBT magazine, in April 2008. In August 2008, it was published online.

Chaydeals with a range of issues like the denial of HIV in Pakistan, Indian lesbian stereotype subversion on Youtube, shame and sexual experience, relationships and sexual diversity and homoeroticism and masculinity in Pakistani urban public space. They're running possible risks from Articles 292 and 294, as well as (possibly) Article 371B, but there has been an enthusiastic response from the Pakistani LGBT diaspora abroad in Europe and elsewhere.

Its advent suggests that despite the grim situation, there are some signs of tentative hope.

Recommended:

David Keys: "Holy War in Pakistan" BBC History: 10: 7: July 2009: 14-15

Mandy Van Deven: “Flying below the radar” Curve 19/7: September 2009: 55

Chay magazine: http://www.chaymagazine.org/

LGBT rights in Pakistan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_in_Pakistan


Craig Young - 7th September 2009

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