Class, conservatism and sexuality

In 2004, the (now defunct) United Nations Human Rights Commission used its 60th session to debate a resolution that had been tabled the previous year by Brazil on "Human Rights and Sexual Orientation". This represented the first time that the world body had actively considered adopting a motion specifically aimed at ending discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Pakistan – along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya and Malaysia – proposed amendments to the resolution, demanding that the term sexual orientation be removed from the text entirely. As it had announced previously, the Pakistani delegation upheld the stance of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) by ultimately voting against the resolution.

While such a move was not entirely unexpected, what caught the world's attention was the insistence, by the head of the Pakistani group, that the issue of sexual orientation was 'not a concern' for the developing world. The rationale for such a statement was that homosexuality was, purportedly, an exclusively Western phenomenon. The subtext to this was that homosexuality did not exist in Muslim states due simply to the fact that Islam forbade such practices. Now fast-forward to October 2005, when Pakistan again hit international headlines with reports of the country's 'first-ever' gay marriage having taken place in Khyber Agency, between a 42-year-old Afghan refugee and a 16-year-old local boy.

Such glaring dichotomies are, unfortunately, quite representative of what can best be described as the ongoing identity crisis engulfing Pakistan. This tension is routinely played out between 'enlightened' moderates, who hope to showcase the country's 'soft face', and those who wish to safeguard its traditional conservatism. Yet these lines become blurred when the so-called progressive liberals talk of the need to modernise but not 'Westernise' Pakistan. This type of rhetoric is due largely to tendencies within the Muslim world towards projecting stereotypes of Western culture as being synonymous with sexual immorality and decadence, accompanied, in turn, by attempts to establish a contrived, and false, presumption that Muslim societies are immune to such excesses.

In recent times, much of the Western media has picked up on this disconnect. Perhaps fuelled by a desire to counter assaults on Western values, or the perceived lack thereof, the focus has generally been on 'decadent Muslim East' stories, aimed at deflating the myth of Muslim propriety. Almost inevitably, the primary focus has been on Pakistani women who are seen to defy conventional norms by adopting so-called Western lifestyles. This usually pertains to highlighting the prevalence of drinking and smoking, as well as of pre-marital sexual affairs, among the country's urban, educated elite. Likewise, a follow-on trend has been the emergence of 'exposés' on alternative sexualities in Pakistan. Yet coverage of both issues has been severely limited in both scope and understanding.

Downtown boys
When talking of certain segments of society breaking sexual taboos in conservative Pakistan, it must first be understood that the idea of an all-encompassing, homogenous Pakistani conservatism is itself something of a misnomer. Indeed, there are some in Pakistan who support the imposition of a strict interpretation of Sharia law along the lines of that espoused by the Taliban, as well as enforced gender segregation in the public sphere. Nevertheless, to understand conservatism in Pakistan is to first recognise the socio-economic dynamics at play within the country. And this pertains as much to the notion or prevalence of alternative sexuality as to gender segregation.

For one reason or another, it has been widely accepted that Pakistan's elite class is the most amenable to 'Western' mores. Here, the notion of gender segregation is non-existent, with both young adult men and women being quite open about their lifestyles. Linked to this – or, perhaps, the fallout from this – is the rise of the Pakistan fashion industry, itself an elitist domain. This has promoted women, both on catwalks and in the pages of glossy fashion magazines, often displaying more flesh than fabric. The fashion industry is also home to many gay professionals, both men and women. This is widely accepted, while it seems that some men even allude to their homosexuality in order to render their female clientele more comfortable.

The urban elite in Pakistan has thus clearly come to a point where it is comfortable in the company of gay men and women. Some even wear their association with homosexuals as a badge of honour, to advertise 'enlightened' or progressive credentials. In this way, a gay friend or acquaintance often becomes the most fashionable accessory around. This may explain why, for instance, while many Western observers have been surprised at the rise and popularity of Begum Nawazish Ali – the small-screen alter ego of the television host Ali Saleem, who has openly acknowledged his bisexuality and his love of dressing up as a woman – his onscreen antics have failed to shock the elite classes in Pakistan.

Yet such attitudes towards alternative sexualities, or the apparent blurring of gender lines, are by no means uniform across the board, including within the gay community itself. Last year in Lahore, for example, news spread of a gay party being held in the city centre. Among the massive queues outside the venue, there were only two women to be seen, indicating a stark distinction between the gay and lesbian scenes, even in urbane Lahore. The more intriguing factor, however, was the very pronounced class divide between the men who were hoping to gain admission, the overwhelming majority being decidedly upper class. They were fashionably dressed in the latest Western trends, not to mention clearly comfortable in their own skins. On the sidelines, however, was also a small group of young men, dressed in simple cotton salwaar kameez and sporting make-up. Towards this group, many of the posh gay boys did not bother to hide their scorn. They ridiculed the appearance of the 'downtown boys', questioning their audacity at thinking they would be allowed into a party that was clearly out of their social league.

Since marginalisation on the basis of sexual orientation is also determined along class lines, it is inevitable that people of non-mainstream sexual orientation do not automatically share a sense of solidarity with one another. And, if they themselves feel free to ridicule or ostracise those from a lower social class, then it should come as no surprise that mainstream society feels at liberty to do the same. This is why Begum Nawazish Ali boasts a considerable fan base, while men dressed as women on the city streets, hoping for a few rupees here and there, are routinely met with verbal abuse, if not worse.

Middle-class conservatives
In contrast to the relative openness of the elite towards homosexuality, Pakistan's middle class represents the flip side of the coin. Indeed, for many it is this group that is the face of conservative Pakistan. Being the so-called salaried class, they do not have the luxury of wealth nor the social power that money would yield. Thus, their personal wealth can be thought of as taking the form of family reputation, and conforming to traditional norms, along the lines of middle classes the world over.

As such, middle-class girls are not expected to socialise with unrelated men, since they are still considered the custodians of family honour. The ultimate goal of the family is to see both sons and daughters settled into marriages with spouses from 'good, respectable' families. For this class, therefore, the chances of tolerating, let alone accepting, homosexuality is pretty slim. Hence, even young men and women with same-sex desires often find themselves agreeing to arranged heterosexual marriages, if for no other reason than to keep up family and social appearances. Oftentimes, the heterosexual partner in such relationships knows nothing of the true sexual preference of the spouse. Such social pressures may thus push the homosexual partner to lead something of a double life, an option that has recently been made more accessible and feasible by easy access to the Internet.

Last year's widely discussed ruling by the Lahore High Court underscores this middle-class conservatism. Shahzima Tariq and Shamail Raj married in September 2006. The latter, although having been born female, felt born into the wrong body, and had undergone surgery to remove the breasts and uterus. In May 2007, following a case filed by Tariq's father, the High Court ruled that gender could be determined only by biology, and sentenced the pair to three years' imprisonment for having engaged in an 'un-Islamic' marriage. A month later, the Supreme Court suspended the verdict, yet the ruling nonetheless sidelined the core issue, which had long deserved to be openly debated within Pakistan: the question of which other factors should legally be considered as determining gender identity. Instead of going down this path, it was easier for the court to respond by persecuting the couple over their perceived sexual deviation.

In all of this, what of the lower class? In the Pakistani context, foreign observers often link this group to a more fervent practise of Islam (contrasting with the perceived modernising, secular tendencies of the elite) and, therefore, a stricter code of conservatism. However, the opposite actually tends to hold true. Here, the socio-economic factor is key to understanding the seemingly contradictory dynamics at work. At the bottom of all socio-economic indicators in terms of income, education and exposure to a larger world, it is assumed that the lower classes also lack the opportunity to interact freely with members of the opposite sex. This last, however, can be disputed to a certain extent, since men and women from Pakistan's poorer class often find themselves working directly alongside each other, in households or out in the fields.

Yet it is also true that the lower class has less free time and disposable income, which presents a hurdle to free, unobserved social interaction with members of the opposite sex. This superficially enforced code of gender segregation is, nevertheless, powerful in its impact. Indeed, it has been said to breed deeply engrained patterns of what can be referred to as 'behavioural opportunism'. Thus, men and women will be much more ready to take advantage of opportunities for sexual release whenever they arise, be they of a heterosexual or homosexual nature. Realising that society at large cares little for their 'reputation', many believe they have nothing tangible to lose in any case.

Particularly interesting in this regard is the copious amount of material that has been written on the sexual orientation of those living in Pakistan's tribal areas. It is said that there is a certain acceptance among men in these areas regarding male homosexual relations. Indeed, many go as far as to say that homosexual practices have become embedded in the culture of Pashtun tribesmen hailing from the areas surrounding the NWFP. Some refer to the practice of selling 'pleasure boys' – young boys being given to older, perhaps feudal, men with money. In fact, the 42-year-old Afghan refugee in Khyber Agency referred to earlier was said to have paid the young boy's family a 'dowry' of PKR 40,000 (USD 635) in exchange for his hand in 'marriage'. In all of this, however, such perceptions simultaneously raise the need to distinguish between consensual homosexual relations and plain sexual abuse (including forced prostitution), a distinction that often seems to fall by the wayside when engaging in mainstream discussions of alternative sexualities.

In the end, in order to understand the existence of homosexuality in Pakistan, one must first undertake to view the nature of Pakistani conservatism through the lens of socio-economic dynamics. Only after the layers are peeled away and misconceptions dispelled can one begin to understand that the situations of women, and of those engaging in alternative sexualities, are not as clear-cut as prevailing stereotypes suggest. And while the media and observers from overseas would do well to spend some time searching beneath the old clichés, Pakistani media and observers would do their own people a great service by calling a halt to the preaching of Muslim propriety as a supposed counter to the perception of Western sexual immorality and decadence. Acceptance, after all, can only be nurtured when false stereotypes are, finally, debunked.

~ Miranda Husain is an assistant editor with the Daily Times, based in Lahore.

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