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'Manjam Murders' Spotlight Pakistan's Hidden, Flourishing Gay Scene

Thousands of Pakistanis use Manjam, a gay social network. Men are being killed for using it, but Pakistan is also a “gay man’s paradise.
May 2, 2014, 12:25pm
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A Pakistani man has confessed to brutally murdering three men he met on Manjam, a gay social networking website with thousands of subscribers in Pakistan.

Muhammed Ejaz, a 28-year-old paramedic and father of two, entered the homes of the three men, then drugged and strangled them. Multiple reports say all the victims were found with their necks broken.

“I tried to convince them to stop their dirty acts, but they would not,” Ejaz said in an interview from his jail cell on April 27, the New York Times reported. “So I decided to kill them.”

Ejaz — who told stories of being molested by another male as a young man — said he wanted to send a message about the "evils" of homosexuality. Police maintain, however, he had sex with his victims first.

Manjam has gone offline to new members in Pakistan for the time being, while figuring out how to move forward with safety and security. They said in a statement they “believe this to be a direct result of widespread social ignorance and unaddressed homophobia in our societies.”

'The majority of Pakistanis who use Grindr or Manjam, aren’t out. They don’t see themselves as part of a gay identity. They just see themselves as people who enjoy having sex with people of the same gender.'

Yet the site distanced itself from the case in an email to VICE News: “We have not been contacted by the Pakistani authorities and are unable to confirm if the suspect or victims were users of the Manjam website.”

Filmmaker and journalist Mobeen Azhar, director of a 2013 BBC Radio documentary Inside Gay Pakistan, told VICE News that a gay identity in Pakistan hasn’t formed, as no one wants to address the issue that “gay” exists.

“The majority of Pakistanis who use Grindr or Manjam, aren’t out. They don’t see themselves as part of a gay identity. They see gay identity as a western or Eurocentric construct. They just see themselves as people who enjoy having sex with people of the same gender,” he said. “The vast majority say that they’ll get married to the opposite sex one day.”

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Indeed, Ejaz — who was caught when police operated a sting operation with one of his former lovers — has been married to a woman since 2011. He claims his wife knew nothing about his double life.

In Pakistan, the internet and sites like Manjam and Grindr have opened doors to people wishing to quietly pursue a gay lifestyle in the Islamic country where homosexuality is shamed and illegal.

The wording for two men having sex is that it should be seen by four adult male witnesses and that it should be clear, a key entering a keyhole.

According to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which was formed under British rule in 1860: “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment” for two to 10 years. That equates having sex with an animal to having sex with a person of the same gender.

The sentencing for “unnatural offences” escalates to life, or even death by stoning, when adding in Sharia law, which formed atop the PPC in Pakistan in the 1980s under Islamist General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

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Azhar says, yes, the laws are tough, but they’re even tougher to officially enforce.

“If you look at the wording, the wording for two men having sex is that it should be seen by four adult male witnesses and that it should be clear, a key entering a keyhole — basically what they’re talking about is anal sex. They’re talking about a penis entering an anus,” he said. “It’s very unlikely that four adult male witnesses are going to testify and say, yes, I saw that man’s penis enter that man’s anus, and we were all standing around looking. It’s very, very rare.”

And though actual “key-keyhole” penetration may be legally forbidden, culturally, male-male affection in Pakistan isn’t perceived as such a threat. In fact, same-sex hand-holding, hugging, and cuddling are common sights — so long as traditional male-female domesticity isn’t disrupted.

One man described Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, as a 'gay man’s paradise.'

“Gay men are often seen in Pakistan as imitating women, and women are not respected. If you’re imitating a woman, that’s seen as a bad thing. Lots of men have same-sex fun or same-sex relations, but it’s not seen as a problem if you’re the one doing the fucking, it’s seen as a problem if you’re the one getting fucked,” Azhar said. “The attitude is that, in Islam, fornication is a bad thing, sex before marriage is a bad thing, and therefore, it’s quite common for a guy to get jacked off by his best friend in his adolescent years. That’s seen as kind of acceptable. People turn a blind eye to that.”

Even male-male intercourse can be publicly seen in Pakistan’s bigger cities, traditions that go beyond a constructed identity. “When I was making my documentary I recorded and I witnessed an orgy at a religious shrine, with lots of men standing in a circle. Someone beats a drum in the middle of the circle, all the men kind of gather around it tightly and they all fuck each other,” said Azhar. That all caters to an audience that has no awareness of Manjam, or even the internet.”

It’s this sideways liberty that may have spawned the attitudes in Azhar's BBC article that quoted one man describing Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, as a "gay man’s paradise." The piece clarified, however, that the paradise was strictly a sexual one, leaving gay relationships often unrequited.

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Private sex parties and massage parlors plus “extras” are a common occurrence, and even religious grounds like Karachi’s Abdullah Shah-Ghazi shrine, as described above, have become ground level for Pakistan’s gay orgies.

Nonetheless, gay travel guide Spartacus ranked Pakistan 118th out of 138 countries for gay travellers.

Pakistani journalist Luavut Zahid told VICE News why Pakistan is definitely not the ideal place to be gay: “Being gay is punishable by death, and one wouldn’t need to wait for the police or a court to sentence them to death. People take it upon themselves to ensure they ‘fix’ gay people here. This is an extremely dangerous country for homosexuals (and people who are different in general). It doesn’t help that this is one of the most religiously charged places on the planet and people can literally get away with murder when it’s in the name of God,” Zahid said.

“The only pro I can think of is the fact that people are so ignorant here that they wouldn’t connect the dots if two men were walking around holding hands (it would be considered a good friendship),” Zahid added. “They could even share an apartment and live together and it wouldn’t be considered abnormal. The problem would start once people find out that these people are gay.”

'The level of ignorance surrounding sexuality in general is astounding.'

Indeed, after learning of a man living with his transgendered partner, Pakistani TV news network Abb Takk recently filmed themselves barging into their home, accusing them of being “not mentally well,” and flashing captions that say “LGBTI people are “worthy of stoning” and “cause AIDS.”

And though sites like Manjam and Grindr have thus far been allowed to operate within the country — despite the legal stance on homosexuality — not every site has received the same liberty.

Manjam can still be accessed in Pakistan, but the page hosting the web site’s statement on the recent murders has been blocked.

In 2013, the government shut down the country’s first online gay resource, Queer Pakistan, which offered a support community, as well as safe-sex education, a rarely discussed topic in the country. Queer Pakistan relaunched, operating under the name Humjins.com, a site which was again closed in February according to a post from their Twitter account.

BANNED AGAIN: — Queer Pakistan (@QueerPK)February 15, 2014

But Azhar says the bans won’t last for long. “It comes back to the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ idea. An acknowledgement even of those websites, requires the government throwing their hands up saying, yes, we know there is a gay community… the government is not even prepared to acknowledge that certain communities exist.”

Azhar adds that regulations are futile, anyhow. Those who want to meet others online will. Pakistan’s tech-savvy population will find ISP addresses to beat the system.

A Pakistani-Canadian illustrator and blogger, known by the name Eiynah, is challenging the country’s avoidance of the gay identity. She recently wrote and illustrated a children’s story titled “My Chacha is gay” about a child growing up with a gay uncle. But even her main character hasn’t been free from harassment. “People have called for the death of Chacha (a fictional character) by stoning, they have wished STDs upon him — but all these statements to me are just indicators of why we need to have education surrounding acceptance/diversity specifically for young Pakistanis,” Eiynah told VICE News.

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“I have spoken to women who did not know that women could enjoy sex, I have spoken to homophobes that regularly engage in homosexual activity. I have heard that some people believe that a baby conceived while you are 'impure' (menstruating) will be gay. The level of ignorance surrounding sexuality in general is astounding.”

Her comic received 10,000 hits in its first 48 hours online, and she has now begun crowd-funding a campaign to publish the comic in a book. Eiynah says support has largely come from Pakistan’s queer community, calling the outcry “historical.”

But not everyone sees progress in the Pakistani acceptance of homosexuality. In a statement on the Manjam murders, Queer Pakistan founder Fakhir expressed concerns that Ejaz might be touted as a hero due to the country’s deep-rooted homophobia, and that the government won’t come to the queer community’s side. “I don’t think the government has our back or will protect us against these crimes,” he said. “I think we are on our own.”

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This is one reason why Azhar says so many in Pakistan prefer that the country’s gay community stays safely unnoticed. Azhar says he received death threats following the release of his documentary and many in the community prefer stay in the dark. They were worried, he said, it would inhibit the same-sex liaisons quietly enjoyed. No one wants to be shamed.

“Just the way the killer referred to his victims as 'kachra' (garbage) is indicative of the type of mentality that exists,” said Eiynah. “My heart goes out to the victims, may this at least break the silence surrounding the subject.”

Ejaz’s victims were two men in their 20s, and a middle-aged retired army Major. There’s no evidence yet that any of the victims were openly gay. Ejaz’s case will be heard in court on May 5.