June issue 2006
Under the Quilt
I watched renowned Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah, his wife Ratna Pathak and daughter Heeba perform Gharwali, Mughal Bachcha and Chhuimui — three short stories written by Ismat Chugtai (1915-1991) — at the Al Hamra, Lahore, last month and I wish Shah had chosen Lihaaf instead of Chhuimui.
Both stories are written from the point of view of a young girl. While the portrayal of the socio-economic issues surrounding childbirth in Chhuimui — named after the touch-sensitive plant, forget-me-not — is thought-provoking, the mystery of the lihaaf, the quilt that ‘swayed like an elephant’ at night, is truly unforgettable. It was the publication of Lihaaf in 1941, the story of the chance discovery of lesbian love by an innocent girl, that had established Ismat’s uncompromising, satirical voice in the annals of Urdu literature.
In her times, the subject of homosexual love, especially that between women, was taboo in the discourses of desire. Lihaaf was banned by the then state government on charges of obscenity. Ismat challenged this decision and won her lawsuit at the Imperial Court of India in Lahore.
Sixty-five years since the publication of Lihaaf, recounting the ‘shameful’ affair of two women Begum Jan and Rabbo (‘What I saw when the quilt was lifted, I will never tell anyone, not even if they give me a lakh of rupees.’ — Lihaaf), lesbians are yet to find social acceptance. Homosexuality is prohibited in the three Judaic religions. In Pakistan, it is a criminal offence. Under section 377 of the Pakistan Penal Code, whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term (which shall not be less than two years nor more than 10 years), and shall also be liable to a fine.
The phrase ‘against the order of nature’ leaves room for debate. However, most people still cringe from an open discussion on sex, let alone unnatural sex. Moreover, state laws that derive their authority from divine will make the challenging of society’s perception of homosexuality all the more difficult. No surprise, therefore, that lesbians in this country prefer to live their ‘illegal’ love lives under the quilt, so to say!
Which is why I had found Ayesha Madad quite remarkable. I had met her at the World Social Forum at Karachi last month. She had introduced herself as a lesbian networker. “You are going around declaring your lesbian identity here, in this mela? Why, that’s suicidal!” I had exclaimed stupefied at her bravado. “Aaa ha ha ha! Silly! I’m just being open here because this is NOT Pakistan, this is the WORLD Social Forum,” she had chided. “I’m hoping to meet my kind.”
Thirty-six-year-old Ayesha described herself as an “auditee”- someone who has been ‘audited’ and judged by her social contexts (I initially thought perhaps she meant an irreverent fusion of audacious and oddity!). Ayesha was eight when she first became aware of “a motor gyrating between my legs,” while flipping through hidden-away Playboy magazines in her joint-family house at Karachi. “What’s the connection between the pictures of these women and this motor between my legs?” Seeking answers to that primal question launched her onto her journey of self-discovery.
From a confused, traumatised teenager violently at odds with her society, Ayesha has blossomed into an attractive woman, her beauty founded on a strong personality. As she puts it, “I represent myself in my being. I have questioned things. I have rejected the male/female role models. I have realised that I am different.”
It wasn’t easy to forge this integrated, self-affirmed personality. It was a smorgasbord of experiences that shaped her (‘bohat laut-pher kay, mukhtalif thappar kha keh, phir’). “My religious adherence has been the biggest hurdle; self-acceptance, especially in terms of consolidating a religious-spiritual perspective for myself in which I am ‘not guilty,’ ‘not a sinner,’ has been my greatest challenge.” Taking a swig of Murree whisky from a camouflaging 7-Up bottle, she announced dramatically: “I owe my loss of virginity to a can of beer.” “A can of beer?” I prompted, incredulous. “Yes, I was in college in Boston. After downing a can of beer I thought: who cares? I was so confused. I had gone to the US wearing a hijaab. Off with it, I told myself. I’m not trying to be anything.” Soon she had a steady boyfriend. “Oh we had sex and all that. But I wasn’t in love. Then my school friend visited. ‘Let me introduce you to my love,’ she said. The love came. She was a woman! I fell in love instantly. She was an artist: a beautiful butch (manly gay) woman in black boots, black overcoat. I went to the bathroom and cried.” That was Ayesha’s moment of awakening.
Ayesha chose to return to Pakistan because she felt that this was her true context; from here she could aspire to sustained creative work. Fortunately, she has a supportive family (“they refuse to abandon me”) and lives with them in Karachi.
Surina Khan, 39, wasn’t as lucky. Perhaps, therefore, her choices have been different from that of Ayesha’s. Belonging to a politically influential Khan clan, Surina’s family did not accept her queerness. In her article “Going Home,” (Boston Phoenix, Oct ’99) Surina writes: “When I came out to my mother, she suggested I go back to Pakistan for a few months. ‘Just get away from it all,’ she begged. ‘You need some time to think things through. Clear your head.’ But I declined. And later when I insisted I was queer and was going to move to Washington D.C., to live with my girlfriend, she tried another Pakistani scare tactic: ‘You and your lover better watch out. There’s a large Pakistani community in DC and they’ll find out about you. They’ll break your legs, mutilate your face.’ That pretty much did it for me. My mother had just validated all my fears associated with Pakistan and I cut off all ties with the community, including my family. Pakistan became synonymous with homophobia.”
Surina decided to become ‘The All-American Queer Pakistani Girl’ (S. Khan, published Oct, 1997). She has hugely succeeded in her chosen role. As an Associate Analyst at Political Research Associates, Surina authored ‘Calculated Compassion: How the Ex-Gay Movement Serves the Right’s Attack on Democracy,’ a definitive study of the ex-gay movement and the Christian right. Her crowning moment came in 2000, when she became the first South Asian to head the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). During her two-and-a half year stint at the organisation, she expanded its profile and helped solidify its financial footing.
Surina’s moment of reckoning came when she visited Pakistan to see her dying mother who had eventually reconciled with her daughter’s queerness. In Surina’s own words, “For many years, when my family could not deal with my homosexuality, I redefined ‘family’ to include my network of support here in the US — my family of friends. But now I realise that my family of origin has profound meaning in my life. I cannot replace them, or redefine them. They are my family — even in our dysfunction.”
In contrast to Surina, who, from her US base, has been able to make her queerness a personal-political platform from where she can be heard (Her mission: “Changing people’s hearts and minds by telling them about my life, while also educating them about the work being done around the world.”), Ayesha has a tough context for creating public space around her sexual identity in Pakistan. Unlike the US, where there is an active South Asian gay and lesbian community providing a public forum for interactions, Ayesha can connect with other lesbians only informally in Pakistan. Even in a large city like Karachi, she complains of there being no openness for the gay rights cause, “no ‘adda’, no place to hang out” with women like her. While public hangouts for gay men exist, lesbians are more reticent about open negotiations. And although the law against homosexual acts in Pakistan is rarely enforced, the fear of being shamed and ostracised by the community strongly deters public-expression. Lesbians tend to meet furtively — it’s called “the saheli culture- ‘meet my best friend.” Ayesha doesn’t subscribe to this dhaka-chhupapun hypocrisy.
She would rather be honest and upfront, at least where she can be, in progressive Pakistani circles, and build a support group: “That one-phone-call-away-ness of another lesbian who you can talk to openly about your otherwise freakish life is what it is about, a lot of the time.”
Ayesha believes that no actual lesbian freedoms can be had, even informally, without safety, security and social rights for single women. Finding safe, decent, affordable housing for single women for instance, is a real and difficult issue. “The family and neighbourhood reputation is at stake, you see! We still cannot tolerate the idea of a woman being on her own, and that she really doesn’t need men in her life.” She thinks that having “one’s own place literally means having the space to fashion one’s personal lifestyle as well as to host the social/political gathering and networking which is disallowed in public.” Ayesha draws the bottom line: “My problem is twofold: I am not a corporate-sector success to buy my guarded private space and do whatever I want. Nor can I see myself as the spouse of a briefcase-swinging, elite-executive lesbian who is unwilling to step outside her own comfort zone.”
“How do you intend to change your circumstances, then?” I inquire. Ayesha points to her ‘Lesbian Networker’ ID-tag. “If you come across a dyke, pass on my number, will you?”