Representative Life

Radio silence on here for a few months as life interferes with thought. Have gotten a few things published recently, and am leaving here a meandering, rough introduction to an interview with a queer filmmaker and activist that got published a little while back. This intro was cut significantly, so the ideas contained ultimately didn’t make it into the final piece in a full sense. That’s writing, it happens, but there are some unrefined contemplations in here I would like to preserve for revisiting sometime. Anyways, here we are:

In May of this year, a transgender woman named Alisha lay dying from several gunshot wounds in the largest hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, as patients and staff teased her distraught friends, who were activists in the Trans Action Network of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and balked at the question of which patients to place her with, the men or women. Activists related that instead of providing the care that was urgently needed, doctors at Lady Reading Hospital instead asked Alisha how much she charged for dancing; they posted updates about her condition on social media. Alisha eventually succumbed to her wounds, and the hospital staff’s misconduct sparked outrage across media and among civil society activists. There is disagreement over who shot Alisha and why, with different accounts claiming her assailant was a ‘disgruntled customer’ or a gang of extortionists who target transgender women. However, one fact is not in dispute: all those ultimately responsible for her death viewed her as a dispensable, lower class social type before they saw her as an individual.

VICE documentarians open their feature “Being LGBT in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan” in the Tirah Valley, a region racked by many destructive years of the War on Terror and militant insurgencies a few hundred kilometres from Peshawar, where a gun-wielding masked man speaking Pashto decries the internet’s role in supposedly bringing homosexuality into existence in Pakistan as part of an infidel conspiracy. Later, in Lahore, they interview two upper-class transgender women, Maya and Inaya, about the pleasures and dangers of using social media and apps to connect with friends and sexual partners. Reflecting on discrimination, Maya says that it is usually those of a ‘very less thinking level’, presumably lower class or less educated people, who argue with her that her gender identity and performance is forbidden on the basis of Islam. For good measure, they also head to Islamabad to speak to the extremely controversial cleric Abdul Aziz, who informs them that the Islamic punishment for homosexual activity is to be thrown off a building. While Naz Male Health Alliance’s executive, Qasim Iqbal, closes the feature by asserting that LGBT people are ‘good Muslims’ too, it seems like VICE thinks the real ‘good Muslims’ are the ones who spout anti-queer rhetoric and hunt queer folk for the good of the nation.

In the 2015 BBC documentary “How Gay is Pakistan,” the openly gay British Pakistani youtube star Mawaan Rizwaan travels back to the motherland to explore queer life in the country in the hopes of understanding why his parents aren’t accepting of his sexuality. He meets with people like activist couple Kami and Sid and a maulvi who claims to possess medicinal remedies for gayness. After witnessing Kami dealing with street harassment while shopping, Mawaan nervously jokes that he wants to go back to ‘zone two London’ where he, presumably, is safe. Weirdly, he also visits the same or similar places as the VICE documentarians do, such as a bare-bones working class hostel that doubles as a kind of cruising ground for men, and the offices of Naz, where Qasim Iqbal shows him the same video of a rural youth being attacked and abused after being caught having male-to-male sex that Iqbal shows VICE. After wandering around, probably well-meaning but confused, and thanking his stars for the apparently secure and free life he enjoys in the UK, Mawaan returns home. From the safety of that home, he calls the maulvi to troll him about his medicinal remedies not working.

This Ramadan, a bumbling news anchor for Daily Pakistan visited an iftaar party for the khwaja sira community in Lahore and asked most attendees the same two questions: How many fasts have you kept? Why do you think common people don’t accept khwaja siras or invite them to their iftaar parties? Perhaps expecting to get uniform answers, instead different interviewees tell him contradictory things– some get invited to iftaar parties, some don’t. One khwaja sira chides him, “People do invite us! Why do you always highlight negative things. . . look, even youth from other parts of the civil society have come here to be with us . . . things are changing.” He asks one person, “Is there a difference between your fasts and a common Muslim’s fasting?” She interlocutor chuckles and responds, “Why? Are we different kinds of Muslim? Just like Allah has made the rest of the Muslims, He made us!”

What all these media representations of queer folk in Pakistan have in common is their insistence on providing a pre-packaged narrative that their chosen queer voices can then fill. Does VICE have a place for Alisha, who perhaps shared a language and ethnicity with the masked man who wanted people like her dead but who may have simultaneously been separated from women like Maya and Inaya by the enormous gulf of class difference? Would she have been able to afford a casual jewelry purchase for a house party, like them? Do the BBC and VICE have room for those like the khwaja siras at iftaar parties who do insist upon their religiosity, but who don’t have the privilege of protection if they want to raise their voice against religious intolerance, even in a playful way like Mawaan does? Does Daily Pakistan have the imaginative scope to explore khwaja sira lives that are marked not only by rejection and extreme violence but also by community building and moments of joy? Finally, As Zulfikar Ali Bhutto asks in a recent article for Tanqeed, “How can we find a Pakistani-ness in discussions on homosexuality and sexual identity that have been seen and explained through a Western lens for decades?”

I tackled these myriad issues of class, religion, homonationalism, and internationalist impositions with Saadat Munir, a founder and curator of the Aks Film, Art and Dialogue Festival for Minorities and co-director, with Saad Khan, of the 2013 documentary Chuppan Chupai. Chuppan Chupai follows the lives of four queer individuals of different social backgrounds– the prominent khwaja sira activist Neeli, the sweet and demure wedding performer Waseem, the plucky trans activist Kami (who also appeared in How Gay is Pakistan), and the transitioning but conflicted law student Jenny. Each of their extended interviews is totally engrossing, at times humorous and at times very troubling, and the documentary approaches the telling of their stories in a way that is quite raw and refreshingly devoid of a particular narrative agenda. The four come from different classes, different cultural backgrounds, and have their own ways of making sense of their sexualities, ways that include struggling through feelings of self-loathing and religious fear as much as they do self-acceptance, exploration, and love. It is because of this rawness and voicing of the uncomfortable that Chuppan Chuppai has been both celebrated and controversial. Munir reflected on these aspects of the documentary, and queer life in Pakistan, in depth over our conversation. (Edited for clarity)

You can find the interview online if you want to search for it, not posting it here.

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