Despite growing up and living in a country where a third gender has been recognised for centuries, I grew up fearful of anyone who was different even though I’m from a progressive family with an LGBT family member. Despite belonging to a culture that has a third gender cemented in its collective consciousness, I, like my ancestors before me, am a product of a post colonial society. Before the British colonised us, third genders were recognised and treated with respect. Our cultural understanding of gender changed. We acknowledged it was fluid, but the Western views of gender as a binary were imposed on us and we subconsciously adopted them. We still haven’t rid ourselves of them.
Similarly, many argue homophobia also is a colonial legacy. Before the British colonised us, homosexuality was not a crime. There were societal taboos and judgment, but one could not be persecuted legally.
The Mughal emperor Babur, in his autobiography the Baburnama candidly discusses his passion for a young man. Every spring, Shah Hussain’s love for his male companion is still celebrated in Lahore at mela chiraghaan. His love for his male companion was so intense that he was known as Madhu Lal Husain.
Perhaps it was their male privilege which allowed them from meeting the fate transgressive females like Heer, Sassi and Sohni faced in folklore. What is clear is that we culturally acknowledged that true love crossed socially prescribed boundaries like caste and gender. Gender, after all, existed more in spirit than body.
This is precisely why I was overjoyed when I came across my friend Eiynah Nicemango’s children’s book “My Chacha is Gay“. Beautifully written, subversive and a celebration of love, this heartwarming book gives children a message of tolerance and understanding. Written through the eyes of a child, Ahmed, who lives with his gay chacha, it reveals the confusion a child feels at the societal scorn his uncle faces simply for loving a man.
The story is a simple one, easy for children to relate to with eye catching illustrations and the characters resemble us Pakistanis unlike most children’s books which have stereotypically white characters. Chacha’s moustache is a cultural moustache, one generally associated with masculinity.
The book starts with a simple description of Ahmed’s family, which resembles many urban Pakistani families, a family many children will easily relate to. However, the author explains that there are many types of families so that her readers do not stigmatise non-traditional families.
Ahmed is acutely aware that his chacha is different from the norm and doesn’t understand why people sometimes verbally abuse him. For Ahmed, there is no difference between a gay chacha and a heterosexual one. The story delves into their loving bond, a bond any child reader will instantly recognise.
Ahmed also shares a bond with chacha’s partner, Uncle Faheem, and appreciates the love they share: “Ahmad doesn’t understand when people say that only men and women can love each other. Because everyone can see how much Chacha and Uncle Faheem love each other”.
The story ends with questioning how anyone can control love anyway. Love should be free of boundaries is the message that is being delivered to the readers. The book ends with this sentence: “Love belongs to everyone.”
We live in a culture where homophobia is abundant and false statements such as “homosexuals are diseased” are a part of casual conversation. People also seem to be under the impression that homosexuality is a psychological disorder, which, according to Dr Nusrat Rana who is the head of the Punjab Institute of Mental Health, ”is not true. It is simply a moral issue for our society which is falsely labelled as a disease.”
In other words, there is no cure for love, an emotion we need to express more of in our country. Imagine living in a country where love, instead of violence, was encouraged. I yearn to see that day and as a pro LGBT feminist teacher, I agree with this message from the author on her fundraising appeal page:
“With all the terrorism, religious intolerance and extremism I believe it’s important to push back with the arts and with education. The best way to do this in my humble opinion is to start early and teach our children tolerance and diversity from a young age. I would also like to show the rest of the world that *all* Pakistanis cannot be defined by the terrorism and intolerance you see in the media. We are a varied people, amongst us there are many kind, gentle and diversity loving souls. But sadly, those voices are drowned out or silenced by terrorists.”
Her words struck me and made me think: if we don’t reclaim Pakistan, who will?
Written for The Friday Times where the comments prove my point as usual.