Despite the best of intentions, dear Irfan …
… you've obviously hit some wrong nerves, too. Your article was forwarded to me by a friend, J W Zubery, with these positive words:
I was quite pleasantly surprised to read Irfan Husain's column this morning in Dawn. Why dont we have more like him? sanity is a rarity now. Intolerance is the order of the day. I wonder why do we always shy away from reality.. It is so rare to see someone accept the truth and speak loud and clear. We have built huge walls of umpteen taboos around us and believe that by looking in the opposite direction, reality would just disappear as if it never existed. In the midst of all the nonsense we have to hear and read, there is some freshness also ... Bravo Irfan Husain!
Life in the twilight zoneBy Irfan HusainDAWN | Saturday, 18 Jul, 2009 | 04:21 AM PST |Just last week, the New Delhi High Court ruled that homosexuality was legal.To mark this historic judgment, Jawed Naqvi wrote a wonderful column in this newspaper in which he gave cultural and historical references to establish that traditionally the subcontinent has been hospitable to alternate sexual preferences. It was only the hypocritical Victorian colonists who imposed laws criminalising gay sex.Reading his article, I mused to myself that it would probably take Pakistani courts years to reach a similarly rational conclusion. How wrong I was. Now, our Supreme Court has observed that being equal citizens of Pakistan, hermaphrodites must have equal benefits and protection under Articles four and nine of the constitution.Although the plea to constitute a commission to study the plight of these unfortunate people, many of them also grappling with issues of documentation when it comes to their identity, continues to be heard, just the fact that the three-member bench headed by the chief justice appears to be sympathetic is encouraging. I use the word ‘unfortunate’ to describe them because in Pakistan, those who publicly deviate from usual behaviour patterns do so at their own risk.For years, hijras have existed on the fringes of society, occupying a twilight zone few of us would like to explore. Abused, ostracised and shunned, they are barely visible, caricatured and mocked by men and women alike. For no fault of their own, they have been forced into prostitution and dancing for a living, unable to get an education and become productive members of society.The prejudice and the confusion that clouds public perceptions are evident in references to them as hermaphrodites and transvestites, as though both terms are applicable.In actual fact, the term ‘transvestite’ refers to people who dress as members of the opposite sex, while hermaphrodites refers to people born with both sexual organs. In the latter category, the male organ is often under-developed. Hijras are almost invariably hermaphrodites.Surely differences in appearances and sexuality should be accepted. Why are people who behave and dress differently ostracised? Surely we cannot blame them for the difference in their genetic make-up over which they have no control.Unfortunately, over the years, Pakistan has become an increasingly monochromatic culture in which any deviation is frowned upon. In dress and outer appearance, there is growing pressure to conform. The space to explore alternate lifestyles is being relentlessly squeezed by the morality brigade in the name of faith.While the ongoing court hearings relate to a specific community, it is high time we questioned our attitudes towards the larger picture. The same law that was struck down by the Delhi High Court is applicable in Pakistan. It continues to destroy lives decades after similar discriminatory laws were deemed unconstitutional in Britain.Apart from the letter of the law, our hypocritical society prefers to hide any signs of differences under the carpet. Which family would wish to admit that their children were gay? And yet we all know that every social class and category, and every ethnic group has its share of gay members lurking in the closet.But in a country where so many groups suffer from discrimination and oppression, I suppose those with different sexual orientations in our midst must bear their cross in silence. Minorities and women are generally treated as second-class citizens. In religion too, different sects deem the other as being outside the faith. So it is hardly surprising that people with a different sexual orientation should be targeted.Appearing before the Supreme Court, two hijras described the harassment and abuse they often had to endure. The police as well as their ‘gurus’ exploited them. They had been abandoned by their parents as infants, and brought up by strangers who then forced them into prostitution and begging. Surely none of this is in accordance with the tenets of the majority faith.It is now universally accepted that homosexuality is most often the result of genetic differences, and not a personal preference. Major studies have shown that two to three per cent of the world’s population are born homosexual. In Pakistan, this translates to roughly four to five million men and women forced to conceal their sexual orientation for fear of persecution by an intolerant society. That’s a lot of people in the twilight zone.In more civilised countries that have finally come to accept alternate sexual preferences, those subscribing to the latter variety have joined the mainstream, and are contributing to society in many creative ways. In the arts, fashion and the media, in particular, their impact has been massive. But they are accepted in all professions, including the armed forces. In Mohammed Hanif’s wonderful novel The Case of the Exploding Mangoes, the author has described a gay relationship in Pakistan’s air force academy. While this is a work of fiction, I am sure it is a reflection of the reality at some level.In a country beset by so many problems, it may seem odd that I have chosen to write about this issue. But a major reason why we are caught up in an unending series of crises is that we are becoming an increasingly intolerant society. Instead of seeing the threats facing us as simply physical, we need to step back and examine ourselves as we truly are. More and more, we demand conformity and reject any attempt by individuals to be themselves when their lifestyle goes against the norm, whatever that is.Until we can learn to respect differences, even if they offend us, we will continue to be our own worst enemies.