Friday, 27 November 2015

The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities - Book Review


De Sondy’s engaging study, The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities, provides a timely addition to the emergent field of masculinity studies. As the first monographic book on masculinity in Islam, it also contributes to the growing number of studies exploring the intersections between religious identity and masculine gender. Indeed, De Sondy’s book illustrates how the study of masculinity from the perspective of Islam opens up new vistas on the complex ways in which religion, culture, and politics shape gendered identities in Muslim societies. 

The “crisis” to which De Sondy alludes in the title of his book concerns the contemporary phenomenon by which “theocratic Islamisms” have come to idealize and propagate an “entrenched masculinity defined through familial dominance and shows of power, sometimes expressed as militarism” (1), as the sole authentic, acceptable paradigm of Muslim manhood. This situation has created a crisis in Muslim communities both for Muslim women feminists who are seeking greater gender equality and for Muslim men who do not fit the “cookie cutter” patriarchal model. The author explores these issues by evaluating “constructions of masculinities in Islamic traditions, chiefly the Qur’an, and the impact such notions have on the lived realities of Muslim men (and women)” (5). 
 
De Sondy does a fine job in illuminating the role of a foundational text such as the Qur’an in shaping notions of masculinity while at the same time avoiding over-determining scripture’s role in this process. Equally, in order to avoid the pitfalls of generalizing about Muslim men worldwide, he focuses his analysis on case studies from the Indian subcontinent between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.

In terms of his approach, it is important to note that De Sondy self-identifies from the onset as “a Muslim believer” (7) and makes it clear that he wishes “to trace—but not enter—a theological debate” (5) about Islamic masculinity. He does not wish to “defend or apologize on behalf of a religious culture” but rather begins from the supposition that “Islamic expressions of masculinity are diverse” and that “lived gendered experiences are manifold” (5). In his analysis he employs a “multiform approach that is historical and metainterpretitive.” He reads the silences, reads against the grain, and reads negatively “to expose what is hidden, what is operative but not acknowledged in terms of lived masculinities within Islam” (5). He also takes inspiration from gender and religious studies scholars such as Mary Keller, who study how identity markers of race, ethnicity, and gender inform religious identity, and from masculinities studies theorists who argue that masculinity is dependent upon the premise that it has an opposite or counterpart, normally understood to be the female sex. Whereas in western secular societies the crisis of masculinity stems from feminist questioning of traditional forms of male power and from non-heterosexual forms of masculinity, De Sondy asserts that in Islam “the crisis of masculinity is predicated in a different way” (11) around a “constellation” of others—women, God, and the “West.” In other words, De Sondy seeks to illustrate through his analysis of the Qur’an and his case studies that Muslim masculinities define themselves not only in relation to women but also in relation to God and to the non-Islamic world (11).

De Sondy develops these ideas in six chapters. Chapter 1, “The Knot Mawdudi Tied,” discusses the enormous influence that Mawdudi’s ideas on political Islam had in shaping an Islamic masculinity in India and Pakistan. He begins with a discussion of the key events in Mawdudi’s life that informed his political thought, for instance, his imprisonment by the British four times, which not only increased his vehement rejection of western culture but also hardened his convictions regarding the need to establish an Islamic state based on “authentic” Islamic principles. De Sondy then argues that the cornerstone of Mawdudi’s model Islamic State was the family unit defined according to strict patriarchal gender roles in which “men are expected to be breadwinners and women the homemakers” (18). The result is a model of Muslim hyper-masculinity in which women owe their husbands or male guardians unconditional obedience. De Sondy comes to these conclusions by critically reading Mawdudi’s writings, particularly his seminal book on Purdah. Whereas the Pakistani intellectual claimed to write a book delineating the ideal role and status of women, De Sondy uses this material to show how in so doing, Mawdudi also constructed an ideal of Islamic masculinity. For instance, the restrictions he imposes upon women, such as forbidding them to work outside the home, and the natural biological debilities he ascribes to them (e.g., according to Mawdudi menstruating, pregnant, and lactating women are incapable of clear rational thought) are lacunae that must be filled by men. De Sondy further demonstrates how Mawdudi promoted his ideas that the creation of a model Islamic society rested upon the institution of marriage in which men and women perform their gender roles to perfection using two strategies. First, Mawdudi made effective use of God talk, which facilitated a rhetorical slippage whereby arguing against his model of the family was tantamount to arguing against God himself. Second, he constantly contrasted this Islamic utopia with the worst examples of a debased western society riddled with pornography, divorce, venereal diseases, and wanton sex. De Sondy concludes that any discussion of Islamic masculinities must contend with the gestalt that Mawdudi created.

Chapter 2, “Feminists’ Nonothering Hermeneutics,” analyzes the challenges facing Muslim women feminists who aim to demonstrate that they can be both pro-family and in support of women’s agency (56). Here too De Sondy is careful to illustrate the diversity of opinion, pointing out that they are “not a monolithic bunch” (59) and that some, notably Amina Wadud, do not feel comfortable using the label “feminist.” Rather, she defines her position as “pro-faith, pro-feminist” and elaborates theological theories about gender in order to challenge patriarchy. He observes two methods of Muslim women feminists: self-reflection and critical engagement with their distinct individual circumstances, and reinterpretation of the Qur’an and other religious texts. At the same time, he points out the limitation of these debates to the realm of heterosexual Muslim masculinity since it is this form of masculinity that is most responsible for women’s subordination.

Regarding the first method, he analyzes examples of the “personalized scholarship” of Muslim feminists as a “hermeneutic for understanding and shaping Islamic tradition” (59), drawing upon examples from the lives and writings of women from Pakistan and elsewhere, such as Riffat Hassan, Amina Wadud, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, and slain Pakistani president Benazir Bhutto. Muslim women feminists such as Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas combine both methods by writing about their own experiences and by engaging in a “hermeneutics without hegemony.” Thus against traditional Islamic masculinist claims that women should not participate in politics, Wadud reinterpreted the Qur’anic story of the Queen of Sheba to argue that scripture did not forbid women from holding political authority over men. Barlas adopts an “ungendering method” of reading the reading the Qur’an in order to neutralize misogynist conceptions (68). A key example is her exegesis of Q 24:30-31, the verse traditionally invoked to impose and justify veiling and segregation upon women. Barlas emphasizes that the verse enjoins modesty on both men and women, and asserts that the essential parts women must cover extend from the bosom to the private parts; i.e., not the head (81). Women Muslim feminists also engage with examples from the prophet Muhammad’s domestic life, arguing that his renowned humility and gentleness contradict hyper-masculine patriarchal constructions of manliness. Significantly, De Sondy shows how Muslim women feminists challenge the ways that God and the prophet are used to strengthen and uphold Islamic masculinity and, likewise, expose the manner in which Islamic law is deployed to impose rigid notions of gender identities and roles. He concludes that the scholarship of Muslim feminist women points the way toward reconfiguring Mawdudi’s binary oppositions that depend upon the othering of man and God versus women and the “West.” Significantly, gender equality can be advanced by reorienting Muslim life around submission or surrender, the relationship that both men and women must adopt with respect to God.

Chapter 3, “The Failed Search for a Single Qur’anic Masculinity,” examines the Qur’anic rendering of the lives of four prophets—Adam, Joseph, Muhammad, and Jesus—in order to demonstrate the diversity of models of masculinity in the sacred text. Particularly interesting is De Sondy’s identification of the dual aspects of the prophets as prophets and as private men, which reveals “not one ideal Islamic masculinity, but a tableau of exemplary men” (79), many of whom depart from strict patriarchal paradigms and find themselves in a range of situations that do not always reflect idealized families. So, for example, Muhammad’s own family background as an orphan and his relations to his wives undercut conventional images of patriarchy and hyper-masculine aggression; his humility, gentleness, and discretion provide an alternative model of manliness that could be taken as an ideal to be emulated. Another interesting insight from the comparison of Muhammad and Joseph lies in the diverse models of male sexuality: both Muhammad’s sexual potency in the form of multiple marriages and Joseph’s sexual restraint are upheld as exemplary since both were motivated by the submission to God. De Sondy makes the important conclusion on the basis of the multiplicity of prophetic heroes mentioned in the Qur’an that “there is no ideal masculinity in Islam” (119). Rather, he emphasizes that submission is the key concept in defining ideal prophethood such that the male prophet’s perfection derives from his relation to God, not from his patriarchal authority over his wives and family.

In Chapter 4, “Mirza Ghalib’s Hedonistic Challenge,” De Sondy analyzes the life and writings of one of the greatest poets of Mughal India. The author maps the struggles and challenges Mirza faced as a spiritually devout married Muslim man who had fathered seven children (although all of them died) and who also led a courtier’s life of hedonism, wine drinking, and erotic affairs. Another interesting feature of this chapter is the observation that Mirza Ghalib’s involvement in the heterosexual and homoerotic liaisons that characterized Mughal courtesan culture, together with his participation in the gatherings (Mushairas) in which male poets showcased new poems and competed with each other for recognition as the best poet, offer alternative arenas in which Muslim masculine gender identities are constructed and performed. De Sondy sees in Mirza’s life a kind of foreshadowing of the predicament that many Muslims experience today as many self-indentifying Muslim males feel constrained by Islam and especially by the Islamism propounded by Mawdudi and his ilk. De Sondy concludes this chapter with a warning that “strict and constraining definitions of Islamic masculinity like Mawdudi’s encourage defection of pious men…who have interests other than war, dominance, xenophobia, and the heteronormative family” (152).

De Sondy brings to light further tensions and paradoxes of Islamic masculinities in Chapter 5, “Sufism’s Beloved Subversion.” Sufism represents an alternative ideal form of masculinity because of the Sufis’ exemplary submission and servitude to God. De Sondy’s analysis offers a nuanced critique of the tendency of some scholars to overstate the association of Sufism with gender egalitarianism and to see in the master-disciple relationship a feminization of the latter. According to De Sondy, Sufism indeed undercuts the stereotypical association of masculinity with power because submission and subservience to God are the dominant leitmotifs guiding the Sufi’s existence. And yet the Sufi master acquires power and authority precisely because he has mastered submitting himself to God. De Sondy also finds in his treatment of master-disciple relations that “in the fluid and ambiguous state of discipleship, passivity and subordination were practiced without fear of humiliation and loss of manliness, indeed, they were valued behaviours” (144) and that none of the participants in such relationships are considered unmanly. In this way he gets beyond the imposition of binary categorizations that would equate any form of manhood not defined in terms of hegemony as somehow feminized.

With regards to the claims of Sufi gender egalitarianism, De Sondy furnishes compelling evidence from male Sufi sources that assume that women’s gender roles are an obstacle to full time devotion to God and obtaining perfect transcendence. This is especially apparent in his assessment of Sufis such as al-Ghazali and Ibn Arabi who “used the ultimate, transcendent submission experience of mysticism not to knock down gender barriers but to reinforce them” (145). We also see further evidence of this in his discussion of sex and marriage, where he observes a pronounced preference for celibacy since, “sex disturbs the pure surrender of the soul” (144). It was also interesting to note that the conceptualization of the Sufi’s death as an ‘urs (wedding) between man and the divine implicitly devalues normative marriage between man and woman. De Sondy concludes that while Sufism provides a space for men and, to a lesser extent, women to defy certain constraints of legalist Islam, he reminds us that constructing a more fluid masculinity and more egalitarian gender relationships were not the goals of the Sufi mystics (178).

De Sondy concludes that his exploration of key figures in the Qur’an and in Indian and Pakistani Islamic history has exposed the tendentiousness and precariousness of Islamic masculinities and has shown that fundamentalist conceptions of Islamic masculinity are not to be understood as the only or the authentic mode of living and performing one’s masculinity. He has produced an inclusive and pluralistic vision of Islamic masculinities that accommodates polar opposite exemplars such as Mawdudi and Mirza Ghalib, that argues that the diversity of Qur’anic masculine paradigms must themselves be taken as proof that Islam does not support a single model of masculinity, and which offers a cogent analysis of the multiple positions Muslim women feminists have adopted and the methods they have employed to remain “pro-faith” while debunking the hegemonic discourses of Islamic traditions. By way of a critique, De Sondy’s analysis of the prophetic models might have included examples of other men whose profiles more closely resemble that of the heteronormative patriarchal models as a way of counterbalancing the alternative and “dysfunctional” paradigms that he emphasizes. 

Otherwise it is a beautifully written (apart from a few minor editing errors) and well documented study that should be read not only by those interested in gender in Islam but by anyone interested in gender and masculinity issues more broadly.


Linda G. Jones
Ramon y Cajal Research Professor
Universitat Pompeu Fabra


Deeyah Khan: What IS do is like grooming - they prey on guilt, loneliness and anger

Film-maker Deeyah Khan asked British extremists about their path to radicalisation and entered a warped world of hyper-masculinity. She tells Rosamund Urwin about the sexual allure of jihad 

Rosamund Urwin
Monday 23rd November 2016
Published at Evening Standard
All Rights Reserved, Copyright

A British jihadist in Syria recently watched Deeyah Khan’s documentary about extremism and wrote to her, incensed. “Why are you making us look like losers?” he raged. “We are noble. We are brave.” She could only laugh. “It’s telling that that’s what bothers him. I’ll do more of it to piss him off.”

What angered him was that in Jihad: A British Story, Khan explores not only the ugliness of Islamic extremism but also the “goofiness and stupidity”. One former extremist calls a gun a “penis extension” and describes radicalism as a form of machismo, a way to get women.

“It’s the kind of men who feel emasculated — small, pathetic, weak,” she tells me. “It allows them a hyper-masculinity because masculinity and violence are so closely linked in our societies. They can put on this persona: ‘I’m a holy warrior. You don’t respect me but you’re afraid of me.’”

The 38-year-old film-maker and human rights campaigner is forthright and articulate. The only time she stumbles is when I ask if she herself is religious. “Errr, yeah. I mean no.” A pause. “I come from a Muslim family. The label ‘Muslim’ is one aspect of me but it’s not the only part of me.”

Khan spent 18 months interviewing ex-extremists to understand why people join IS in the hope of preventing others being radicalised. “Often we talk about them as if they’re monkeys in cages. They’re people. Let’s talk to them.”

Her pessimism starting the film turned into hope by its end. “I believe what IS is doing, we can do. They tell a story that is compelling to our young people; we have to tell a better story than them.” What surprised her is that even extremists are capable of redemption. “I wasn’t convinced that was possible before.”

Khan feels frustrated about the media debate after the Paris attacks. “One guy will say, ‘it’s all about Islam’. The other will say, ‘it has nothing to do with Islam’. I want to throw something at the TV!  What are we doing about it? We don’t have time for douchebags in suits to be pointing fingers at each other. Of course Islam has something to do with it — people are doing it in the name of Islam — but it’s also about human vulnerabilities  — needs that get filled somehow.”

IS, she notes, spends hundreds of hours recruiting each fighter. It builds an intimate connection on Skype: finding out who this person is, their dreams. “IS takes the yearning, the sadness, the anger, preys on that and draws people into becoming cannon fodder.”

Perhaps because we’re sitting in a Canary Wharf restaurant, Plateau, surrounded by Savile Row suits, I suggest IS may be the ultimate headhunters. Khan nods. “They are. It’s also like grooming. They find out what all your needs are, they build that loyalty and love.”

Love, she acknowledges, seems a strange word to use when we’re talking about a hateful ideology. “It doesn’t start with hate. It starts out as a human need that is not being met, and with love and loyalty between the recruiter and the follower.” Those radicalised by former über-recruiter Abu Muntasir describe him as the father they wished they had had.

There’s no single route to radicalisation. Common themes, Khan says, are discrimination, difficult childhoods and sexual frustration. Guilt can be a factor: a 17-year-old told her he had planned to join IS because someone told him “once the martyr’s blood hits the ground, all his sins are forgiven” and he’d sinned. “Jesus Christ! What could he possibly have done that he believes his life has to be exchanged for forgiveness? Did he look at a girl?”

Some recruits are lonely; IS provides a “band of brothers”. Others are “straight-up criminals dressing up their criminality in something righteous”. Still more see it as political engagement. “They’d tell me, ‘I want to stand up against injustice’. IS has convinced them that violence is the vehicle through which you do that.”

The West unintentionally fuels that view. “When they commit atrocious violence, even Obama looks at them. There’s something seductive in that — someone who is otherwise invisible now feels like a rock star.”

What about the women drawn to IS? Khan says it can be “almost a liberation” if they’re escaping something else. “An exaggerated expression of religiosity gives more freedom. The younger women have gone at that age where most Muslim families bring up marriage.” Some of the older women she thinks are victims of domestic violence.

Khan believes young Muslims of both sexes often feel powerless. “You’re born and the script of your life is already written by your family and community: what you will be when you grow up, who you will marry. Your job is to strive for that. If you don’t, you bring dishonour.” Some have found a way to redress this power imbalance: religion. “It’s the one thing the parents can’t argue back on: ‘Mum and Dad, you’re not even proper Muslims.’ It’s genius. Parents have curfews; ‘but I’m going to a religious studies group’” — Khan gives the finger – “It’s a trump card that almost puts kids in the dominant position.”

She cites a woman who wanted to marry a black man. “There was no way in hell — secular, liberal, whatever — a Pakistani family was going to let her marry a black guy. She talked to a radical preacher. He says ‘no problem, as long as he converts to Islam’. They’ve figured out how to bypass the parents — we never did.” Khan says her father, though extremely liberal, controlled everything. “He’s a feminist, pro-human rights, and even he was suffocating.”

Khan was born in Norway to an Afghan mother and Pakistani father. Her father pushed Khan to be a singer — “not my forced marriage but my forced career” — believing music was a sphere where people weren’t judged by race. “He misfired terribly. Music, performance and a woman is very rarely accepted within Muslim communities.”

As she became famous, death threats started. Aged 17, Khan felt forced to leave Norway. It was front-page news. “Nobody said ‘hang on: a 17-year-old, the symbol of our multicultural state, has bought a one-way ticket to London’. I felt like that last suitcase on the baggage carousel that just keeps going around and no one claims it. I didn’t belong to the Asian and Muslim community, but white, Norwegian society didn’t claim me either.”

She was scared for many years. “In many ways, [extremists and I] are each other’s natural enemies, so recognising them as human beings is surprising. If I can do that, more of us can too. Which shouldn’t excuse violence, but the point is to have more compassion for people who haven’t reached that point yet. They make it very easy to hate them — I have hated them for most of my life.”

How, then, do we reach out to those on this path? “Rather than shutting down free speech, we need to broaden it, to make it possible for young people to say even the things we dislike so we can talk them down. And we need politicians to articulate a picture of the future that includes all of us. Not British values but shared human values.”

Nobody is tackling this properly, she feels: the far Right acknowledges the issue but doesn’t want solutions, it wants to divide. The Left wants “to give the impression all non-white people are victims of something and all perfect. That’s not true and very patronising.”

To destroy the ideology, we have to engage. Khan uses the reaction of a group of Palestinians to dissuade wannabe jihadists. “I told the Palestinians, ‘There are young Muslims in the West willing to die in your name’. They got angry: ‘Tell them don’t die for us: come here and bring books and hammers so we can build something’. Shame on you! You’re perverting their suffering into your own wish for retribution.”

The far Right and Islamists share a view of this clash of civilisations. “They want the same thing — for us all to hate each other. So we must not only preserve our multi-ethnic societies — we will strengthen them. What frightens IS most isn’t our bombs, it’s us getting along.”

Paris seems to confirm that. “They didn’t attack political or military targets, they chose multi-ethnic areas where bohemian people, anti-racists, mixed. They live and laugh together. This was IS sending us an invitation to the worst places of ourselves: our hatred. We must try to resist walking into their trap.”

That means welcoming refugees. “When so many left, IS released so much propaganda. ‘Why are you going to the land of disbelievers? They hate you!’ When refugees are treated humanely, that damages their story.”

Given that Khan has endured a backlash in the past, does she fear one again from this film? “No,” she says defiantly, her eyes flashing. “We risk losing much more by remaining silent.”

Jihad: A British Story will be screened at Southbank Centre’s Being a Man Festival on Friday at 2pm, southbankcentre.co.uk/bam
Follow Rosamund Urwin on Twitter: @RosamundUrwin


The Statue of Liberty Was Originally a Muslim Woman "The New Colossus" was actually born in Egypt

By Erin Blakemore 
Published in www.smithsonian.com
Copyright, All Rights Reserved

The United States has debated immigration since the country's founding, and the Statue of Liberty—a potent symbol for immigrants—is often invoked as an argument for why we should usher in those who seek safety and opportunity with open arms. A little-known fact about Lady Liberty adds an intriguing twist to today's debate about refugees from the Muslim world: As pointed out by The Daily Beast’s Michael Daly in a recent op-ed, the statue itself was originally intended to represent a female Egyptian peasant as a Colossus of Rhodes for the Industrial Age.

That might be surprising to people more familiar with the statue’s French roots than its Arab ones. After all, the statue’s structure was designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel), and Lady Liberty was given to the United States by France for its centennial to celebrate the alliance of the two countries formed during the French Revolution.

The statue’s designer, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, was also French, but he found inspiration in a very different place: Egypt. In 1855, he visited Nubian monuments at Abu Simbel, which feature tombs guarded by gigantic colossus figures. Bartholdi became fascinated by the ancient architecture, developing what the National Park Service calls a “passion for large-scale public monuments and colossal structures.” Eventually, he channeled that passion into a proposal for the inauguration of the Suez Canal.

Bartholdi envisioned a colossal monument featuring a robe-clad woman representing Egypt to stand at Port Said, the city at the northern terminus of the canal in Egypt. To prep for this undertaking, Barry Moreno, author of multiple books about the statue, writes that Bartholdi studied art like the Colossus, honing the concept for a figure called Libertas who would stand at the canal.

“Taking the form of a veiled peasant woman,” writes Moreno, “the statue was to stand 86 feet high, and its pedestal was to rise to a height of 48 feet.” Early models of the statue were called “Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia.”

Edward Berenson, author of Statue of Liberty: A Translatlantic Story, writes that Bartholdi’s concept morphed from “a gigantic female fellah, or Arab peasant” into “a colossal goddess.” But Egypt, which had invested enormous amounts of time and money into the landmark canal, was not as eager about Bartholdi’s idea. Isma’il Pasha, the reigning khedive, rejected the plan as too costly.

Eventually, a 180-foot tall lighthouse was installed at Port Said instead. But Bartholdi was not discouraged. He eventually repurposed his concept into “Liberty Enlightening the World”—the official name for the statue that has been overlooking New York Harbor since 1886.


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Officially Recognized But Publicly Shamed: Transgender Life in Pakistan

By Faizan Fiaz

One Friday night earlier this year, a nervous but meticulously made-up crowd of transgender women sat in the upper circle of the smart Al Hamra Arts complex in Lahore, Pakistan. Bored with waiting for the performance to begin, o
ne and then all of them stood up to take in a better view of the surroundings.

The rest of the audience gawked at the sight before them: Pakistani transgender women are ordinarily found at the grubbier end of the entertainment market, dancing at tawdry wedding parties or turning tricks. Certainly never as patrons at an upscale theatre.

That night, however, they were to be centre stage, performing "Theesri Dhun" ("Third Tune"), a rare and unique dramatization of real-life transgender stories. With harrowing tales of rape, police brutality and social stigma, it made for sombre viewing.

It also shed a light on Pakistan's complicated and disturbing LGBT rights landscape, where trans people technically enjoy better rights than in many places around the world, but in practice face violence and stigma. Even so, they are worlds ahead of Pakistani gay men, who are outlawed, brutalized and even murdered with no recourse to protection.

Neeli Rana, one of the principal trans actresses in Teesri Dhun, saw the play as a lifeline. "People on the street only ever make fun of us or hoot their car horns, thinking that the only thing we are fit to do is perform at functions or beg," she said. "But this play has put us in the spotlight, and allowed us to show the things that happen to us in society."

Khawaja Sara — as transgender women are known in Pakistan — have been part of South Asian society for centuries. During the relatively progressive era of the Mughals in the 1500 and 1600s, they were army generals, harem managers and Royal Court officials. But gender non-conformity was plunged into darkness with the arrival of the British Raj and staunch conservative Christian laws, and the rights and privileges transgender women once enjoyed were swept away.

Under the British, Khawaja Sara were seen as a breach of public decency and placed under the Criminal Tribes Act (1871) which subjected them to compulsory registration, strict monitoring and a deep-rooted social stigma which continues to this day.

Some legal progress has been made in recent years however. In 2009 Pakistan's Supreme Court recognised the "third gender" and gave trans people a separate gender marker on their national ID cards. Soon after Khawaja Sara won the right to vote and a handful of the community even stood in the general election of 2013. These steps went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, and remain a success that few other countries have matched.

While trans women are the success story amongst LGBT Pakistanis, their counterparts, transgender men — people born biologically female but who identify as male — barely register on the national conscience. Technically they should also be able to register as third gender but none has ever attempted it.

In 2007, Pakistan was forced to confront the plight of trans men in the case of Shumail Raj and Shahzina Tariq. Shumail, a transgender man, and his wife had sought protection from the courts from family violence, but were then charged with perjury for "lying" about his gender identity. The case dissolved into a media circus and as soon as they were able the pair disappeared into obscurity with the help of local and international NGOs.

Since then a handful of transmen and intersex people have appeared in the news, as objects of novelty but little else.
'I don't go to public bathrooms, I have such anxiety'

VICE News tracked down one twenty-one-year-old transgender man living in Sindh province. Daanish (not his real name) is biologically female and pre-medical transition. He wears his hair cropped and boy's clothes.

"I come from a conservative town," he said. "Boys and girls are separated once they reach puberty; it's confusing. Girls are always asking me about when I am going to grow my hair and start acting like a girl. That kind of conversation hurts me".

While public changing rooms and toilets are the bane of transgender lives around the world, in Pakistan gender segregation is inviolable and the issue is particularly acute.

Daanish related a typical experience at an airport toilet. "The female janitor had gone and I was relieved that I wouldn't have to explain my gender," he said. "But when I stepped out of the stall, she was there shouting at me that I should get out and we started arguing about what I was, and my male clothing. This whole event traumatized me in such a way that even today I don't go to public bathrooms, I have such anxiety."

There are currently no resources for transgender men, making them almost invisible in the LGBT Pakistani spectrum. But they are not alone in this regard: lesbian women, aside from playing a predictable part in male fantasy, go largely unnoticed too.

'Please take me away with you! I don't know what to do with the way I'm feeling'

Beenish (not her real name) is an artist who lives in one of the bigger cities — facts that allow her to live comfortably outside social margins, somewhat. Talking to VICE News, she described how the pressure of heterosexual conformity can build up and erupt spectacularly.

"I was in a cafe and this teenage girl slumped into the chair in front of me, drunk," she said. "Looking at my short hair she said 'I'm so glad, finally, someone I can talk to'. She started touching my arm saying, 'Please take me away with you! I don't know what to do with the way I'm feeling'. I had to ask the manager to sit her outside with some water and fresh air. When I left, she shouted over to me "Oh please kiss me, please kiss me!" I felt very sorry for her."

While the teenager in Beenish's story could be arrested for drinking alcohol, technically she would have nothing to fear if she were a lesbian. Pakistan's penal code was inherited from Victorian Britain which famously disregarded female homosexuality and to this day romantic relationships between women remain legally irrelevant.

Societal pressure, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely and can often be more powerful in practical terms.

Falak Chaudhry runs Neengar, a small non-profit organisation in Punjab province for what are euphemistically called "sexual minorities."

The cases he deals with are harrowing. "There was a gay man who came to our office around midnight," he recounted. "He had gone on a blind date but the date called a bunch of his friends who then beat him up, stole his phone and threw bricks at him when he tried to run away."

Incidents like this happen often and are carried out with impunity: any report to the police would result in the victim being prosecuted under article 377 of the Pakistani penal code which makes homosexual acts illegal and punishable by up to ten years in prison and/or 100 lashes if punished under sharia law. 

Neengar itself has been under attack. "In 2012 our office was robbed and ransacked to send out a clear message that we should stop working," said Falak. "And then last year some unknown people attacked my house, broke my car window and tried to set it on fire."

Again, society and police sympathy are far from forthcoming. "Unfortunately, when you try to raise voice against violence, everyone blames you for working for LGBT rights," he said.

There have been attempts by outside influences, however, to promote LGBT equality in Pakistan.

In 2011, the US Embassy held an event in Islamabad to mark Gay Pride. While this may have been meant as gesture of solidarity, it caused friction with Pakistan's religious and conservative establishment. Ominous banners sprang up across the country and the United States was accused of "cultural terrorism."

Pakistani LGBT activists say they were forced to curtail their activities to avoid association. Undeterred, the US Embassy this year toured a one-woman show by a lesbian performer across Pakistan which saw members of one audience walk out.

The prospects for LGBT Pakistan are bleak by all accounts and the community — such as it is — will almost certainly remain underground. But as lacking as transgender women's rights have been in recent years, they may be the only glimmer of hope for the rest of the spectrum.