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South Asian giants' fillip on LGBT discourse

Jun 29, 2016

The LGBT discourse in Pakistan and India has been reignited, thanks to a decree by a Pakistani religious group and a petition before India's Supreme Court

New Delhi: Pleasantly surprised, yet cautious. That aptly sums the reaction of Pakistan's transgenders to a fatwa, or religious decree, passed last Sunday by 50-odd clerics of a little known Islamic school, the Tanzeem Ittehad-i-Ummat that said that that marriage with a transgender person is lawful.

The clerics ruled, a transgender person having “visible signs of being a male” may marry a woman or a transgender with ‘visible signs of being a female’ and vice versa. However, they clarified that a transgender person carrying “visible signs of both genders” may not marry anyone, leaving people with bisexual orientation a wee bit perplexed.

The clerics also ruled as unlawful the denial to transgender people of their share in inheritance, saying that parents who deprive their transgender sons/daughters of inheritance were “inviting the wrath of God” for which the government must act against such parents.

The news from Pakistan finds resonance across the border, in India where well-known personalities from the LGBT community in India have now moved the Supreme Court to hear petitions against Section 377 of the country's penal code that rules sex with people sharing the same gender as a punishable crime. The Supreme Court had twice refused to hear pleas for the cease of the law from the British Raj era that banned homosexuality.

The people behind the Supreme Court petition say that Section 377 impedes the LGBT community members’ right to be open with their friends, family, colleagues and employees.

“Sexuality lies at the core of a human being’s persona. Sexual expression, in whatever form, between consenting adults in the privacy of a home ought to receive protection of fundamental rights,” the petition reads.

India also has the third largest Muslim population in the world, with Muslims forming a large religious minority and the country's largest Islamic seminary, Darul Uloom Deoband, has opposed recent government moves to abrogate Section 377.

Though not legally binding in any way, the fatwa from the little-known Pakistani group has opened up a debate on the attitude of Pakistani society that has long stigmatised lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people, going to the extent of terming ‘haraam’ any act intended to “humiliate, insult or tease” them.

The least that can be said it that the subject, long put under the carpet, has at-least opened a window for discourse as law enforcement agencies have especially unkind to transgenders. The BBC's Urdu service quoted a transgender rights worker, Almas Bobby as saying, "We are glad that somebody's talked about us too."

"By Sharia we already had the right (to marry), but unless measures are taken to remove the misconceptions about us in society, the condition of our community will not be changed," Bobby added.

Long considered a taboo, the subject of sexuality among queer people in Islamic cultures has some Quranic sanctions as there were men in Arab society at the time of the Prophet Muhammad fitting the holy book's description of “men who are not in need of women.” According to early Islamic literature. these people were called mukhanath or who seen as “acting like women”.

The fatwa ended with a word on last rites, declaring that all funeral rituals for a transgender person will be the same as for any other Muslim man or woman.

There has been much debate on the subject of "queer" sexuality elsewhere in South Asia as well. The April 25 murder of the editor of the country's only LGBT magazine, Xulhaz Mannan, allegedly by Islamist militants opposed to gays, or hijras as they are called has also brought the issue back into focus. This violent attitude towards homosexual people has also been reinforced by the Islamic state recently decreeing capital punishment for gays, illustrated through their highly publicized executions where homosexual men.

Matters are not very different in the remainder of South Asia. Sunny Maldives and Gay Maldives do not co-exist as same-sex relationships are illegal under Sharia Law, punishable by death.

As also in Bhutan, one cannot be both, gay and happy in the country that spurred the debate on the Global Index for Happiness. Civil rights of LGBT people in the Himalayan dragon kingdom are a far thing as attitudes towards homosexuality are informed by ignorance and stereotypes in popular culture.

Sri Lankan law prohibits engaging in "gross indecency", which is not explicitly defined. LGBT people in the emerald island have reported being subjected to harassment, what with the government's refusal to add sexual orientation or gender identity to non-discrimination laws.

Being gay in Afghan society is only to be seen through a class lense where it is a privilege for militia commanders and wealthy men to keep bacha bereesh, or boys for sex. Else, homosexuality is not viewed sympathetically.

Queer, to say, the small South Asian country of Nepal has the most friendly laws for gays with its high tolerance of diverse sexual orientations or gender identities.

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