too sexy to be a enemy
Never got to kiss a Pakistani hehe (sic) ”
“Aap apna tashreef lekar dafa ho jaye yaha se
Hafiz saeed ki jihadi aulad
(You pick up your ass and get out of here, you jihadi son of Hafiz Saeed. Peace be upon you). ”
On a weekday afternoon, Aziz Sohail shared a PDF with me, with several extracts including the two above. These are from what he calls his “Grindr Diary”, which he created last summer when he visited New Delhi. The content, as one can see (and as he warns) is “sensitive”—clandestine messages exchanged between Sohail, a cis-male gay artist, and other men on the famous LGBTQ dating app, Grindr. Except Sohail is from Pakistan, and the messages above, which read like couplets in a poem, form a very jarring view of what it’s like to be marginalised even within a marginalised world.
In South Asia, being queer comes with challenges that are more than just about visibility—stereotypes and discrimination are at the core of LGBTQ identity and politics. And in the Muslim-majority nation of Pakistan—where the laws have criminalised homosexuality and made the country one of the 73 in the world where consensual sex between individuals of the same sex is illegal—queer politics is not only sidelined to the fringes of the society, but is constantly in threat too.
Here, homophobic and transphobic attacks are pretty much common and carried out with impunity. The Human Rights Watch World Report 2018 observed a continued violence on transgender and intersex women, even though the Pakistani government passed a landmark law last year that gives fundamental rights to transgender citizens and outlaws discrimination.
And then there is the identity of being a Pakistani, which adds to these complex layers. In this setting, any form of voice becomes revolutionary.
And this is where we find Sohail’s work, which is a part of a larger collaboration with fellow artists Abdullah Qureshi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr. For the last few years, the three of them have been, through their artwork, subverting the constructed narratives of queerness from a Muslim and Pakistani context.
Working together from different countries—Qureshi lives in Helsinki, Finland, while Bhutto Jr and Sohail are in California, USA—the three harnessed technology to work towards their first show last year in Philadelphia, aptly called ‘Unruly Politics’, which included Sohail’s work from above. This was followed by ‘At Midnight There Was No Border’, which included Qureshi’s ‘CharBagh’ (Four Gardens), an installation that drew from the accounts of a gay Iraqi refugee.
Bhutto Jr, at the same time, has been gaining critical acclaim for his visual and performance works that identified him as more than just being the grandson of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of Pakistan People’s Party, (who was later overthrown in a military coup and executed in 1979), to now, an artist who works with the politics of sexuality in Islam today as we stare at Islamophobia as a global crisis.
‘So many think queerness and being Muslim cannot co-exist’
Growing up queer in Pakistan comes with the hard-hitting realities of a constant threat to lives of not just the LGBTQ persons, but of their families as well. “Growing up in Pakistan was, of course, very tough with a lot of bullying in middle and high school,” Sohail tells VICE. “I was already grappling with my identity before I went to college in the USA. I came back in 2013 after graduation and worked here for five years. In fact, queerness did not play a role for a long while in my practice.”
Owing to misinformation and a linear understanding of Islam, there is an assumed paradox between being queer and being a Muslim. Most often, these two identities are not seen together. And when it comes to a practice such as the arts, the process can be tricky, especially for the LGBTQ members who have also grown up with these notions. “Mainly because so many people, including many Muslims and Pakistanis, believe that somehow queerness cannot co-exist while being Muslim and Pakistani. And in the early years, I thought this too,” Abdullah tells VICE.
“And it was hard because I felt I had to choose one over the others. However, as I have met more people like myself, I firmly believe that there is no contradiction in being either of these. And in any case, let's for a second forget about queerness, and look at being Muslim and Pakistani. Those two in themselves are incredibly loaded and complex terms—is there a single definition for either of those?”
Qureshi, in fact, didn’t think of queerness and how it may affect his art until he moved back to Pakistan from his studies abroad in 2012. “It struck me that many people in Pakistan were rejecting words such as 'gay,' especially when thinking about ways to decolonise. From then on, talking and thinking about queerness became vital for me, and it is no surprise that it fed in so forcefully within my creative work too.”
“We are also aware that this is from the perspective of three cis-men,” Qureshi tells VICE. Expanding this dialogue, over the next year, all of us are working on a range of projects with various other queer folks working within a similar field of investigation—and collaboration continues by including each other's voices in one way or the other.”
‘I first thought of being a Pakistani when I was in London’
It was perhaps the fact that all three of them started their inquiries while abroad that their national identity became a very important part of their work. Qureshi first thought of being a Pakistani when he was in college in London. “I remember being struck by how I had never really thought about what being Pakistani and Muslim meant. Looking back, I'd say that at the time, I was running away from both of these things as I felt they were in opposition to my sexual identity—which I was also discovering and struggling with at that time,” he says. It was only on his return to Pakistan in 2012 that he started meeting and engaging with other marginalised groups within Pakistan.
Bhutto Jr, who is “fully Lebanese on my mother’s side and Iranian and Pakistani on my father’s side”, was vastly affected by “occupation, aggression and war” during the Israeli invasion in Lebanon in 2006, and the “troubling double standards” in Israel. “It became clear at that time that brown and Arab bodies are not worth saving,” he says. “This experience was foundational to my work; my practice excavates histories of war, resistance and guerrilla warfare in South Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and Iran and re-interprets them into a fictitious revolution that happens in the future.”
His current work is influenced by Islam as a global religious and political identity that has been historically marginalised, villainised and specifically targeted by colonialism and imperialism. He tells VICE, “Queer identity became important to me because when looking at these histories of popular resistance, heterosexuality was the norm, even among the chaos. What place did queer bodies have in this history? What place could they have? How do we create a vocabulary or aesthetic for a Third World queer struggle that is just as concerned about ending cycles of war and violence?”
‘We are a part of a larger collective moment’
The artists also acknowledge that it’s even more important for them to talk about the things they do now, when LGBTQ movements across the subcontinent are at their peak, and the government bodies are providing long-due acceptance of the community—India decriminalised the colonial anti-homosexuality law last year while Bhutan is moving towards the same.
But over the last few years, we have seen incidents of safe queer spaces being hijacked and violated too—a terrifying example came from Bangladesh three years ago when two LGBT activists were brutally murdered in their own home, which has silenced the queer community and activism in the region.
“I think it is vital for us to acknowledge that whatever we are doing is part of a larger collective moment which is visible within Pakistan, as well as broader South Asia,” says Qureshi. In Pakistan, the trans community is currently leading the queer movement, especially by showing political strength. “In contrast, LGB members of the community, though remain legally unprotected, often find creative spaces—especially visual arts and literature—to talk about same-sex desire and queerness in Pakistan,” he says.
Adds Bhutto Jr, “I don’t think any of us expected the scale of this [LGBTQ] movement gaining momentum in Lebanon, Egypt and South Asia and, who knows, had this global war on terror not destroyed the lives of millions of people, we could have been seeing it in Iraq and Syria today.”
Despite this, visibility is still a highly sensitive terrain for artists and activists, and, Qureshi admits being cautious while working on his projects. “I don't think I have had to censor myself in this process, but at times, have had to move with caution—which I would do as much when showing work in the West about issues that so many people feel so strongly and passionately,” he says.
There have also been concerns from the community about the way media reports on their issues and representation—and the way the language of reports shapes the LGBTQ movement is something that a recent TIME magazine piece on the Stonewall Riot highlighted. “The media sensationalises queer people,” says Bhutto Jr. “The mainstream media in particular does not know how to talk about queer arts and it is often either highly fetishising with gender and sexuality taking up all the space in the conversation or a footnote in the broader scheme of global art practices. Where is the complexity, the middle ground, when can we talk about the actual art, its formal and conceptual aspects with queer identity recognized as one of many influences being addressed?”
At the moment, however, this collaboration is a significant way to look at how daily conversations shape queer politics and Muslim identity in and outside Pakistan. “There is still a long way to go for many people and while the three of us can talk about LGBT issues from the safety of the U.S. and Finland, there are many still working on the ground in these countries in very real ways from changing policy to creating access to sexual health awareness and STD treatment,” says Bhutto Jr.
“What Abdullah, Aziz and I do abroad does have an effect on queer communities in Pakistan. Our visibility can be both positive and negative and it is important for us to work with care.”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.