Explaining LGBT politics in Punjabi


I have made no attempt at concealing my disdain for the elevation of the English language to a Pakistani status symbol. Over the past few years, I have made serious efforts at replacing my Minglish – a natural outcome of my privileged upbringing – with Urdu. I currently stand at a purity level that’s just above the comprehension of a casual Urdu speaker, and just below the literary equivalent of Heisenberg’s ‘blue meth’.

 However, I continue to write in English, despite frequent charges of hypocrisy. I assure you, those charges are, well, only half true. I admit that English widens a writer’s sphere of readership, and there’s some reward in choosing English over a local language. I can say with great certitude that if Harry Potter had been written in Sindhi, with a Pakistani protagonist and South Asian locations, it would never have been the international publishing sensation that it has become.

But that’s only part of the reason. Social activists, almost invariably those of the upper-middle class, assert that writing in English cannot be used to exert influence at the level of the grassroots. Fortunately, that’s not what I’m aiming for. I have no intention of serving as a mouthpiece for the bourgeois, generously passing on its progressive values to the ‘aam aadmi’. 

While we’re all busy narcissistically congratulating ourselves on how enlightened we’ve become, we’re in need of writers and activists willing to relay the wisdom of the working class up to the higher strata. And the best way to do so is to employ the only language the upper class has learned to take seriously.

I ought to elaborate on that. It is not incorrect to assume that privately educated Pakistani bibliophiles with impressive collections of purchased books, have an obvious advantage over unschooled Pakistanis in a country with a haunting paucity of public libraries. But it is arrogant to assume that knowledge cascades down the stepped pyramid of the economic classes; that the experiences of the underprivileged and the lessons they’ve acquired, have no value to the society in being pumped upwards.

This is not to imply that I do not have enormous respect for those who master and write in any of the local languages, schlepping them away from the edge of oblivion. And even greater respect for languages other than Urdu, which fail to acquire national support.

There are numerous areas that are considered the exclusive territories of upper-class liberal intellectuals: feminism and gender fluidity; secularism and interreligious politics; race relations, and most contentiously, LGBT politics. What follows, is ‘trickle-down activism’. The West – with its unmatched socioeconomic privileges – presumably pioneers these sociopolitical theories, refines them, and broadcasts its lessons lessons to intellectuals in the East, from where it is expected to trickle down to the grassroots.

Pakistani elites who’ve received their education on these matters exclusively from hagiographies of openly gay politicians like Harvey Milk, or the gender-bending performances of David Bowie, or the F-word laden articles on Jezebel, are often taken aback by a man talking about ‘intersectionality’ in Punjabi.

I know this feeling, and I’m not proud of it. Several months ago, I met a humble group of gender rights activists at a small house in Lalkurti, Rawalpindi – a place whose streets were far too narrow for my car. ‘Activists’ is too strong a word to describe most of the attendees, who were simply victims of circumstances that had politicized the air they exhaled. My host was the son of a man who ran a small art gallery in a different part of the city, that made the bulk of its income selling calligraphic artwork and framing pictures.

None of the attendees had heard of Alfred Kinsey or Virginia Woolf. They were familiar with none of the complex sociological terms we throw about in the English medium like ‘mansplaining’, ‘heternormativity’, ‘patriarchy’, or ‘gaslighting’. But they were acutely aware of all of these concepts because even though they hadn’t studied these phenomena academically, they had lived each one of them.

One of the guests shared his theories on ‘hum-jins-parasty’ like he personally founded the movement for the humanization of such individuals. He was aware of no precedent where the rights of ‘queer’ people had been politically secured around the world, although he had some idea that such things were better tolerated in ‘Amreeka’. I was floored; not because he said something I didn’t already know, but because he had come up with these ideas all on his own, without the aid of any literature or study material on human psychosexuality.

A second guest – a son-turned-daughter of a carpenter – mused out loud in Punjabi, the society’s farcical reduction of humanity into two discrete gender boxes. “Adhe bandean noon ethe sutt deo, adhe bandyan noon othe sutt deo!”.

As we formulate elaborate plans to educate the ‘grassroots’ populace, we forget that many of them already know more than we care to admit – not because they’ve studied these concepts in great detail, but because many among them possess unique experiences that their male, cis-gender, ivory tower tutors do not. It’s worth mentioning, of course, that class disadvantage doesn’t simply add a extra but separate layer of grief that comes from being, say, transgender in a transphobic society; it transforms the experience of being transgender itself.

While some principles are universal, the lessons learned in San Francisco may not apply here. And it’s time we, myself included, put our paternalistic attitudes aside and listen to the ‘aam aadmi’, instead of instructing him.


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