In 1860, the British Empire imposed its homophobic laws on India, which was much bigger than the current nation and included current-day countries like the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Section 377 reads:
“Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than two years nor more than ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”
Despite the British imposition, Pakistan was still a very much an open society. Gay people have had a much better experience in Pakistan than they did in London. But, all of that changed in the 1980s, under the sixth president of Pakistan, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who was a close ally of Arabian countries. His government took the law to lifetime imprisonment, and even death in certain areas under Sharia law. More and more Wahabbi-style religious schools or madrasas were opened in the country, generally with money from the Middle East as well as teachers educated in that region.
However, 145 years after the British had brought Sodomy Laws to the region, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has noted in 2005 that gay life in Pakistan is still “less inhibited than in the west.” This is because the culture is much stronger than laws imposed by foreign governments and greedy local politicians. There have been a lot of changes, sometimes they are good and sometimes bad, but changes are constant companion to gay life in Pakistan. At the moment, one of the mysteries is that people deny the history of gay life in Pakistan while in Paksitan. Speaking to the National Public Radio, Pakistani-American scholar Taymiya R. Zaman, who happens to be an expert in Islamic History, said that “You can’t look at something that already existed – and there is a shrine devoted to it – and say it was unacceptable,” in connection to one of the characters from below.
Here are 5 ways to help you realize Paksitan is more tolerant than you think:
The Sultan and the Slave
In the year 1015, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, who was the first Muslim ruler in the Indian subcontinent, asked his lover, a slave named Malik Ayaz, if he knew a greater king than he. Ayaz replied that he himself was greater than the Sultan: “Because even though you are a king, your heart rules you, and this slave is the king of your heart.” Their love story has been the subject of many poems, songs, and stories. Today, many people visit Malik Ayaz’s tomb in Lahore; remembering the city’s first Muslim ruler, who made the city a cultural center for the entire area. The relationship between these two remains a strong inspiration for gay people. This is because the Sultan brought Islam to the region, and therefore it reminds them that Islam is far less homophobic than what the new fundamentalist generations want people to believe.
The Sufi Saint and the Hindu
It was in the mid 1500s when Shah Hussain broke into the poetry scene with his spiritual prose. His poems have been performed as songs by Qawwali musicians such as the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, as they are short and on point. Shah Hussain met Madho Lal, a Hindu young man, and the two fell in love. They are buried together in the same shrine in Lahore, Pakistan, and the Mela Chiraghan festival celebrates their death anniversary. According to Yoginder Sikand, the author of Sacred Spaces, the two men “became so closely associated that in the popular mind the saint is most commonly known as Madho Lal Hussain, as if the two had been fused into one,” as he wrote in the Pakistan Christian Post, adding that the “intensely close relationship that blossomed between them has been the subject of much speculation and controversy, starting in their very lifetime.” One story says that Madho Lal’s relatives wanted to kill them, but when they arrived at the couple’s door they couldn’t find the door.
The Drag Queen and the Nation
In the year 2005, the artist Ali Saleem, who told the Washington Blade that he’s gay, charmed the country with his drag persona Begum Nawazish Ali. The show “Late Night Show With Begum Nawazish Ali” premiered to both audience and critical positive waves. The Begum, or Lady, is a widow and she is not afraid to flirt with the country’s top male personalities. Her make up is often on point, and her saris are generally sexy, preferably see-through and pink or red – very much the opposite of a ‘lady’ in a country known for its conservative views. Saleem had become one of the highest paid television stars, his show having being on a coveted prime slot on the weekend. In the process, once more, gay people have come into a positive position. Although the show is now off the air, as of 2011, Saleem remains a popular face.
The Internet and the Global Gay
The Internet has revolutionized many things in many countries. In Pakistan, it gave the everyday person a chance to see gay life elsewhere. As such, it wasn’t surprising that Pakistanis are very curious about it. “As of this writing,” wrote Alex Park for Mother Jones magazine, “Pakistan is by volume the world leader for Google searches of the terms ‘shemale sex,’ ‘teen anal sex,’ and ‘man fucking man,’ according to Google Trends.” But the Internet has allowed the gay community to come together. There are many gay websites, online list serv, Facebook pages and groups, Twitter accounts, and other social media; and they all improved life for the average gay person. The Internet has also given birth to a new kind of system through the smartphone world. As such, gay apps created in the West for gay dating are just as popular in Pakistan as they are in the United States. But, these Apps have given the gay activist an edge. Now you can directly unite, spread information, and even find new people in your area—all by letting these Apps access your location services.
The Culture and the One Who Knows It
In 2013, the BBC did a radio documentary, entitled Inside Gay Pakistan, in which the non-Pakistani might learn how gay friendly the Pakistani culture really is. If you don’t have an App, for example, all you have to do is listen for the massage man, the malchi walah, who might walk through your neighborhood, shaking his oils so ever sensually. Or, you might go to a Sufi shrine, well known as a hook up location, in the heart of the city. Or, you might just walk through the tea stalls, hoping to catch the gaze of a new lover. These are ways in which the culture can function outside the laws in the book.
Afdhere Jama is the author of Queer Jihad: LGBT Muslims on Coming Out, Activism, and the Faith. He lives in the United States.