The LGBTQ rights movement has turned to good account this month with the launch of UN’s Bollywood inspired video promoting gay rights in India. Meanwhile in the neighbouring country of Pakistan, a children’s book addressing the issue of homophobia is quietly gaining steam.
The book titled, ‘My Chacha is Gay’ is a crowd-funded attempt by a Pakistani-Canadian graphic designer, who goes by the name Eiynah on the Internet. It seeks to educate and raise the issue of gay rights at a national level in the Pakistani society. The book, My Chacha is Gay (Translated as ‘My uncle is Gay’) narrates a simple story of the loving bond between a boy named Ahmed and his Chacha who is gay. The book gives the universal message of love and acceptance. It has already been translated into Italian and the writer has received many translation requests for different languages due to its global appeal.
So far she has managed to raise almost 4000 of the total 5000 CAD in just over a month’s time. ‘The response has been incredible. I am so touched to receive support for this project globally. Especially from Pakistan, just that people are willing to invest in such a thing means so, so much. And it really indicates that we are ready for change.’ said Eiynah.
However, it has also attracted sharp criticism online and offline. Last week, a reading of the book in one of the schools of Mississauga – a city in Southern Ontario, Canada sparked a fresh controversy when a few parents complained that the school authorities had not informed them about the reading and that the content of the book was inappropriate for children. The book was read out on the occasion of Pink Day- International Day against bullying, discrimination, and homophobia in schools.
Pakistani feminist academic, Fakhra Hassan who has widely written about homosexuality and queer rights in Pakistan feels otherwise, ‘The project is a promising step in queer education. It’s only a question of when literature relevant to gay kids will be available in schools especially with closeted paedophiles and molesters all around. While it is optimistic to see that queer theory is taught at some private institutions in Pakistan, the setback is that this kind of education is limited to the privileged classes who can afford such institutions.’
‘The book starts with a simple description of the Ahmed family, which resembles many urban Pakistani families, a family many children will easily relate to.’ says Nabiha Meher, Teacher and a Feminist from Pakistan.
Unfortunately, the feedback has not been as expected from many schools in Pakistan. ‘Even if people like the book, they are not willing to put such a controversial topic in a school. It’s definitely important, but I don’t think it’s necessary for the book to succeed in its impact. I think the way it has been spreading online and being read in schools in Toronto has already made it a success in my mind. Even if South Asian expat parents get exposure to this book, I think it has succeeded in starting the conversation within our culture.’ says Eiynah, who has tried to convince teachers to make this book a part of the larger conversation with their students.
The growing underground movement
While there are a few takers for My Chacha is Gay in Pakistan at the moment, it is surely adding value to the growing underground movement of LGBTQ rights in Pakistan.
‘There has been a lot of solidarity in Pakistan on the recent re-validation of section 377 in India as well as messages of hope for gay rights in the country from a lot of anonymous queer Pakistanis. In my student days, the word ‘queer’ meant ‘freak’ or ‘eccentric’ in my Oxford pocket dictionary and I only recall internalized homophobia and no real shared gay experience with anyone until I was 28 years old and thankfully in Pakistan, when I met my first girlfriend, officially. So, I would say, things have definitely improved from my age group’s perspective.’ says Fakhra.
Social networking sites, online blogs and mobile phone apps have contributed to the growing awareness and experience sharing among the LGBT community in Pakistan. Facebook pages like ‘Mujhe Tumse Kuch Kehna Tha’ and ‘Drag it to the Top’ provide a platform for not only sharing messages of support in the queer community but also help in discussing the discourse on homosexuality in the broader framework of a closed society.
Chay, which prides itself as being the country’s first and only magazine on sex & sexuality and Dayaar-e-Yaar, an online portal dedicated to LGBTQ community in Pakistan have provided significant reportage on the role of the state and society in breaking stereotypes.
According to Hadi Hussain, Pakistani queer activist and a regular contributor to online queer magazines, ‘The issue became a part of public narrative back in 2011 when the US embassy held pride celebrations in Islamabad bringing this tabooed issue into limelight and all of a sudden there were protests on the streets of major cities in Pakistan; mostly by hardliner right winged religious parties who claimed it as a foreign agenda with the involvement of US.’
Recently, when the police cracked the case of a serial killer who brutally killed gay men in Lahore city, the public hailed him as a hero of the anti-gay movement. The LGBTQ community has struggled to put forth an opposite viewpoint in the public ever since. ‘Just like the killer, they think that homosexuality is synonymous with paedophilia and by punishing homosexuals, they can get rid of child abuse offenders.’ adds Hadi.
Roadmap for legislative change
Last year, a study from the Pew Research Center exposed Pakistan as one of the most homophobic countries in the world. In a country with such high intolerance for homosexuality, legislative change remains elusive.
The LGBTQ community strongly condemns the existing laws against homosexuality, section 377 – Penal Code criminalising homosexuality in Pakistan and its Sharia Law counterpart for punishing homosexuals by 100 lashes or stoning them. So far there have been no laws in Pakistan safeguarding the rights for LGBTQ community in Pakistan. In 2003, Pakistan was one of the few countries to overturn a progressive United Nations vote on issues of LGBTQ human rights.
The Pakistani society has a lot of work to do in educating and safeguarding an open and vibrant discussion on the rights of LGBTQ community in the country. Legislative change will come later. It is almost impossible for lawyers in Pakistan to defend the rights of the community in the strong presence of fundamentally religious groups and an oversensitive government.
Amidst wide censorship and constant threats to freedom of expression in Pakistan, the small but thriving voices of dissent from this section of minority have a long road to travel.
Pari Trivedi is currently working as a Media Officer for Greenpeace India. She has done her MA in Transnational Communications Global Media from Goldsmiths and her BA in Journalism from Mumbai University. Previously, she has worked as a journalist and a media researcher.
Written by: Pari Trivedi on May, 14, 2014