Sexual pluralism in Pakistan

Published: July 3, 2011
The writer is professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont, US. He can be followed on Twitter: saleem_ali

The writer is professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont, US. He can be followed on Twitter: saleem_ali

Shoaib Mansoor’s newly released film Bol has created quite a stir in Pakistan. It is being applauded and reviled at the same time. But perhaps the most ‘potent’ criticism from the public pertains to its portrayal of transgendered issues. This is a topic which supposedly even ‘enlightened’ Pakistanis are uncomfortable with — alongside their brethren in most Muslim countries.

In December 2009, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary, ordered the Pakistani government to create a ‘third gender’ category on all national identity cards and to make the police directly accountable for any discrimination against transgendered individuals. Such individuals are also given a legal right to inheritance of property that was previously divided based on gender under the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance. For a highly conservative Islamic society where transgendered individuals have at best been pitied and marginalised, this was a revolutionary ruling that augured well for a country that is so painfully wrestling with modernity. Yet, as the polarised reaction to Bol shows, we still have a long way to go before we can reconcile sexual pluralism with religious observance.

Gender politics are central to reformation efforts in any society because sexual norms are the most personal and persistent traits where discrimination can elude pluralism. The Muslim states of the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, manifest this asymmetry with their ostensibly modern infrastructure but have an inertial stance on gender politics. Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which now rank as the world’s three largest Muslim countries, have exhibited a perplexing ambivalence on issues of women’s rights that appear to be stratified by class. On the one hand, all three countries have boasted women heads of state in their recent history and have leading women’s rights activists. On the other hand, the status of women in rural communities in all these states remains highly constrained by conservative norms.

Beyond the status of women, the rights of transgendered individuals is an even more difficult issue for Muslim countries to consider. The challenge has been the strong taboo against homosexuality in Islam, similar to fundamentalist traditions in most other religions as well. Eunuchs and transgendered individuals were immune from much of this taboo because there was no blame ascribed to their sexual preferences. Religious scholars could also give these individuals a pass because it could be argued that they were simply ‘victims’ of biological abnormalities or of extenuating social circumstances which may have led them to be castrated at birth.

The Pakistani Supreme Court ruling in this regard is perhaps a modest step in considering the complex nature of sexuality but without addressing the underlying issue of voluntary sexual preferences. Indeed, the court could not possibly address those more perplexing questions, such as ‘gay marriage’, because the Pakistani penal code still has clear injunctions against homosexuality and prison sentences against such ‘unnatural acts’ of up to 10 years. Sharia courts can have more stringent corporal punishments in this context as well.

However, it is also important to note that affection between men in Muslim societies can have non-sexual manifestations that are often misinterpreted by western commentators because of their own cultural biases. For example, embracing and kissing each other on the cheeks that is common among Arab males, or holding hands that is common among South Asian males, are practices that do not have any sexual underpinnings.

So where does all this leave us in terms of reconciling pluralism in Muslim societies? Deeply entrenched beliefs about human behaviour can take generations to change, but the fact that Pakistani courts and filmmakers alike are willing to engage with some of these imponderable questions of identity and human rights is encouraging and deserves to be applauded.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 4th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (16)

  • CB Guy
    Jul 3, 2011 - 11:21PM

    I have a question from Express Tribune now and that is, do they actually have something constructive to put forward.. There main topics are

    Minority rights: yes our condition is not all that good as it should (though in my personal experience some minorities are getting more rights then the majority). Does it mean we start blowing the trumpet of defeat and ridicule our society every single time. We have examples of Justice Bhgwandas, Cicel Chaudhry, SK Tressler, Ashir Azeem and a large list of other people belonging minorities and they got good chances and did well for the country. I am not so sure that media in other countries highlights it above all other issues of grave importance, some of which are essential for our long term survival and prosperity. Elaborate ways to helping minorities get more education so that they can do better in life. I have numerous friends belonging to other religions, I am sure they will all agree that the curse for their community is actually the lack of education, just like all majority population people with no education.
    Gay Rights: I would love to express my ideas on it but i can not. Islam has put forward a simple solution, homosexuality is a crime. You want rights, go to other countries. Don’t expect gay marriages in this country and no gay couple rights. if any one thinks that he/she has a better opinion then Islam, the Almighty gave us those rules.
    WAR on Terror: some of the pieces are so absurd that calling them crap is crap itself. Please if you think it is imperative you publish them, stop getting them from entry level bloggers, get some one who can actually right on the basis of knowledge and experience rather then gut feelings and petty personal likes and dislikes.

    My Bottom Line is, do something constructive, put forward something like ways to improve the society. How power can be generated cheaper, consumer rights, young inventors of Pakistan and the world, health issues, social issues other then murders and the above mentioned points. I think your site would actually help people rather then discouraging and killing what ever morale is left there. Recommend

  • Syed Basit
    Jul 3, 2011 - 11:27PM

    a good effort indeed….
    every human being must be given full acess to all the basic human rights..
    no doubt SC has issued a historic verdict about “3rd sex” but its importance lies in its implementation, which so far quite away from its destiny.
    As for as my home district Gujrat is concerned I hav coollected the data and its very dissapointing that they hav not even been registered properly. The issue of ID cards n other rights comes at next step.Recommend

  • Usmann Rana
    Jul 3, 2011 - 11:30PM

    I guess you are missing out on one thing. Although Pakistani society has been making fun of intersex people (intersex and transgender people are different), it has had a pity for them in their hearts It goes like this:
    You tell your children “they are born this way,they didnt have choice,so its not their fault…. but lets watch them dance for ten rupees”.
    However if you are talking about “sexual pluralism” ,shouldnt you also try to include homosexuals,bisexuals, transgender people as well? Not much mention of it there.Recommend

    Jul 4, 2011 - 1:10AM

    Yes this does need to be applauded at the most. Personally I think, our desire, endeavors & pace for ”modernity” are still unrealistically lacking in our willingness and attention to the subjectRecommend

  • aariz memon
    Jul 4, 2011 - 4:03AM

    It is also a main social problem. The writer has prominently highlighted the miseries of the third gender people. Recommend

  • Syed Basit
    Jul 4, 2011 - 9:48AM

    A great job indeed. No doubt Supreme Court has issued a historic verdict. All humans must have an access to the basic human rights no matter which group, religion,cast or orientation they belong to. As long as I see, unfortunately its far from being implementation. I have the data of my home district Gujrat and so far they not even started a practical effort to register transgenders. Issuance of ID cards n other basic rights provision comes at far high levels. I fear this order to be a part of “dust-bin” if they don’t take steps to implement it.Recommend

  • Jul 4, 2011 - 11:07AM

    Did you hear what archbishop Dolen said about legalizing gay marriages, “.. then where would we stop? “If this bill passes what next?” “What if a father wants to marry his daughter? Or a brother and sister want to marry each other?”Recommend

  • Danish Shah Tariq
    Jul 4, 2011 - 12:55PM

    Yeah. Sexual orientation is such a taboo. Let’s just eliminate all barriers that stand in the way of sexual gratification. This would render a large number of expletives toothless too. Another great service to cultural plurality and modernity.

    Come to think of it, why is drug use such a taboo? Let’s eliminate all laws punishing drug use so that those who have chosen it as a lifestyle for themselves can do so without fear and discrimination. It’s already happening in the Netherlands, which is considered by many to be a utopian state.

    Hip hip hurrah!!! Hip hip Hurrah!!!Recommend

  • Jul 4, 2011 - 2:54PM

    Human liberty and fundamental rights are important for every individual but liberty does not always mean adhering to all desires and temptations. Actions that might have chronic infiltration in a society have to be curbed. Pakistan being an Islamic state, nurtures its constitutional values from Islam and allowing homosexuality, gay-ism etc is not possible.

    However the author has rightly presented the case in favor of the transgendered who have not deliberately castrated themselves. They need an identity and it is just about time that they are given the right to live. Subjugation and suppression can not be tolerated and all labor resources have to be utilized to help the economy prosper and grow further. Recommend

  • Jul 4, 2011 - 7:24PM

    @CB Guy: The article has said nothing “un-Islamic” in what I have said. I noted that homosexuality is against the law and until society as a whole decides to reconsider those laws that is the way it is. However, scriptures inevitably need to be reinterpreted with time and the essence of their message better understood. Despite this public stance against alternative sexual lifestyles, there is tacit acceptance of homosexuality in even the most rural and conservative parts of Pakistan and in many other Muslim societies. While data on such issues is largely anecdotal, my own research on Islamic schools in Pakistan suggests that there is general consensus around a “don’t ask don’t tell” principle. Often the divine attribute of “sattar” (one who draws the curtain) is invoked by ulama to discourage public shaming of such offenses. More importantly, we need to have a humane approach towards people who may have biologically or psychologically been predisposed to this behavior and not persecute them. That is all I am saying — give such human beings due respect. Also, it is erroneous to compare this situation with incest — which is forbidden in all civilized societies for clearly biological reasons. Yes, we do need to draw the line but always understand that the line that is drawn by religious doctrine is subject to temporal interpretation. In an increasingly internationalized world there are global norms of human rights which are emerging and Muslim countries will need to be subject to them just as much as anyone else. The right to gender identity is one such right that is emerging through global consensus and just as other religions are struggling with this, so must Islam. Being able to accommodate such changes within certain limits o course, will only make Islam stronger and not weaker, Insh’Allah.Recommend

  • Karam Dad
    Jul 4, 2011 - 8:57PM

    In our country the poor are the most deprived whosoever she/he/transgenders may be.The poor are ridiculed . Recommend

  • indian guy
    Jul 4, 2011 - 9:18PM

    For example, embracing and kissing each other on the cheeks that is common among Arab males, or holding hands that is common among South Asian males, are practices that do not have any sexual underpinnings.

    @ saleem H ali

    i have lot of muslim friends and believe me, homo-sexuality is not un-common among them. In gulf where I live, its too much i would say. But people close their eye and no-body talks about it. I guess in Islamic societies, where women are hidden behind veil, there are bound to be more gays.Recommend

  • Dodo
    Jul 4, 2011 - 10:41PM

    I was actually taking you seriously until ” …who can actually right on the basis of…” Recommend

  • Malay
    Jul 5, 2011 - 5:11AM

    Why do we want to peep into other people’s private life? Would we allow others to do the same? Recommend

  • zaid
    Jul 5, 2011 - 10:18AM

    A vry good effort,i need your attention on one more big issue in pakistan. Liqueur is forbidden in our religion and country but sold by permit rooms with the name of minorities.Infact according to Bahindra(CEO Muree Brewery) 98% of there customers are muslims acoording to muree brewery census they fulfill 60% of demand in big cities(having permit roomes) and 20% in small cities(without permit romes) mean 40% and 80% comes by cottage illegal factories(BHUTTIES)these are made with method,causes mental disorder, lungs deceases,hypatytus and many more.
    One think is clear you cannot stop people from drinking alcohol.It is banned because all the permitroomes owned by big guns they are earning billions from this and for nation making trouble.Recommend

  • Amman
    Jul 5, 2011 - 11:29AM

    i read the article online,its realyl good…..but, i would like to highlight a small yet important point of ponder…only if, the writter of this article plus the tribune team understands my point.

    i thnk we, the young generation which is well educated, shall read more about our society..BUT !!! try to use simple english…, an intermediate level student can also read it and can get the real idea……..i believe the main aim is to create awareness so why to use most difficult english words, things can be easy and more understandable……; many people do not read articles as they have difficult english or some people just read it for english improvement (any CSS strudent etc), may b more people will read and yes the ideas the awareness will get a higher pace, if, we make the articles readable for a normal reader rather than for a hard core english reader..


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