Monday, 10 August 2009

History Repeats Itself

Posted by Huma in Featured Articles, Pakistan on 08 7th, 2009

Earlier this week, I attended a talk about Islam and homosexuality at a medical school in Karachi. The very fact that medical practitioners, particularly psychiatrists, were gathering to discuss the subject piqued my interest. After all, a variety of psychological and physical ailments have been documented in patients who suppress or conceal their sexual identities in conservative societies.

But I was disappointed to learn that the lecturer was taking a historical perspective and simply tracing the history of homosexuality in Muslim societies. It would have been far more interesting to hear a debate about the prevalence of homosexuality in contemporary Muslim societies and consider ways in which psychiatrists and GPs respond to patients who are gay, and whether approaches differ if patients embrace their sexual identity or consider it an affliction.

Still, it was encouraging to see some acknowledgement within our local medical community that homosexuality is a phenomenon worth keeping in mind when dealing with patients (and what better place to start than at the very beginning). For readers who are now expecting a grand theological debate about whether homosexuality is permitted in Islam, feel free to click elsewhere on this website. That question is still up for debate, with some Muslim groups condemning homosexual acts as a sin and others arguing that it is natural, and therefore created and condoned by the Almighty. This post simply considers how Muslim societies deal with homosexuality in practice.

The fact that Muslim societies are struggling to figure out how to respond to homosexuals in their midst is perfectly illustrated by Iran. A few years ago, the country enraged human rights groups and made headlines when it publicly hung two young men – one 18, the other a minor – for being gay. Soon after, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad further irked the global community by flat-out denying that there were any homosexuals in Iran. How then, the world asked, can you hang young men for something doesn’t exist and thus couldn’t have happened? Ahmedinejad’s – and Iran’s – confusion about what to do with homosexuals is widespread in the ummah – should Muslim societies seek out and punish homosexuals? Ignore their very existence? Or acknowledge that they live and – gasp! – worship in Muslim societies and therefore protect their human and constitutional rights?

To help address some of these questions, the lecturer went back in time to the Ottoman and Abbasid empires, during which homosexuality was commonly practiced and socially tolerated, though not explicitly legally protected. Back then, the lecturer explained, there were various reasons for homosexual behaviour (including lesbianism) being widespread.

Firstly, the legal system was multifaceted and did not take a decisive stand on homosexuality. Cases were judged either by the sultan’s law, common law or shariah, of which only the last had an opinion about homosexuality. Homosexuals were rarely taken to court on account of their homosexuality – if they did end up before a judge or qazi, it was for another social transgression (such as disturbing the peace). According to the lecturer, and here I summarise, the thinking at the time was that people’s sexuality was no one’s business unless they made a nuisance of themselves. Qazis who did pass judgement on homosexuals usually did not punish them for their sexuality per se, but for their conduct with regards to social norms (so, if someone abducted a young boy or committed a sexual act near a school, they would be punished for kidnapping or indecency and not for homosexuality).

Legal crackdowns on homosexuals during various Islamic empires were also few and far between because the burden of proof on the accuser was immense. As Brian Whitaker sums it up for The Guardian:

Furthermore, the levels of proof required by Islamic law are so high that if the rules are properly applied no one need ever be convicted unless they do something extremely blatant, like having sex in the street in broad daylight.

The lecturer also explained that if a person accused someone else of homosexuality and was not able to muster up the required evidence or witnesses, they would be permanently discredited and prohibited from testifying before any shariah court again.

In addition to legal laxity, homosexuality was prevalent in the Islamic empires because the cultures prescribed to a ‘one sex model’ in which conceptions of beauty were the same for men and women. The lecturer showed several miniature paintings from the Abbasid era in which men and women were indistinguishable (check out this famous illustration of Shah Abbas with a wine boy). Men would wear make up and drape themselves in gowns and jewels while women with downy mustaches were considered the most attractive (apparently, women would paint on mustaches to seem more comely!) Youth – rather than femininity or masculinity – was idealised, thereby eliminating the taboo around homosexual relationships.

Given the permissive attitudes of previous Muslim societies, how then did we get to a point where minors can be hung for being gay? The lecturer argued (convincingly, I might add) that present-day homophobia in Muslim societies is a fallout of the colonial encounter. Her logic relied on several premises.

Firstly, Europe subscribed to the ‘two sex model’ in which women were feminine and desired by men. Secondly, at the end of the eighteenth century, Europe, which was at the tail end of the Enlightenment, had reconfigured homosexuality from being a ‘sin’ into an ‘abnormality.’ When Catholicism was dominant, homosexuals were sinning against God, and could thus be managed (all that was needed was for them to confess their sin and atone by saying a few Hail Marys). As rationalism and science replaced God, homosexuality became a medical disorder, which was more threatening and harder to ‘cure’. Therefore, when ascendant European powers began to infiltrate the Muslim empires, homosexuality in the West was considered abnormal and inappropriate.

Now, as Muslims began traveling to Europe – which by this point was more progressive and wealthy than the Ottoman and Persian empires, and in some cases beginning to colonise the eastern powers – they saw that homosexual practices that were common and acceptable in their societies were considered abnormal in the West. They also began to wonder whether this ‘abnormal’ behaviour was not the cause of their weakness in the face of European colonialists. It was these initial encounters that began to taint the practice of homosexuality in Muslim societies.

And the rest, as they say, is history. With references to present-day Muslim societies and their attitudes towards homosexuality, Whitaker writes:

Nevertheless, while attitudes towards homosexuality in the west over the last few decades have generally been liberalising, Muslim countries have been moving in the opposite direction. This is largely a result of international politics. Perceptions of a domineering west, coupled with fears of globalisation and modernity have brought a revival of imagined “customs and traditions”, along with the spread of rigid and puritanical versions of religion.

The phenomenon he describes, however, is not that recent. According to the lecturer, as Muslim empires were colonised, they laid claim to the one thing that their colonial masters had not tainted and could not influence – Islam. And this they began to cling to in its most extreme and literal version. Since the mid-nineteenth century, then, Muslim societies have been largely anti-gay. Shariah courts that would previously disregard homosexual acts came to punish them harshly.

Or that, at least is the perception. Hearing the lecturer speak about the attitude towards homosexuals in the Ottoman and Abbasid empires, I couldn’t help but see parallels with modern-day Pakistan. Admittedly, there are no openly gay men in our society (and if there are, they suffer the consequences of social isolation, professional discrimination, and in many cases, arranged marriages which result in psychological trauma both for the man and the unfortunate woman he marries).

At the same time, though, we have Begum Nawazish Ali on our airwaves, hijras on every street corner, young ‘maalish walas’ at every roundabout, Dostana in our cinemas, innumerable curse words for homosexual men in our vernacular, and foppish characters in every comic skit. As Irfan Husain puts it:

This aspect of human sexuality is rampant in our part of the world, much as we would like to sweep it under the carpet…. Despite our prudish pretence, the fact is that we are relatively tolerant of homosexual behaviour. Our literature contains many references to romantic attachment between men. And for years, homosexuality in Pashtun society has been an open secret, although it might well be exaggerated. According to local tradition, many men live by the credo “Women for duty; boys for pleasure.”

While social mores condemn homosexuality and Pakistan’s didactic middle-class says ‘tauba tauba’ at the very thought of same-sex relations, we are thankfully not at the stage where there are witch-hunts for homosexuals. It seems as if the historic Muslim attitude towards gay men applies here too – out of sight, out of mind. As long as homosexuals don’t fly rainbow flags from atop the Teen Talwar, we don’t mind if they’re in our midst.

Indeed, as long as homosexuals are willing to preserve the fa├žade of a heterosexual social order in which men and women get married and have babies, they probably have little to fear (at least in terms of prosecution and state punishment – society’s righteousness is another matter altogether). What this status quo denies them, though, is the option of ever celebrating their sexual identity. Gay pride is something I do not see on the horizon for homosexuals in Pakistan. But in an age where regard for human rights should trump all, they deserve better than that. One can only hope that the current era of don’t-ask-don’t-tell tolerance evolves into something more progressive and open. Sadly, looking at present-day Pakistan as it abandons social tolerance for blind extremism, it seems as if history truly is fated to repeat itself.

Huma Yusuf is the features editor of Pakistan's Foremost English Daily Newspaper.

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