A must read for all lovers of Punjabi literature – ‘Keerru’ by Fauzia Rafique


‘Keerru’ is a tenderly woven story of love, acceptance, and understanding across religions, class, nationalities, and generations. Like her previous novel, Skeena, Fauzia tells a human story that is social and political without trying to be. This is a must read for all lovers of Punjabi literature, South Asian diasporic literatures, and LGBTQ+ literatures.’

Randeep Purewall
Surrey, BC

Winner of Ali Arshad Mir Award 2020
Novella ‘Keerru’ by Fauzia Rafique
Available in Punjabi and Urdu
smashwords.com/books/view/1029555
smashwords.com/books/view/1012167
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Gurmukhi edition of Fauzia Rafique’s new novel ‘KEERRU’ now available

B&W photo by Danyal Rasheed, inset painting by Shahid Mirza
cover design by Mariam Zohra d.

From the Author of Skeena- a ‘little big’ book

ebook
ISBN 9780463342541

Available Everywhere
USA & the World: US$4.50
Canada: CA$4.50
India: INR101.00
Pakistan: PKR101.00

Instant Downloads
smashwords.com/books/view/1012167

‘The story of broken families, lovers, immigrants.
Five people come together in Surrey BC to
form powerful connections with each other, and
to tell a story that has rarely been told.’

Purple Poppy Press 2020, Vancouver, Canada

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Shahmukhi edition
Paperback
ISBN 978-969-593-315-2
PKR300.00
Sanjh Publications 2019, Lahore Pakistan
sanjhpk@yahoo.com
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India’s Supreme Court Ruling

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On September 6, 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was unconstitutional. The section – enacted in 1861 when India was still a British colony – effectively criminalized gay sex.

India’s LGBT communities erupted in euphoria. The Indian and international press joined in the jubilation with one BBC headline ringing, “India’s Supreme Court Legalizes Gay Sex … ”

The Supreme Court’s decision marks an important beginning for India’s LGBT and for the country. For India’s sexual minorities, it represents a victory in a long struggle against an inhumane and draconian law. For India, the ruling holds the promise of a new era where India starts to step out from the shadows of its colonial past.

I too was euphoric after reading the headlines only to confront a few sober realities.

First, the Supreme Court of India ruling has not legalized gay sex. It has declared that the law discriminated against LGBT sex is unconstitutional. The law is still in force and cannot be repealed or amended except by an act of Parliament.

Second, as long as it remains on the books, the section will continue to be invoked. Certainly, a better off and well-informed gay Indian will now challenge a policeman who tries to lay a charge. But those LGBT Indians who are poor, working class or villagers are less likely to contest the enforceability of the law.

Third, the ruling leaves untouched the more basic challenges facing India’s LGBT communities. In particular, the ruling does not recognize India’s LGBT communities as legal persons who can claim basic rights or freedoms as any other Indian. It has brought India’s LGBT persons out of the shadow of criminality, without making them persons under the law.

If anything, the Supreme Court ruling stands for the same principle that Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made back in 1967 that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Tushar Mehta, the Assistant Solicitor-General for the Government of India, has otherwise made it clear that the Government of India will construe the ruling narrowly so as not to accord legal status to the LGBT citizens of India in terms of marriage, property rights, government benefits or inheritance.

India’s LGBT communities have just won their first battle against the state, but their war for recognition as equal citizens under the law has yet to begin.

The Gay Faqir

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Shah Hussain was a gay Punjabi poet of the 16th century. His love for a young man, Madho Lal, is legendary. Shah Hussain and Madho Lal are buried side by side at Shah Hussain’s shrine in Lahore. They are known to eternity as “Madho Lal Hussain.”

When I read Shah Hussain for the first time, I felt like I was looking back at myself five hundred years ago. Reading his work, as a gay Punjabi-Canadian man, gave me a sense of pride and belonging to a culture I’d long grown alienated from. I was then recently put off to see Naveed Alam trying to deny Shah Hussain’s sexuality in Alam’s introduction to his translation of Shah Hussain’s verse.

According to Alam, Shah Hussain couldn’t have been gay, because:

  1. Shah Hussain’s poems make no overt references to homosexuality;
  2. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal was platonic;
  3. Shah Hussain wrote in the feminine voice in keeping with Sufi tradition (where God’s devotee refers to himself in feminine terms).

Alam’s first point makes no sense. He claims that a poet like Shah Hussain cannot be gay unless he overtly expresses his homosexuality in his poetry. By this logic, a poet cannot be heterosexual either unless his heterosexuality is overtly expressed in his poetry.

In any case, Shah Hussain probably didn’t express his sexuality overtly in his poetry for good reasons.

According to the platonic love theory, Shah Hussain and Madho Lal were master and disciple respectively and their love should be seen in that context.

The problem is that there is no proof that Madho Lal (a Hindu Brahmin) was even a follower of Shah Hussain or that he was part of a Sufi order. In fact, had Madho Lal been a disciple, then it would’ve been he who was expected to write poems in praise of his master, not the other way around.

Shah Hussain wrote otherwise:

My lover grabbed my arm
Why would I ask him to let go?
Dark night drizzling, painful
The approaching hour of departure
You’ll know what love’s all about
Once it seeps into your bones…
(trans. N. Alam)

Hagiographic accounts also tell us about Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal:

When he looked at Madho, he signed painfully and said: ‘Friends, take heed. This boy has set my heart out of control. With one look he has made my heart restless. With one look he has taken away my heart. Taken the life out of my heart, and the soul out of my body. What should I do, friends? What should I do to make him fall in love? Friends, I’ve become a prisoner of his love. I shall not find peace till I see him” (Haqiqat al-Fuqra (‘Truth of the Saints’), c. 1660).

In another account, one of Shah Hussain’s followers spies on Madho Lal Hussain:

You [Hussein] are taking a glass of wine from Madho and kissing Madho on the forehead and the Madho is also kissing Hussein’s forehead … Madho again gives a full glass to Shah Hussein, stands and greets him respectfully. Hussein also gets up and greets Madho respectfully. The two friends remained busy in this matter, and kept kissing each other like milk and sugar … and then the two friends become one.

As for the feminine voice, Shah Hussain uses it even when not speaking to God. Shah Hussain refers to himself in feminine terms when sitting at the spinning wheel, taking part in women’s folk dances and sharing secrets with his girlfriends. This feminine voice is Shah Hussain’s soul speaking as a gay man.

In Shah Hussain, Punjabi and Pakistani gay men can hear their own voice, songs and verses singing back to them. The light and passion in his poems is smothered by people foisting their own culturally acceptable interpretations onto it. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal comes alive when we embrace it fully for what it is.

‘Nasreen Anjum Bhatti Ke Leeye – For Nasreen Anjum Bhatti’ a poem by Amna Buttar

‘I read the story and frankly I don’t see a point to it. Her poetry tells her story poignantly and eloquently. This story is more like yellow journalism and is demeaning to the legend called Nasreen Anjum Bhatti.’

Amna Buttar
.

نسرین انجم بھٹی کے لئے

میرا اندر اور میرا باہر
سب تمہارا ہے
میں نے اپنے آسمان کو
اور
اپنے پاتال کو
الفاظ
کے موتیوں میں
پرو کر
تمہارے گلے میں مالا ڈال دی ہے
سوئمبر تو نہیں تھا
مگر پھر بھی
بس اتنی_ بنتی ہے
تم سے
میرا بھرم رکھنا
.

Nasreen Anjum Bhatti Ke Leeye
By Amna Buttar

Mera andar aur mera bahir
sab tumhara hai
main ne apnay aasmaan ko
aur apnay pataal ko
ilfaaz ke motiyon main pro ker
tumharay galay main mala Daal de hai
soimber tau nahin tha
magar phir bhi
bus itni beenti hai
tum se
mera bharm rakhhna
.

Amna Buttar is a poet and politician who works as a physician with New York University (NYU).

Amna wrote this poem after reading a story recently published and launched in Lahore that attempts to degrade and demean the Late Punjabi author Nasreen Anjum Bhatti and others. View details at the link below:
uddari.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/thinfest-promotes-gutter-literature-in-punjabi
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Thinkfest Promotes ‘gutter literature’ in Punjabi

Thinkfest 2018 chose to promote a sub-standard work on the life of Punjabi author, radio artist and arts activist Nasreen Anjum Bhatti. There was an intense demonstration of solidarity with the late author by people who were there to protest against this choice.

Nasreen Anjum Bhatti reads from her first collection of poetry ‘Neel Karayaan Neelkan’.

The aware Punjabi writers and artists have described the story as ‘yellow journalism’, ‘tabloid literature’, and, of course, ‘gutter literature’.

The text proceeds to carry out ‘character assassination of progressive Punjabi writers such as Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Shaista Habib, Zubair Rana and Fauzia Rafique’, and it does so in a misogynistic, homophobic and degrading manner. The story is penned by Nain Sukh aka Khalid Mahmood in his book called ‘ayi buray de wa’. The so-called story is a collection of inaccuracies where there are as much as FIVE factual mistakes in FOUR lines of text- about one of the writers attacked who, incidentally, is still alive to point them out.

Uddari fully supports Naeem Sadhu, Lahore’s Feminist Collective, and other individuals and organizations that are getting together to stop this attempt to legitimize yellow journalism as literature, and to resist this onslaught of conservative patriarchal mindset that demeans and degrades women, lesbians, gay men and religious minorities.

Down with the erstwhile ‘friends’ who are promoting and supporting this abusive and filthy text, and who are insisting that it should be accepted as Punjabi literature.

Fauzia Rafique
https://gandholi.wordpress.com/
frafique@gmail.com

Also view
‘Nasreen Anjum Bhatti Ke Leeye – For Nasreen Anjum Bhatti’ a poem by Amna Buttar
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Film Review: Aligarh

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Directed by Hansal Mehta

Starring: Manoj Bajpayee (Ramchandra Siras); Rajkummar Rao (Deepu Sebastian); Ashish Vidyarthi (Anand Grover).

Aligarh is a drama based on the true story of Ramchandra Siras. Siras was dismissed from his position as Chair of Modern Indian Languages from Aligarh Muslim University in 2009, on charges of homosexuality. Mehta’s film is both a sensitive look into Siras’ life and a nuanced critique of how Indian society marginalizes homosexuals in the name of morality.

At the heart of Aligarh is Manoj Bajpayee’s portrayal of Siras. Bajpayee bears Siras’ soul and isolation whether in his barring himself up away from the world or listening to Lata Mangeshkar on whiskey-filled nights.

He also reveals Siras’ quiet charm in his conversations with Deepu, the journalist who interviews Siras after his dismissal from Aligarh. When Deepu asks Siras if he is gay, Siras speaks of his sexuality in terms of metaphor. This is a way for him to leave behind the world of “gay” and “straight” for what matters. But it’s also how Siras makes sense of himself in a society which has no vocabulary for his experience.

Through the courtroom scenes, demonstrations and Deepu’s investigations, we see how the issue of homosexuality in India has become at once political, legal, cultural and moral. But for Siras, it isn’t about politics, activism, collective morality or social censure. It’s about living a life of quiet dignity denied to him.

Art and Obscenity: The Case of Manto

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Written by Randeep Singh

The Urdu short-story writer Manto was charged with obscenity six times for his short-stories, three times in India before 1947 (‘Dhuan,’ ‘Bu,’ and ‘Kali Shalwar’) and three times in Pakistan after 1947 (‘Khol Do,’ ‘Thanda Gosht,’ and ‘Upar Neeche Darmiyaan’). He was fined only in one case. The charges of obscenity haunted him nevertheless until his death: “I am not a pornographer but a story writer,” he would defend himself.

Under section 292 of the Indian Penal Code and the Pakistan Penal Code in Pakistan’s early years, a book or writing would be considered obscene if “it is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect … if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.”

The book or writing would not be found obscene however if it was “justified as being for the public good on the ground that such book, … writing… is in the interest of … literature, art … or other objects of general concern.”

Manto wrote about his experiences at the trial and appeal hearing of “Thanda Gosht” between 1949 and 1952. A witness at trial for Manto, Syed Abid Ali Abid, the Principal of Dayal Singh College, testified: “from Wali to Ghalib, everyone at some time, has written what is generally labeled as obscene. Literature can never be obscene. And, what Manto writes is literature.”

One witness, Dr. Saeedullah, gave Manto the title of “musavvar-e-hayaat,” the painter of life. Soofi Tabassum, a professor of Government College, deposed that “immoral writing is where the sole object of the writer is to undermine morality” and that “Thanda Gosht” did not affect public morality.

In Manto’s testimony, “Thanda Gosht” was a story “telling human beings that they are not separated from humanity even with they become animal like.” Like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which had also been charged with obscenity, “Thanda Gosht” was a serious story filled with melancholy. As for the potentially corrupting influence of his stories on the public, Manto remarked, “my stories are for healthy people, normal beings, not for minds who dig  up carnal meanings in innocent and pure things.”

The case of Manto is relevant to the question of what is art and what is obscenity. The following questions are worth considering:

  1. What is the artists’ intention in writing the story (to arouse sexual excitement etc.)?
  2. Is the sexual element of the story the primary or dominant value of the story or is it subordinated to the writer’s aesthetic goals?
  3. How does the reader experience the story? Does it appeal more to his or her aesthetic judgement or mostly to his or her senses and carnality?
  4. Does the aesthetic experience of reading the story do away with the reader’s “practical, operational” ways of viewing its characters and situations as if they were real people or situations?

If the story’s primary or overriding goal is to sexually arouse the reader, then the work can be considered obscene. If the story’s primary or overriding goal though is to use sexual or erotic scenes for some larger artistic purpose related to theme, setting etc., the story can be considered literature. A story moreover may have sexual situations or scenes which by themselves may be considered obscene but which have some meaning in the story’s overall context.

In “Thanda Gosht,” Manto tells the story of Isher Singh, a Sikh, who tried to rape an already dead Muslim girl, a heap of “cold flesh.” In “Khol Do,” a brutalized, unconscious  girl on the verge of death, Sakeena, opens her shalwaar qameez after the doctor examining her utters the words “khol do” (‘open’) to a nurse to open a window. The suggestion of raping a corpse or a girl opening her shalwaar on hearing the words “open (it)” by themselves may have been obscene; in their proper context, they illustrate the extent to which women were brutalized in the Punjab in 1947.

Manto was not only holding up a mirror to the dirt, hypocrisy and puritanism in Indian and Pakistani society; he was showing a way out of it. Ismat Chughtai wrote in her memoir “Kaghazi Hai Pairahan” that Manto’s “flinging it (dirt) about makes it visible and one’s attention can be called to the need of cleaning it.”  His stories unsettle us because they take us to the darker corners of our psyche, to desires repressed and to the ugliness that results. South Asia still struggles with the brutalization of women, sexual repression, sexual abuse, a growing AIDS menace and with discussing sex or sexuality openly.

Manto is still holding up the mirror to ourselves.

Further reading:

Ayesha Jalal, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide (Princeton University Press, 2013).

Aziz Akhmad, “Manto Ka Muqaddama: Obscenity Trial”:  http://pakistaniat.com/2009/09/29/saadat-manto-trial/

The Homosexual Desi in “Dedh Ishqiya”

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Written by Randeep Singh

Dedh Ishqiya is no “Brokeback Mountain” in Hindi cinema. The story of its two gay characters – Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit) and her lady-in-waiting Muniya (Huma Qureshi – is just one ingredient in the masala. The scene where the Begum remembers how she became estranged from her husband, a homosexual Nawaab, could have made for a more complete, compelling film. Instead, it’s a thirty second narration while elsewhere we’re treated to a Tarantino-style shootout to Begum Akhtar’s ghazal “Woh Jo Ham Mein Tum Mein.”

As a film on (homosexual) love however, Dedh Ishqiya is commendable. First, it shows desi gays as human beings. Prick them and they’ll bleed, tickle them and they’ll laugh. The Begum says that her husband the Nawaab, was not into women and that after his death, the Begum herself found comfort in the arms of her lady-in-waiting Muniya. It’s not clear whether the Begum was in fact homosexual – it’s almost implied that she became one – but that ambiguity aside, the Begum and Muniya, are gay and human.

Second, Dedh Ishqiya does not resort to stereotypes or sensationalism respecting the homosexual desi. Girlfriend (2004) had to have its “hot” lesbian love scene and Dostana (2008) elicited laughs from straight guys “playing gay.” In Dedh Ishqiya, the Begum and Muniya love one another even if that love is confined to the four walls of their mansion. When speaking of Muniya in one scene, the Begum recounts, “woh hamaari saathi, hamaaari hamdard aur ab hamaari jaan bhi hain” (‘she’s my companion, my sympathizer and now my darling, my life too’). The desire between the two is subtle but palpable whether it’s in Muniya’s intense gaze at the Begum or Muniya’s massaging the Begum’s arms.

Third, Dedh Ishqiya shows its homosexual characters making a new life for themselves. In a Thelma and Louise style sendoff, Muniya and the Begum drive off into the sunset, pawn off an essentially priceless necklace and use the money to set up their own dance school (the Begum was once an accomplished dancer). It’s an ideal situation in an otherwise than less ideal society and culture for homosexuals. I could not help but feel though, when listening to the closing song, “ Hamri Atariya Pe Aa Jaa Re Saawariya” (‘Come on to my rooftop darling’), the song was an invitation to gay desis to come out and sing.

 

 

A Gay Guy in a Turban

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Written by Randeep Singh

On December 15, 2013, Kanwar Anit Singh Saini attended the Global Day of Rage in Toronto to protest the Supreme Court of India’s upholding of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalizes homosexual sex.  He kisses another gay man at the protest. Another protester holds a poster above them with two men and the word “pyaar” written in Urdu. The photo was posted on his Facebook page with the caption “proud to be illegal.”

It’s interesting that while many in the diaspora have condemned what has happened in India, fewer have bothered to reflect on homophobic prejudice and intolerance within their local communities. The photo of Saini kissing another man generated hateful comments on Facebook from within the diaspora. Saini recalls on his Facebook page how his uncle once said the family would’ve killed Saini as a boy had they known he was gay.

South Asian GLBT persons like Saini continue to fight hate and intolerance within (and outside) their ancestral communities, including from “progressive” Indians, Pakistanis etc. Recently, I received a statement issued by a local South Asian group to the Indian Law Commission condemning the Supreme Court ruling. I was surprised to see the statement being lauded by people whom I have experienced homophobia from personally. I asked the group’s President that while I welcomed the statement, we’d do well to challenge prejudices in our backyard.

The openly gay former Indian prince Manvendra Singh Gohil said recently in an interview on CBC Radio that challenging Section 377 in India’s courts is one thing, but challenging Indians to open their hearts and minds is the greater struggle. That too is true here in Vancouver, as well as in Toronto, London, California and Queens. Saini has helped us all in that struggle by reminding us that GLBT South Asians are here and will keep up the fight.

The Union of India vs. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Indians

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Written by Randeep Singh

The Supreme Court of India has upheld section 377 of the Penal Code of India, which characterized homosexual sex as “against the order of nature.” The decision reversed a 2009 ruling of the Delhi High Court which had ruled that the law violated constitutional rights to equality and personal liberty.

To clarify, Section 377 was never abolished by the Delhi High Court: it has remained the law in India, including New Delhi. The Delhi High Court decision was only binding in that Union Territory and no where else in India. The law can only be abolished by Parliament, not by any court, including the Supreme Court of India.

As for the problems with the decision.

First, the Supreme Court’s otherwise correct statement that only Parliament can amend the law, overlooks the historical importance of the Supreme Court of India in upholding the fundamental rights and freedoms of Indians despite the state. The Supreme Court has interpreted rights and freedoms expansively to include the right to education, the right to work with dignity and on behalf of socially disadvantaged including the poor, women and backward castes. It has historically been the Supreme Court of India which has persuaded Parliament to enact socially inclusive laws, not vice-versa.

Second, the Supreme Court held that “a miniscule fraction of the country’s population constitute lesbians, gays, bisexuals or trans-genders.” How did the court come to this determination? How many Indians are in the closet? Is not one person enough to challenge a law as unconstitutional? Moreover, the Supreme Court of India has historically upheld the rights of a vulnerable social group from the excesses of more dominant social groups, as it has done in the case of backward classes, the poor and women. Why has it failed to do so now?

Third, the Supreme Court holds that Section 377 criminalizes certain acts and not sexual orientation. Under this logic, Indian homosexuals are not breaking the law so long as they do not engage in sexual intercourse. There is no separation between the act of sex and one’s sexual orientation. Legally prohibited from having sex, India’s homosexuals will have to either think twice before getting intimate with their partners or they will have to go further underground. It is a clear case of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

I’m reminded of the Supreme Court’s decision in 2005 when it refused the appeal of Afzal Guru (who was convicted of the December 2001 attack on the Indian Houses of Parliament). The court ruled that the “collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied” if Afzal received the death sentence. In this case too, the Indian Supreme Court has sought to appease the collective “moral” conscience of society, represented in this case by conservative religious bodies, supported in the recent past by senior leaders of the BJP like the late B.P. Singhal who argued homosexuality was against the ethos of Indian culture.

Section 377 remains law, but change will come eventually. Just before posting this piece, I read that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have criticized the ruling and that India’s Law Minister has stated the government has not abandoned efforts to make homosexuality legal. The law has changed for other socially disadvantaged groups in the past and the composition of the Supreme Court and Parliament is changing. Legal reasoning is dynamic and new precedents can be set. More than anything, the GLBT community in India, and its supporters locally, nationally and internationally will keep moving forward. The moment hasn’t come yet but the destination beckons.

‘An insurgency…’ Shikha Kenneth on Holier Than Life by Fauzia Rafique

Book Review by Shikha Kenneth
Holier Than Life
E-Book by Fauzia Rafique
Purple Poppy Press, Vancouver, 2013
Pages 85

South Asian Ensemble (SAE), Summer/Fall 2013

South Asian Canadian writer Fauzia Rafique’s new literary offering is a digitalized anthology of poems. The poems are interspersed with Rafique’s views on varied matter such as love, violence, happiness, melancholy, feminism, current events, socio-cultural politics, etc. The poet displays her flair for effectively capturing the painfully personal, the brutally cultural, and the deceitfully socio-political experiences of the South Asian populace. Each poem presents Rafique in her various moods – optimistic, sarcastic, bitter, bemused, aggressive, etc.

The opening chant ‘Let It Pass’ is portent of her diverse reflections on violence which creates, interweaves, and subsumes the human body, its ‘self’, and society. Rafique creates vivid imagery in ‘Waiting’ by comparing the intricacies of her pessimism to the multi-hued cacti spanning the sandy expanse of her heart (8). And she reiterates her gloom by comparing it to a bird that re-emerges – carrying a “restive little fish” in its beak – from within the poet’s “ocean of joy” (45). But she contradicts the above mentioned metaphoric sentiments by stating her knack for sifting, finding, and focussing on the “bright shades of…undying green” within “each gray day” (8). It is reflected in ‘Breeze’ where Rafique romanticizes the “ice breeze” of February capering around her neighbourhood (13). Or in ‘Outcome’ where the poet attains happiness from the simple act of putting a yellow tape at the edges of a blue chart for it reminds her of the burnished rays of sun adorning the sky (33).

Rafique’s poetry is mottled with her vision of love. In ‘Sparrow of Love’, she innovatively highlights the universal predicament of coping with the contradictions of love. The poem points to an individual’s multiple approaches to love – nurture it gratis, or embellish it to flaunt, or guiltlessly devour it for one’s gratification (11). Rafique echoes the Sartrean ideology of love in ‘Guilt’ for it turns an individual into a beggar who shuns the act of self-examination and gives in to one’s need for the gaze of the ‘other’ (28). Yet in ‘Possibilities’ she favours the masochism of love as displayed in the act of carving out a “single bud of rose” from her heart than protecting it (23). In her translation of Shah Madhulal Hussain’s poem ‘Kafi’, Rafique resonates Hussain’s ideology that love is a “wild elephant,” and, when teased awake shall trample all the other existing violent ideologies (14). In ‘The Extreme Labour of Love’, she opines that human beings are often incapable of deriving pleasure from the fruition of their love, in any form, because they are haunted by the promise of tomorrow (25).

Rafique also focusses on the profundity of the connection between the human body, violence, and pain. She creates cryptic images showing the dying body writhing in pain, being drained out of life, meanness coagulating its blood from within. Moreover, she seems to be preoccupied with the desecration of the female body. For instance, ‘Shariah Compliant Bra’ highlights the transformation of the female body into a hegemonic construct, redefinition of its identity, and forcible sanction as the conventional image of femininity. Rafique continually refers to the breasts and “anonymous body parts” of a Muslim woman as “bits, blits, kits, lits”. She shows language to be a patriarchal construct that exercises control over a woman by shaping her identity according to the dominant ideology. And if a Muslim woman refuses to be the recipient of such discursive violence, her body is forced to undergo the physical trauma of being violently “cut and clip” by the representatives of prevailing oppressive belief system, that is, patriarchy (51-3).

Patriarchy is a pervasive and power-based structure that manifests itself through all social institutions. Patriarchy is inherent in discourse; it is an intrinsic element of the prevailing ideology. It enforces the biological and cultural suppositions that are responsible for the subjugation of women. The anti-patriarchal theme is, in fact, predominant in Rafique’s verse. Her poem entitled ‘Hadd: Limit’ connotes the Derridian premise of différance emphasizing the acts of estrangement from and murder of the woman as being crucial for preservation of the symbolic order (23). ‘Vulnerability’ alludes to the financial capitalization of a woman’s worth before she begins to “swim across the moonlight glint of death…to a brand new exotic destination of life”, that is, marriage (36). ‘Familial Promises’ outlines an honour killer’s code which operates through the violent methods of control, discipline, and punishment meted to a woman as described through the use of words like “smack”, “bash”, “rap” “smash” and “whack” (54). Here, the woman becomes the embodiment of virtue that defines a code of patriarchal honour. And this honour gets violated when a woman decides to exercise her personal, social, and constitutional rights.

Rafique’s poetry can, in fact, be viewed as an insurgency against the legitimate sanctioning of horrific acts of violence against Muslim and South-Asian women. Through her poems she accounts the legally authorized dehumanization of women thereby highlighting the interminable bond between law and anomie. ‘Porn Creation’ relates the incident of a thirteen year old girl named Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow who was labelled as “adulterous” after being gang raped by three law-enforcers and stoned to death for lodging a complaint against perpetrators of the crime (55). Rafique describes the day of Bibi Aisha’s execution where fifty impotent men surrounding her become the embodiment of the “Žižekian pervert” (The Plague 135). Their limp erections suddenly bloom into life as they witness the girl being punished for raising her voice against the heinous crime of rape. It shows that the conventional notion of the phallus as the siege of aggressive, penetrative, essentially masculine, potency/power is, in fact, contingent upon the terror that is evoked in the gaze of the woman. Patriarchy is, in fact, the fight of an “ignorant chauvinist man” using such tactics as “extreme violence, disfigurement, irreparable damage to body and spirit” in order to “restrict, control, contain, possess, subdue” the woman in his life (Rafique 63). In other words, the existence of the patriarchal male relies on inflicting violence on the body of woman to maintain his illusion of power. Similarly, ‘Mirwah’s Unnamed Girl’ depicts Rafique’s angst over the killings of several unidentified Mirwah women who, according to the fanatical oppressors, had the audacity to seek the right to choose their own bridegrooms. She declares the legal and political system of such nations to be emasculated and fit to wear all the adornment attributed to femininity (46-9).

Rafique is infuriated by the manner in which social organizations such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Amnesty International have usurped the struggles of several South-Asian natives who have lost their lives to their passion for fighting for women’s rights. In ‘The Jolly Trinity’ she castigates the way in which the Western celebrities and politicians – leading a rich and pampered existence – exploit the plight of the violated South-Asian women for photo-opportunities and news bytes. These organizations are, in fact, multi-million dollar enterprises seeking to spread their web of power, control and violence over the world under the guise of defense and security against the human rights violation. Such socio-political corporations indulge in the cunning use of public relations policy to camouflage their “drone fire aggression into noble democracy”, transform “war-lording action into exodus of decency” and convert “dirty dollar into charitable currency” (70). In ‘Drone-Dead Lover’, Rafique assails the Obama administration which authorized the continuation of drone attacks being made on Pakistan for the past several years. These attacks were meant to eradicate terrorism but have deprived thousands of Pakistani civilians off their lives (62).

The poet interprets religion – hailed by many as the bedrock of ethics – to be a patriarchy-infested institution that operates on the underside of law. In ‘The Clowns of Blasphemy’, religious extremism is shown to play out like a Senecan tragedy where divinities are manufactured in order to satisfy the zealot’s craving for slaughter and deliberate spillage of blood. She illustrates a fascist regime where innocent men, women, and children are labelled as “Kafirs, women and witches, bombers and terrorists” (78). Such a regime operates on the “excesses of torture” in order to stun and subdue both its victims and the audience (Discipline and Punish 35). These violent excesses include “bullying…skinning…hanging…burning” which are meant to stoke the “self-righteous leaders” hunger for power, violence, and “brand-new riches” (Rafique 79). ‘Holier than Life’ is Rafique’s insurrection against the bigoted ideology transmitted by all patriarchal institutions – social, cultural, religious, educational, political, and economical – and its representatives. She considers all these agencies of power to be the breeding-ground of violence, and, she wants to engrave the moniker of “MURDERER” on them (82). She condemns the “violent expositions” of all species of fanatics whose contrived creations like religion turn individuals into eternal victims in their quest for social, material, and existential transcendence (83).

In this anthology, Rafique displays an unapologetic and intractable stance against the aggressive jingoistic fervour that has been adopted by patriarchy. It manifests by inscribing itself on the bodies of women in multifarious ways. The poet believes that patriarchy can be rendered powerless if the violated woman refuses to cover her scarred and mutilated body. In ‘Shame’, She informs the guardians of both social & feminine propriety to stop being concerned about her disgrace and forcing her to shroud it in silence. Rafique declares that she is going to display her shame with as much aplomb as she would her achievement. In ‘Nangi Naked’, she cites the example of a Kashmiri poet named Lilla Arifa who ventured out of her house without the protection of clothes (58). This single act of defiance became more effective than Arifa’s entire body of literature. In other words, woman needs to disassociate herself from the norms for respectability and modesty mapped out by the patriarchal custodians, for it is the only way to weaken the enemy and gain freedom from the clutches of patriarchy.

In ‘Need for Social Self’, Rafique states that the need for cultivating a social self is imposed on every individual. It requires existing as a “zombie”, that is, the state of being “perfectly natural, alert, loquacious, vivacious behaviour but is in fact not conscious at all, but rather some sort of automaton” (Dennett 73). The poet recalls an event when she donned the attire of her social self and experienced the sensation of being choked into silence. Subsequently, she has never been able to accept the falsity underlying one’s social self and openly shuns it. Holier Than Life thus can be viewed as Rafique’s fearless and candid attempt to assail, hemorrhage, and rupture the normalization and legitimization of patriarchy. The poet realizes that such an act requires her to immerse body and soul in “the flow of pain” (7). Rafique’s poetry is a blend of three languages namely English, Punjabi and Urdu. It highlights both the universality and specificity of the multi-faceted forms of violence experienced by women especially in Third-World nations. Her poems are sprinkled with metaphors; the language is potent and descriptive; the verse seems staccato at times but seems to be styled to correspond with the requirements of digitalized literature. In Holier Than Life, Rafique successfully manages to expose and critique those dynamics of oppression and resistance that are generally problematized through gross and calculated misrepresentation.

Works Cited
Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. New York: Back Bay, 1991. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: Birth of Prison. Trans. Allen Lane. London: Peregrine, 1979. Print.
Rafique, Fauzia. Holier Than Life. Vancouver: Purple Poppy Press, 2013. Web.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso, 1997. Print.

From South Asian Ensemble (SAE), Summer/Fall 2013, Vol 5, 3 & 4
Editors Rajesh Sharma & Gurdev Chauhan
sharajesh@gmail.com
http://kriticulture.blogspot.com
www.southasianensemble.com: )

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Pakistan’s Gay Community Quietly Breaking Barriers

Written by Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai

Actor Assad Khan is part of a generation of young men breaking barriers for gays in conservative Pakistan, where homosexuality is punished by prison or worse.

Assad Khan knew he was different from a very young age. As a child at home he preferred playing with his two sisters rather than his two brothers. At school, too, he gravitated toward playing with girls. “In school I was more secure and happy playing with girls than with boys,” says the 23-year-old, boyishly handsome Khan. As a result of his behavior, he says, his family largely ignored him. “I got a terrible complex as my family favored, and gave more attention to, my brothers,” he recalls.

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As he grew up in Islamabad, reached puberty and realized he was gay, he suffered even more. “Being a gay in a society like Pakistan is not easy,” Khan says. “For a long time, I was frightened of who I was, so I hid my gay status…I acted 24 hours a day.”

Even so, he was constantly teased and harassed for his appearance and mannerisms, even ostracized. His parents and cousins made fun of him. His parents were ashamed to introduce him as part of the family. “At the mosque during Friday prayers I was teased and stared at,” he recalls. “At school and in college other students shunned me and my small circle of friends.”

Now a successful actor and fashion designer, Khan has lived and worked in the conservative and bomb-terrorized northwestern city of Peshawar for the past three years. “I felt that society was telling me I was not one of them, that I was not a proper person,” he says. “But soon I realized that it’s not my fault that God made me gay. So as a young man I came to accept who I was and to be proud of myself.”

He has flourished ever since he made that realization—succeeding against all the odds in homophobic Pakistan, where the powerful Muslim clergy preaches that homosexuality is prohibited under Islam, and where sodomy is illegal under the civil code and punishable by a long jail term (though the harsh sentence is rarely handed down). In the Taliban-controlled territory of the northwestern tribal agencies, the penalty is worse: death by firing squad or stoning. Even the man on the street seems to have no time for gays. A Pew Research Center survey of 39 countries published in early June found that only two percent of Pakistanis believed that “society should accept homosexuality,” second only to Nigeria, which registered a rock-bottom one percent acceptance rating of gays. (By way of comparison, 80 percent of Canadians said they accepted gays.)

While the Pakistani government doesn’t target LGBT citizens, neither does it have much tolerance for the gay community or its issues. Late last month and without comment, Islamabad shut down the country’s first and only gay website, queerpk.com, which was first launched last July. The website’s founder, who goes by the pseudonym Fakhir, says the ban is “unconstitutional and opposes freedom of speech.” But he does not want to pursue legal action as he doesn’t want a confrontation with the government, which could unmask those behind the website whose subtitle is “Know us, Don’t Hate Us.” Fakhir says the site is not “blasphemous or pornographic” but is aimed at educating gays on health issues such as preventing the spread of HIV, and on how to deal with social and family pressures and with depression.

Bucking discrimination, Khan, an ethnic Pashtun who goes by the nickname of Danny, studied fashion design at a college in Islamabad and quickly fell into the growing businesses of fashion, modeling and acting. His acting career got a big boost in 2009 when he was cast in a British film, called Kandahar Break: Fortress of War, which was being shot in Baluchistan, the wild-and-woolly home of his ultra-traditional Safi tribe in western Pakistan. He played a Taliban interpreter with gay tendencies who worked for a British explosive ordinance disposal team that Mullah Mohammad Omar’s regime had hired to clear mine fields in 1999.

In 2010, Khan moved to heavily Taliban-influenced Peshawar to further his acting and fashion careers, but chiefly to be closer to his partner. At first he was terrified, afraid of the Taliban and the frequent terror bombings. Every day he cautiously emerged from his hotel filled with trepidation. But he was soon pleasantly surprised by what he found: gays were not as unwelcome and under the gun as he had imagined. On the contrary, he quickly received a vibe that many young men in the ostensibly macho, largely Islamist city were gay or gay-friendly. “In Peshawar I feel like almost every second guy is gay by the way they look and talk,” he says. “On the streets and in the markets I think most people look at cute boys more than at girls.” But, he adds: “Unfortunately gays feel they have to hide their feelings and their true selves,”

Khan and other Pakistani gays say that being gay in Pakistan is not all that unusual despite the ostensibly strong prejudice against homosexuals. “I’ve found that male-to-male sex is more common than you’d imagine in our society,” says Shehzad, a smart, fashionable and educated 25-year-old gay man from Lahore. A June article in Mother Jones magazine confirmed Shehzad’s feeling, reporting that Pakistanis lead the world in Google searches for the terms “shemale sex,” “teen anal sex” and “man f—king man.”

Pakistani gays like Khan and Shehzad say the country is rife with hypocrisy. “I know that some Pakistani policy makers practice gay love in private, then go out and make laws against gays,” says Shehzad. Khan agrees: “I know that some Pakistani politicians of all parties, including those from religious parties, are interested in gay men,” he says. “Even some men who teased me for being gay suddenly come on to me when we are in a quiet spot.” “If you heard the names of the prominent members of Pakistani society who are gay, you wouldn’t believe your ears,” adds Chaudhry Javid, a 28-year-old gay man who works for a foreign aid agency and lives in a luxury apartment in Islamabad.

Still, Javid keeps his sexual orientation in the closet, hiding it from his family and friends, and claiming it is too early for him to reveal himself. “If we come out, our families will cut us out like a cancer,” he says. He adds that he’s ashamed that he can’t tell his parents that his best friend is also his sexual partner whom he loves. “I suffer when I lie to my parents describing him as just a good friend,” he says. Shehzad, too, says it’s too early for him to come out. “Society doesn’t accept us,” he says. “I don’t dare to go public.” Faisal Khan, a 28-year-old government bureaucrat in Peshawar, says he would get fired or worse if he came out. (He is not related to Assad Khan.) “I cannot expose myself,” he says. “People in the office would use it against me and I’d lose my job.” Faisal Khan says he doesn’t dare visit his family’s home village just south of Peshawar for fear the Taliban would find out about his gayness and capture him, causing a scandal for his family.  Nor would he dare to confess his sexual persuasion to the mullah at his mosque. “He would probably send me to the Taliban who would make a kebab of me,” he says.

Even so, Faisal Khan and other Pakistani gay men see hope in the future as they sense that public attitudes are slowly changing. For starters, people are beginning to tolerate unmarried young men and women congregating together in public. If the public is beginning to accept men and women dating, they reason, then eventually gay relationships will also be tolerated. Wearing a suit and red tie and sporting long black hair, Faisal Khan points to the numerous heterosexual couples sitting together in a modern University Town café in Peshawar, talking and laughing as they eat western food and listen to rock music. “Look, these boys and girls are here in public without any hesitation or fear of society or the Taliban,” he says. Javid says that a decade ago you would never see young men and women holding hands in public. Now it is almost common in the cities. Ironically, it’s not uncommon, and not viewed as homosexual behavior, for young men to hold hands in public as they walk—it’s a customary sign of friendship.

But there are still strict limits. In rural, traditional Pakistan there is a clear separation of the sexes as boys and girls are forbidden to meet in public. Yet in the tradition-bound confines of the countryside, it is easier for gay Pakistani couples to congregate in public than for mixed-sex couples. “It’s normal for a group of men to hang out together so no one can bother us,” says Javid. “But in some traditional areas, boys and girls going out together is still a sin against society and our religion.”  Javid adds that viewing homosexuality as a sin, as most Pakistanis do, is absurd since there is no victim. “Aren’t the rampant corruption in our society and the killing of innocents by the Taliban greater sins?” Javid asks.

For most gays in Pakistan, society’s views are not changing fast enough. So for now, they are forced to live largely an underground existence. They point to the many and lavish subterranean gay parties as the highlight of their social lives. “These weekly underground parties keep us happy,” says Shehzad. “Here we have a place to enjoy ourselves hidden from the Taliban, the government and the police.” Organizing these extravagant, gay parties in Islamabad and Peshawar has become a good business for Assad Khan. He says that many of the parties he organizes cost $5,000 or more to cover the expense of renting a large, posh house or reception hall, providing private security, live bands, food and drinks and paying off the cops. Partyers pay an admission charge, allowing Khan to make a profit. “Islamabad is a city famous for the biggest number of gay parties,” Assad Khan says. “The number of these parties, and the number of gays attending, is increasing, even in Peshawar.” He also helped organize a summer music festival in the mountain resort of Swat this past summer in the face of Taliban threats, and he plans to bring fashion shows to conservative Peshawar soon.

Although it may be premature, Khan is trying to organize a gay rights movement capable of standing up to the Taliban, the politicians and aggressive Pakistani cops. As a result of his efforts, he has received anonymous, threatening phone calls and has escaped an attempt to kidnap him at a wedding reception not long ago. But he remains unshaken. “We have to defeat the concept of fear and terror,” he says. “Everyone should have the right to live as they please. No one has the right to dictate to us.” He adds: “I want to be a leading voice for gay rights and protection.”

But he quickly emphasizes that his push for gay rights stops short of campaigning for the legalization of gay marriage. “We don’t want to push for gay marriage, only for our human rights,” he says. Most other gays steer clear of any gay rights movement, fearing retaliation. “The Taliban and other extremists will target any gay rights movement,” says Shehzad. “It’s too dangerous to get involved.”

Originally published in The Daily Beast, October 30, 2013: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/10/30/pakistan-s-gay-community-quietly-breaking-barriers.html