26×30 acrylic painting by Nisha Gupta, a queer re-envisioning of Delhi Gate in Lahore;
Inspired by “We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir” by Samra Habib (excerpt):
Walking arm in arm down Church Street with my mother, who has transitioned from wearing the burka to the hijab, brings me tremendous joy. She doesn’t show any sign of being fazed as we pass rainbow flags and same-sex couples holding hands. It delights me to see how we’ve both changed over the years. Or could it be that I was only just starting to see her?
One afternoon…my mother asked if I wanted to join her and my brother for lunch. We met at an Indian restaurant downtown–it was deserted after the lunch-hour rush, save for the three of us. When our appetizers arrived, my mother put her hands on mine, adjusted her hijab, and looked me in the eyes.
“Samra, I feel like there is something you are not telling me,” she said…
In that moment, I wondered what made me any different from those who projected their own judgments onto Muslim women who wore the hijab or the burka. I had no evidence that she would disapprove. Never in my life had I caught her saying anything remotely homophobic or transphobic. And she wouldn’t have, because to her, being hateful in any way goes against her religious beliefs. This was a woman who would recite the motto of the Ahmadiyya community–Love for all, hatred for none–whenever someone directed an Islamophobic remark at us on the street or in shopping malls or grocery stores.
A few seconds went by as I wrestled with the prospect of finally being honest with her and giving her a chance to accept me. I also understood that if she chose not to accept me, I didn’t have that much to lose; by this point in my life, I didn’t rely on my parents for anything.
Finally, I just blurted it out. “Mom, I’m queer.” I searched her face for a reaction or signs of an impending heart attack. We looked at each other in silence while my brother looked on anxiously.
“Okay, she said. “I still love you.”
It’s what she said next that I wasn’t prepared for.
“So…how do you have sex?”
For the next few weeks, my mother sent me regular text messages telling me how much she loved me and how much she appreciated me opening up to her. My worst-case scenario never materialized: she hadn’t told me I was going to hell or tried to convince me that my queerness was just a phase, and she wasn’t going to cut me out of family gatherings. For the first time in my life, I felt the warmth of unconditional love.
Reclaiming Love – Rebuilding an Unconditional Home for Desi People Across Our Intersectional Identities
Searching for belonging amidst traumatic displacement
One painful narrative about the Desi diaspora is a story of trying to hold onto a sense of home and belonging amidst traumatic displacement caused by British colonialism, the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition, and ongoing minority persecution across the subcontinent. This is not an easy story to tell; it is filled with sorrow and mourning, scratching open wounds that have yet to be repaired. Our Muslim and Hindu revolutionaries united for decades to free India from nearly two centuries of brutal colonial rule by the British Empire. When our home was finally granted freedom in 1947, it came at the cost of the violent Partition, incited by the British to divide our homeland into two separate countries: Pakistan for the Muslim majority and India for the Hindu majority. Many South Asian people were displaced from their homes as a result of Partition (Shashkevich, 2019). Then in 1971, in the aftermath of political and ethnic warfare between West and East Pakistan, our homeland was again divided as Bangladesh became an independent nation for predominantly Muslim Bengalis.
Today, traumatic displacement continues to inflict South Asian minorities seeking refuge from persecution in their homelands. For instance, as the current right-wing administration of India increasingly tries to shape a Hindu nation that persecutes the Muslim minority, more Muslims are fleeing India to seek asylum in other countries. Muslims who remain in India express “feeling orphaned in their motherland.” This includes residents of the Northern Indian state Assam who face a massive refugee crisis due to the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, piloted by the government to welcome religious minority refugees into India with the exception of Muslims—effectively redefining citizenship in India across religious lines. While this act benefits Hindu refugees from neighboring countries, it has threatened statelessness and deportation among almost 2 million people in Assam, mainly Muslims. Additionally, in Pakistan, religious persecution has been inflicted onto Ahmadiyya Muslim minorities, a community which identifies as “a revival movement within Islam, emphasizing its essential teachings of peace, love, justice, and sanctity of life.” The Ahmadiyya community is deemed non-Muslim by orthodox Muslims due to the belief in their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as messiah and prophet; many have fled Pakistan for refuge in other countries as a result. Finally, intersecting with these stories of religious persecution is a narrative with less visibility but as much grief: displacement among the Desi LGBTQ community. LGBTQ persecution in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is a common motivator for South Asian queer refugees applying for asylum in the West, by which homophobic and transphobic discrimination is fueled by religious fundamentalism in all three countries. Yet LGBTQ Desi refugees and immigrants who settle in the West for safer queer lives also simultaneously face racist and Islamophobic persecution by Westerners.
In light of these intersectional stories of displacement, perhaps reclaiming power as a Desi people involves reclaiming a sense of belonging to one another again—amidst all our diverse religiosities, ethnicities, genders, and sexualities. One project that aims to facilitate a sense of belonging is the 1947 Partition Archive, which is a living testimony documenting the life stories of diverse Desi people, the home we once shared, and the collective struggle we endured as a result of colonialism and the Partition, which they describe as “a globally disruptive event that created one of the largest mass refugee crises of the last century.” The project’s mission entails a commitment to “preserving this chapter of our collective history. We come from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, nationalities, and professions. It is our view that a strong foundation in history will pave the way for a more enlightened future for the subcontinent and hence the world.” Documenting the poignant stories of Desi people can be a great unifier, re-connecting us through the kinship that emerges from shared experiences of trauma and resiliency across our intersectional identities and complex histories. Perhaps storytelling can somehow bring South Asian people back together through a spirit of compassion, returning us home again.
The way lines were drawn,
On elephants and blood trains
Paving new bridges.
Tunneling through mountain ranges
To construct highways in the clouds.
Is that you I sense?
A kinship I feel when the torness and partness
threaten to rupture,
And I seek to stitch inroads and intersections.
Uncited, but on the list of considerations.
The “Eighth wonder of the world,”
Some call it.
Poem by Pakistani American psychologist Zenobia Morrill
Transforming “divide and rule” into a politics of compassion
Scholars write about pre-colonial India as a time of much greater unity across diversity. Religious strife between Hindus and Muslims certainly pre-dates the British Raj, alongside issues of casteism and gender discrimination. However, most scholars refer to the presence of religious syncretism—co-influence, fusion, and interdependence between Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs prior to the 19th century (Burnam, 1996; Bayly, 1985). At that time there was also said to be a more tolerant climate towards gender and sexual fluidity in India, as indicated by homoerotic literature and art across Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist artifacts. Transgender South Asians in particular were treated more respectfully, with Hijras occupying some of the highest positions of society as political advisors during the Mughal period (Michelrai, 2015).
Yet unity within diversity is a threat to the oppressor, who will exploit any fault lines within a colonized people’s culture as an attempt to control. This is known as the colonialist “divide and rule” strategy, which is defined as “the conscious effort of an imperialist power to create and/or turn to its own advantage the ethnic, linguistic, cultural, tribal, or religious differences within the population of a subjugated colony” (Morrock, 1973). There is ongoing controversy as to whether the British colonizers’ Divide and Rule strategy is to blame for the 1947 Partition. Some scholars argue that when the British Empire’s defeat became inevitable, they made sure to continue subjugating the Indian subcontinent by stoking religious divisiveness and imposing Partition as a way to maintain control while preparing to “Quit India.” Other scholars argue that the Partition was an inevitable result of fraught Muslim-Hindu relations which would be better served by dividing into two states. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the palpable collective trauma for Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis whose ancestors endured both colonization and the Partition. We might consider the ongoing religious persecution in our homelands to be a symptom of this trauma, which has led us to internalize the oppressors’ strategy to subjugate our own people. Internalized oppression can also help contextualize the ongoing LGBTQ persecution in post-colonial South Asia. When the British colonized our homeland they brought their homophobic Victorian-era values with them, imposing the Section 377 penal code to criminalize homosexuality among Indian people. They also found the existence of Hijras to be “ungovernable,” a danger to “public morals,” and “a threat to colonial political authority”, imposing laws to subjugate them from their previous high status in society and to “reduce their numbers” (Biswas, 2019).
This is the intersectional, intergenerational, and collective trauma of Desi people. It is a trauma caused by sociopolitical oppression that we have inherited and continue to inflict upon the rich diversity of our homeland, once held in high esteem. In this context, reclaiming power as Desi people from the hands of the colonizers means recovering the greater acceptance of diversity demonstrated in pre-colonial India. This requires us to forgo the colonizers’ divide and rule strategy for a politics of compassion for all. Compassion, a foundational value of all Buddhist thought, is the feeling of love we experience towards the suffering of the other. Compassion motivates ethical responsibility and is the basis of solidarity (Levinas, 1961). Compassion is also a core principle of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, whose motto is “Love for all, hatred for none.” As the head of the Ahmadiyya community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, so beautifully stated in response to Islamophobia during the opening of a mosque in Regina, Canada: “The only plotting that takes place in our Ahmadi Mosques is to determine how we can quell the heartache and grief of those who are bereft and deprived. The only schemes we hatch are to remove the heavy burden of desperation and hopelessness that weigh down those who are consumed by hardship and misfortune. Our Jihad is not a Jihad of swords, guns or bombs. Our Jihad is not a Jihad of cruelty, brutality and injustice. Rather, our Jihad is of love, mercy and compassion. Our Jihad is of tolerance, justice and human sympathy. Our Jihad is to fulfill the rights of God Almighty and of His Creation. If we have formed any Jihadi group, it is not for the purpose of brutally attacking and killing innocent people, or for launching evil terrorist attacks at clubs, stations or anywhere else, rather it is to establish the rights of all people in all places at all times. To achieve these aims we do not violently brandish swords or fire guns, rather our weapons of choice are love, compassion, sympathy and above all prayer.”
Fighting for justice through radical visibility
Thanks to the tireless work of Desi queer activists, a politics of compassion is gradually yielding greater LGBTQ rights across the South Asian subcontinent. In 2014 India’s Hijra community achieved full legal recognition by Supreme Court ruling. And in 2018 the Section 377 Penal Code imposed by the British was finally struck down by the Indian Supreme Court, decriminalizing homosexuality and fostering more openness about LGBTQ existence in India. In 2018 Pakistan passed the “Transgender Persons (Protections of Rights) Act,” which legally recognizes transgender Pakistanis, prohibits transphobic discrimination in the country, and affirms respect that “a person’s innermost and individual sense of self as male, female or a blend of both, or neither; that can correspond or not to the sex assigned at birth.” This fueled several transgender candidates to run for Pakistan’s general elections, including the 2019 International Activist of the Year Nayyab Ali. Queer Bangladeshi activists are also urging a decolonization of Bengali consciousness towards its pre-colonial history of greater LGBTQ acceptance. Though Bangladesh has yet to repeal their 377 penal code, in 2014 the government provided Hijras with a greater degree of legal recognition and protection, and in 2019 Pinki Khatun became the first elected transgender office holder in Bangladesh.
Much of this work of justice coincides with the radical visibility of South Asian LGBTQ activists, who have courageously come out in public for the sake of liberation. The oldest Pride march in South Asia was on July 2nd, 1999, when 15 queer people in Kolkata pioneered the Kolkota Rainbow Pride Walk. Since then, the Pride marches of India have grown to as many as 5000 people in Delhi as of 2018. On June 26th, 2011, the US Embassy sponsored the first Pride Parade in Islamabad, Pakistan, which 75 queer people participated in. However, this event has been critiqued by Pakistani queer activists and scholars as having imposed a hegemonic U.S. strategy onto Pakistan’s underground queer movement, which actually caused more damage than support. On December 29th, 2018, the first-ever Transgender Pride March took place in Lahore, organized by Pakistani queer people on their own terms to garner awareness, celebration, and support of transgender people in the wake of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act passed earlier that year. Similarly, Bangladesh hosted a massive transgender pride parade in Dhaka on November 10th, 2014 to celebrate the government’s decision to recognize Bengali hijras: “the objective was to highlight the community’s progress in securing rights, and remind government stakeholders of the need for a comprehensive law addressing ongoing discrimination against the estimated 10,000 hijras in Bangladeshi society… ‘Our government protects us, our police protects us, our country protects us,’ cried Mou, a hijra who offered only her first name as she danced jubilantly at the main parade in Dhaka. Others around her shouted, ‘Joi hijra! Joi Bangladesh!’ — ‘Long live hijra! Long live Bangladesh!’” (Toppa, 2014). In Pakistan and Bangladesh, queer activists seem to balance radical visibility with strategies of safety. They work strategically with parliamentarians and policymakers to write bills that secure government rights, and then celebrate the achievement of these rights through Pride marches on the streets, for which the new legislation provides them greater protection from local discrimination. These Pride marches attempt to transform public perception of queerness while putting further pressure on the government to increase the basic human rights of LGBTQ Desis to exist safely in their homeland.
Rebuilding the gates of home
The Walled City of Lahore is also known as the Old City of Pakistan, which dates back to 1000 CE. It once boasted a high fortified wall with 13 majestic gates built in the 1600s by Mughal Emperor Akbar for protection against invaders, pillages, and attacks. During the colonial era, the British destroyed almost half of Lahore’s beautiful gates. Pakistani authorities sought to reconstruct some demolished gates, while striving to preserve the history of the six left standing. One of these gates is Delhi Gate, a “symbol of power” and a cherished heritage site in Pakistan (Qureshi, 2018). Delhi Gate is said to be the most important gate in the Walled City because “the Mughals and Royal used it while travelling from Delhi to Lahore Fort…. Now imagine the past glory coupled with this gate, the royal guards standing at the gate, Mughal entourages passing through the streets and people leaning over the balconies and jharokas to take a glimpse of their royals, kings and queens and showering flowers. What a mesmerising scene it would have been” (Qureshi, 2018). Nowadays, traces of this historic glory remain protected upon entering the Old City through its gates: “Inside the old city, life seems to exist largely untouched by time. Many streets are too narrow for cars and every crooked alleyway has its own story to tell about the unique culture of its locals” (Riaz, 2019).
Gates and walls together build a home to protect the safety of the community inside of it, while warding off dangers from the outside. All people need a home that provides safety and belonging, particularly those who are marginalized by society. Queer critical race scholar bell hooks calls this a “homeplace,” a term first applied to gathering sites in the public sphere produced by Black women in order to “confront the issue of humanization” and “build communities of resistance” (hooks, 1990). hooks elaborates that homeplaces can offer marginalized people “the warmth and connection of shelter, the feeding of our bodies, the nurturing of our soul. There we claimed dignity, integrity of being; there we learned to have faith” (hooks, 1990). Queer Desi people have built remarkable homeplaces as sites of community and resistance, in South Asia and across the diaspora. Pakistan boasts an incredible underground scene for LGBTQ people to gather in comradery and organize in activism. In 2011 gay Pakistani activist Qasim Iqbal launched the Naz Male Health Alliance (NMHA) as the first and only LGBTQ community-based organization in Pakistan. Naz hosts a physical space in the city to serve as a homeplace for queer Pakistanis, while also taking to the streets to hand out condoms among the MSM community (men who have sex with men). Lesbian women in Pakistan have less visibility and face continued threat, yet some find ways to subvert Pakistani norms to build private homeplaces with their partners. Across the diaspora, homeplaces are also being erected among the Desi queer community. KhushDC is an organization in Washington DC which hosts a beautiful physical space for South Asian queer people to gather for support and activism. Salaam Canada is another homeplace for queer Muslims, which providing multiple services including support for cultural identity reconciliation and pride at the intersection of being LGBTQ and Muslim: “offering the space and support to help reconcile one’s identity is a rare but critical service” (Thawer, in Hill, 2017).
The virtual world also offers arts-based homeplaces for the Desi queer community. On the internet, Just Me and Allah is a photography blog created by Toronto-based Samra Habib to bring visibility and connection to diasporic queer Muslims through beautiful portraiture and storytelling. Onscreen, queer Desi filmmakers have created cinematic homeplaces to facilitate belonging through media representation, such as the 2020 TV show Churails which features the first on-screen Pakistani lesbian couple. Similarly, the 2015 documentary How Gay is Pakistan? creates radical visibility of the underground LGBTQ scene in Pakistan, as seen through the eyes of gay Pakistani British filmmaker Mawaan Rizwan who visited his homeland in attempt to reconcile his ethnic, religious, and sexual identities. In his beautiful film, Rizwan reflects: “I feel like I’ve gotten a much better idea of how gay Pakistan really is. Pakistan isn’t this super rigid heterosexual place as my family and friends make it out to be. There’s actually a lot going on and despite what my expectations were, I’ve actually found that there’s a really exciting underground LGBT movement. There are a lot of people taking big brave steps to fight for equality. But I think I really value that I’m really lucky, that I can live openly and freely, that I don’t have to be afraid for my life every day, which sadly isn’t the case for a lot of people that I met.” Reclaiming erotic power as Desi people, across our intersectional identities, means reclaiming the right to feel complete safety, belonging, and at-homeness in the world… and someday, in one’s own motherland.
Essay by Nisha Gupta, featuring poem by Zenobia Morrill
This work was created while listening to “Crying in the Streets” by Zeshan B:
This painting and essay are inspired by the work of Pakistani Canadian Muslim author Samra Habib, who wrote the bestselling book: “We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir.” Habib’s memoir chronicles her family’s journey of migrating from Pakistan to Canada as refugees due to religious discrimination as Ahmadiyya Muslims, a persecuted sect of Islam. The memoir describes her beautiful process of gradually coming out as a queer woman and seeking to create visibility and community for Queer Muslim people through her work as an artist. Habib is also the founder of “Just Me and Allah: a Queer Muslim Photo Project,” which is an ongoing series of photography portraits featuring queer Muslims describing how their sexuality intersects with their faith. Habib’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Globe and Mail and the Advocate. She is currently based in Toronto, Canada.