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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To mark this historic judgment, Jawed Naqvi wrote a wonderful column in this newspaper in which he gave cultural and historical references to establish that traditionally the subcontinent has been hospitable to alternate sexual preferences.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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Anonymous Junaid Z said...

Irfan has written about two communities that exist in the society but are unfortunately treated as outcast; in fact if I say that threy are disgraced, humiliated, disrespected and stigmatized I wont be wrong.

a. Hijras are the most unfortunate of all for they enjoy no rights whatsoever. And how can they enjoy any right when they arent considered human? We not only look down upon them but more often than not we take pleasure in mocking, abusing, taunting and insulting them. This is how we are... we who consider ourselves to be god's 'chosen few'.

b. As for gays/lesbians, we somehow just want to believe that they do not exist; that alternate preferences make one a beast, a monster or a detestable creature that only deserves hate, resentment and anger. I agree with Irfan that this is something innate, inborn. You dont wake up one fine morning and decide lets be gay.

Do we know a word "compassion"? do we have any humanity in ourselves? no we dont. We carry within ourselves intolerance and hate to such extent that it displays in a variety of ways; while these two unfortunate communities are a permanent victim and target of our abuse, the streak of intolerance within us goes far beyond.I dont want to go into the manifestations of hate as it would take the debate away.

My only wish is that we learn to respect all humans, regardless of any bias, any prejudice whatsoever.


18 July, 2009 19:10

Blogger Maleeha said...

JZ: Regarding your agreement with Irfan's statement that 'homosexuality' is inborn, this is what I have to say: If Irfan had said that homosexuality is inborn in all people, I would not have disagreed with him (even though I have problems with the term 'homosexuality' as it is just as constructed and limiting as heterosexuality). However, he chose to write that it is inborn in 'some' people. My view differs in that I believe heterosexuality is a social construct and that any identity, in fact, is something you adopt whether by conscious or subconscious choice. Therefore, I argue that being queer is not a matter of choice, being heterosexual ('straight'), or homosexual, IS.

Identities are constructs that we add to ourselves and it is by shedding them off that we revert to our 'natural' (again, a much used and abused term) state of having none, of just BEING, without the need for being SOMETHING.

18 July, 2009 19:42

Blogger Pakistan Affairs Desk said...

Maleeha, the word "homosexuality" commonly used for both the orientation and the identity. See

Z, what do you mean by "despite" in the title? what is your disagreement?


19 July, 2009 00:09

Anonymous Ochre said...

I disagree with the notion that sexuality is a social construct. Being gay or lesbian is, admittedly, a complex--and unclear--interplay of genes and environment, but if you had to draw some sort of line (and I'm not sure I see the need to do this, but hey, some people do), the prefix before "sexuality" is about the essence or nature of the individual. Being queer is, if anything, a cultaral imperative. Given the very meaning of the word "queer", I'm not sure I understand the logic being applied. You can call same-sex or opposite-sex attraction "purple-banana-giraffe-mocha-latte"-ism, but it's not as though nomenclature begets nature or innate behaviour. To argue that sexuality is a construct, while behaviours are not, is specious. "Being" without "being something" is inherently a self-defeating New Agey proposition that exists only in the infinitive form of languages or obscure Bhabha-ian cultural theory.

19 July, 2009 03:18

Blogger Maleeha said...

I think before we go any further we should go back to the point Naveen raised, i.e. sex identity and gender identity are two very different things. It is impossible to go anywhere in this discussion as long as we continue to confuse the two. Sex is not the same as gender; the first is biological while the latter is psychological/social. 'Sex' and 'gender' are not interchangeable; there is a reason they are two different words, and no, the latter does not exist to make it possible to avoid using the S word on forms.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's now get into how complex this relationship between sex identities and gender identities actually is. Your sex is the body you are born in, unless you have had it modified. If I am born a female, my sex is female. If I also identify as a female, my gender would be female. If I was born in a female body but identified as a male, then I would have a female sex identity but a male gender identity. My gender identity dictates my behavior - which you could perceive and classify as either male behavior or female behavior (or androgynous, as the case might be). So, using the same example, if I am a female bodied person identifying as a male, my behavior would be seen as male behavior. This behavior reflects my gender identity.

Now sexuality is a completely different thing (or maybe not, since sex identity and gender identity may influence sexuality). A male bodied person identifying as a female may not necessarily be sexually oriented towards other males, as hir female gender identity might imply. Or, using the earlier example to keep things from getting complicated (if they aren't already!), a female bodied person with a male gender identity may not necessarily be sexually oriented towards other female bodied (and/or) female gendered persons, as you might expect.

This was dealing with the binary of two sexes; when you introduce a third sex - clumping together eunuchs and hijras (this term is so ill-defined (or undefined) it's not even funny) things obviously get more complicated, and MUST BE DEALT WITH ACCORDINGLY.

Will reply to Ochre's comment, especially the bit about being queer 'being a cultural imperative' tomorrow morning (it's past 4 AM and I'm beat) unless somebody else would like to answer it! Naveen?

19 July, 2009 04:36

Blogger Naveen said...

To Maleeha: This is more in response to your first comments that Zak included in his actual entry. You've raised an interesting point in terms of not just the language but also the conceptualizations of sexuality, that is, definitive categories versus fluidity. It's difficult for a lot of people to grasp the idea of non-binary heterosexual categories let alone fluidity; and given the extent and depth of social construction and socialization, our very awareness is divided into categories.

To Pakistan Affairs Desk: That doesn't quite make sense, because to what orientation and what identity are you referring? Do you mean sexual orientation and gender identity? If so, then Wiki is quite incorrect. The only way in which sexual orientation and gender identity is linked is precisely because people conflate the idea of sexuality and gender; for example, people have a certain perception of how people who are homosexual should/do behave. This is just conflation and confusion rather than real or accurate.

(Generally, I'd just like to add a further clarification to what Maleeha has already pointed out: that if your sex is female and your gender is woman (rather than female) and you are cisgendered. However, within that gender identity of woman and/or feminine, there are a lot of interpretations as to how you interpret (!) and present and behave or perform that gender identity.)

To Ochre: I think there's a confusion going on between sexuality, behavior and gender here. The debate of whether sexuality is a choice or genetic has been going for quite a while, but the point to me personally is not whether it's a choice or genetic; the point is that nobody has the right to dictate the sexual orientation of anybody else. Secondly, in terms of sexuality being a construct re the argument Maleeha has put forward, is valid if you consider that our senses, perceptions and language are socialized so unless we deconstruct everything, we're not factually able to answer what is and what is not a social construct. Thirdly, I don't understand what you mean by 'queer' being a cultural imperative nor by the meaning you are attributing to that word. Please clarify?

Also, as far as behaviors go, these are quite easy to prove to be social constructs; for example, an individual coerced by society into a cisgendered gender identity of woman will have to conform to that particular society and system's dictations on the behaviors and roles that have been set as 'standard' and 'normal' for the gender identity. Hence that behavior and role actually will be/is a cultural imperative. I think this may be the point that Maleeha is trying to get across, that being is separate from the expectations and constructions of behaviors dictated for and denoted to being something, as you put it.

Also, being is a proposition that Sartre, for example, put forward, and forgoing the meaning of New Age per se, I don't see he'd be called obscure ;)!

19 July, 2009 15:30

Anonymous Junaid Z said...

Why do we get into the debate of lexicon? queer, homosexual, gay etc.. whatever they connote and whatever they construe, the debate on words and their meanings would just drift us away from the topic -our attitude towards them andour treatment towards them. Why do they have to live in pretense? why dont we allow them the freedom of choice? Are we a tolerant society? These are the questions that I feel need to be addressed more than the specific connototation of terms.

This subject is dear to me since it pains me alot to see how shabbily we treat heejras. They are also human beings and not only do they need to be treated fairly but they are equally entitled to all fundamental human rights that everybody else is entitled to. The case of gays and lesbians is different since they have to live in pretence for fear of worst kind of retribution. Just because it is considered a curse, they either live dual lives or better still leave the country to be able to breathe in fresh air. It is sad. There have been cases where they were so stigmatized that they ended up taking their own lives. Do we deserve to be called humans when we hound them just because their preference is different? parents resort to marry their sons and daughters thinking marriage would 'cure' them..its such a sad state of affairs.

It is in the backdrop of all the pain I feel for them that I was so happy to read Irfans column. He had the courage to write on the subject that many of us want to evade.

It is so important that we discuss it, speak about it... at least admit their existence. And empathize we must. Ive had friends and ive spoken to them extensively. They are not retards... they are not suffering from any disease. They are as much human as we are... in fact many are so much better... so much more tolerant and humane...

19 July, 2009 15:38

Blogger Zakintosh said...


The 'despite' in the title does not emphasise MY disagreement as it goes on to say: Despite the best of intentions, dear Irfan … you've obviously hit some wrong nerves, too.

I had passed Irfan's well-intended and, in parts, commendable article to some people who are better informed regarding the terminilogy. It also had the note that I am very doubtful of the accuracy of the statement "Hijras are almost invariably hermaphrodites." My interviews and discussions with Hijras lead me to quite the opposite conclusion.

The Wiki entry needs to be updated (the very basis and strength of Wikis) to reflect the current usage of terms. Currently it only reflects the ghalat-ul-aam common usage. Students of the related disciplines now make clear distinctions.

19 July, 2009 15:48


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