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Saturday, July 18, 2009

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!
I passed it on - with just one "huh?" added to it - to some young people with varying degrees of interest in Gender and Sexuality Studies - a subject of great interest these days.
Life in the twilight zone
By Irfan Husain
DAWN | 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To mark this historic judgment, Jawed Naqvi wrote a wonderful column in this newspaper in which he gave cultural and historical references to establish that traditionally the subcontinent has been hospitable to alternate sexual preferences.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.
A few initial comments have been collated here. Other comments are sure to follow and will hopefully find their way into the comments section of this post soon. My intention is not so much to get you embroiled in a debate - though you may, of course, if you wish - but to get people to discuss and debate amongst themselves, on this platform, a subject that many of us need to be enlightened about further. This is specially true in matters related to the usage of LGBTQ terms - many of which have now developed very specific meanings that are different from the way our generation used them, just as the word 'gay' has.
Newsbyte: Bindiya - an admirable hijra activist (she was the subject of my daughter Ragni's short documentary and was at T2F to discuss the problems the community faces) - has just informed me that Pakistani ID Cards now allow 3rd Gender to be written on them instead of the previous forced binary option of Male/Female. The new term, like 6th Sense being used for everything outside the 5 senses, obviously encompasses and clumps together all other genders beyond the two.
(I do hope that the discussion will not be polluted by people invoking the wrath of God at every step since it is not the Moral/Religious Righteousness (or Wrongfulness) that is under discussion here.)
The first reactions came from 3 young people for whose views I have a great respect, as they are either deeply interested in or are committed students of this and other related topics. They may not even be in agreement with each other, of course.
1. I was stuck on that sentence (Hermaphrodite vaala - Z) too. Doesn't seem very factual. Googling it now.
2. Wiki on Hijras says:
Most are physically male or intersex, but some are physically female. Hijras usually refer to themselves linguistically as female, and usually dress as women.
Most are born apparently male, but some may be intersex (with ambiguous genitalia). They are often perceived as a third sex, and most see themselves as neither men nor women. However, some may see themselves (or be seen as) females,[4] feminine males or androgynes. Some, especially those who speak English and are influenced by international discourses around sexual minorities may identify as transgender ortranssexual women. Unlike some Western transsexual women, hijras generally do not attempt to pass as women. Reportedly, few have genital modifications, although some certainly do, and some consider nirwaan ("castrated") hijras to be the "true" hijras.
This process may culminate in a religious ritual that includes emasculation (total removal of the penis, testes and scrotum in men). Not all hijras undergo emasculation, and the percentage of hijras that are eunuchs is unknown
1. I have a very severe problem with the following excerpt from this article:
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.
One would like to question the author about which universe he is referring to when he refers to the 'gay gene' being a universally accepted phenomenon. He also fails to cite the 'major studies' that show that 'some' people are 'born homosexual'. For someone who takes the trouble to explain the difference between the terms 'hermaphrodite' and 'transvestite' the author fails at using the term 'homosexual' in its correct context, unless he actually believes in the 'gay gene'. I don't know which is sadder - his confusion over what homosexuality means or his belief in the gay gene. And, as always, 'homosexuality' (as you can probably tell I hate this term) in women does not enter the scope of the discussion because...well...women don't really matter.
2. This is not so shocking really, since the reason they have been 'accepted' (read: not stoned to death) in our society is that most people like to believe Heejraas are hermaphrodites, not transvestites. The former being a 'god-given' 'deformity', and the latter a matter of choice. I'm sure if you ask a Heejraa on the street whether they physically 'deformed' or just choose to cross-dress, they will go with the first explanation.
[T]he article goes from talking about hijras to talk about homosexuality. Whether someone is a hermaphrodite or a transvestite (this being a loaded and much disputed term like cross-dresser is) has nothing to do with their sexuality as the latter is a biological sex identity and the former is a gender identity.
C'mon, R&J … need your comments!

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

For Neda …

Download a Graphic Novel based on Satrapi's
Persepolis and pass this link to others, please

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Inimitably Woody

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