News that Nergis Mavalvala, the Karachi-born astrophysicist who was in the team that verified Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity, has been invited to visit Pakistan and to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has delighted the country’s gay community.
Mavalvala is openly gay and a single, independent mother. In Pakistan, both her sexuality and possibly her status would be frowned upon. But Sharif has praised Mavalvala as a source of inspiration for Pakistani scientists and students.
Pakistan’s LGBT community remains largely hidden. With increasing intolerance in society, members of the community have been attacked by religious zealots on the grounds that they spread “disease” and shamelessness.
“They are trying to destroy the fabric of our society,” says Mufti Naeem, a religious leader based in Karachi who described Mavalvala as “a sick person and a poor example for others to follow”.
Many of Pakistan’s religious leaders insist there is no gay scene in the country and that Western agencies are promoting such a concept to break down religious and cultural norms. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
In 2011, the Jamaat-e-Islami party protested against the holding of Islamabad’s first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride celebration, which was hosted by the US embassy. Clerics claimed this confirmed what they had been saying all along, that the West was “promoting homosexuality in Pakistan”.
But members of the community dismiss such assertions.
“Like the rest of the world, gay people have lived under varying degrees of suppression in our part of the world,” says Talal Ahmal (not his real name), who works in a senior editorial position at a Karachi newspaper. He insists the only difference between the West and Pakistan is “here we do not celebrate being gay. We go about it as part of our lives.”
There are thousands of gay people across Pakistan, say observers, though there has never been an effort made to count them or estimate their population in a country where homosexuality is a criminal offence.
Section 377 of Pakistan’s Penal Code states: “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 ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.” So far, no one has been sentenced under this law but this can change as religious parties move in for action.
Members of the LGBT community who are educated and well-off use the internet as their source of communication and information. Over the years, a number of websites and Facebook pages have appeared that claim to promote gay rights in Pakistan. Almost none of them have traceable contact details.
Contrary to what is painted by foreign news media, Pakistan does not have a thriving gay scene. “There are few parties or gay get-togethers,” says another journalist, who asked not to be named. While people in his inner circle have accepted him as gay, “it’s a sort of an open secret”, he says.
Most gay people live in fear of being identified and targeted in a society that has grown increasingly intolerant.
But same-sex relationships are common, including among lower income classes. Doctors at Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi say a number of patients they meet are gay. One doctor estimates that 5% to 10% of patients are homosexuals but that almost all do not go about their lives as freely as they would like to.
Naseem Salahuddin, a prominent medical practitioner in Karachi, says there are great divides within the gay community. “There are the rich people who can do what they please and there are the poor ones who do what they want and nobody cares. But it is those in the middle class who suffer the most, because they fear losing their reputation and standing.”
In a country like Pakistan where it is difficult to mingle freely even with the opposite sex, there are some number of people who have opted for a homosexual relationship. A woman lecturer at a university in Islamabad said it is easier for gay women to meet up and socialise. “In fact it is encouraged.”
But with men, it can be difficult and risky.
Some like Waseem Baloch, a police official, claim same sex relationships are linked to prostitution, especially sex with trans-genders. “In most parts of Pakistan, this kind of sexual activity has increased manifold,” he says.
Baloch claims this a “time bomb” waiting to explode. “We have been living under the impression that there is no AIDS in Pakistan, but that is farthest from the truth.”
“Gay people are immediately identified with AIDS,” says Shabana Arif, who works for a NGO in Islamabad. Over the years, Arif and her colleagues have documented cases where people who indulged in same-sex relationships were identified and targeted. “There have been attacks in public and whispering campaigns. People have died,” she says.
Members of the gay community in Pakistan rarely talk openly about their sexuality either out of fear or simply because they don’t realise that there may be other Pakistanis feeling the same way. Due to this restriction and fear within society, it may be of no surprise to some that Pakistan has the highest number of internet searches for gay pornography in the world, according to one report.
Though such a website was most certainly progress for gays in the country, Queer Pakistan was recently banned by authorities – a sign that even communication between gay people is seen as a problem by many in Pakistan.