Our obsession with adopting a pan-Arab Muslim ‘culture’ often contributes to glossing over the rich histories of gender and sexual non-normativity which are as diverse as South Asia itself. While many so-called ‘developed’ Western states either failed to acknowledge or grossly mistreated and oppressed their transgender communities, the Mughals of South Asia celebrated them by appointing them as high court officials. References about intersex and gender ambiguous individuals appear in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions alike. Similarly, the practice of appointing eunuchs in royal courts reportedly existed in the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Mamluk and Safavid dynasties. Chief eunuchs in Mughal courts served as army generals, harem guards and advisors to the emperors. They also supervised the education of princes, protection of the harem women and also served as messengers and watchmen. Many such gender and genitally ambiguous people reached high status and accumulated riches. The eunuchs, historian Laurence Preston maintains, were entitled to public revenue, received grants in the form of cash and land, and even had the official right to beg. The Khwaja-sira community of Pakistan draws its history and identification from this time. Hijra communities sought devotion to both Bahuchara Mata and Muslim saints.
Similar acceptance or at least tolerance existed for queer sexualities. Anthropologists often delve into the subject through queer reading of Sufi poetry, which they supplement with historical accounts. An oft-quoted example is that of Muhammad Sa’id, more commonly known as Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed, who had a male lover by the name of Abhay Chand. Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh was highly influenced by Sufi poet Sarmad Shaheed, whose shrine is in Delhi. The Punjabi historian Shafi Aquil speaks of the relationship between Madho and Hussain as one of “boundless love”. Such was the spiritual love of Madhu Lal and Shah Hussain that the latter is still known today as Madho Lal Hussain – as if the two lovers fused together. I have an excerpt from Bulleh Shah’s Sufi poetry framed in my room in which the legendary Punjabi poet beautifully depicts the suffering of separation from one’s lover by imagining oneself as a woman.
Emperor Babur’s autobiographical Tuzuki-i-Babri contains a sentimental recollection of his erotic love for a teenage boy. Acclaimed South Asian author Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf is considered a classic text in contemporary queer literature.
Among the various forms of sex and gender queerness, Islamic law acknowledges intersexuality in a legal as well as social light. Medieval Muslim jurists carefully considered this issue and today the Islamic law explicitly acknowledges intersex individuals and their choice in choosing gender. Scott Siraj-ul-Haqq Kugle discusses the historical evidence stemming from oral and hadith narratives that assert that Prophet Muhammad interacted with several mukhannath (intersex or effeminate men) in his life time. There is evidence regarding mukhannaths guarding the harem of Prophet’s wives, praying with men and women in mosques, and later being employed at Ka’ba and Masjid-e-Nabwi. I will leave it to the readers to further study this topic and fathom the queer aspects of Islamic and Arab history. Scott Kugle’s and Kecia Ali’s works, as well as some Palestinian queer rights organizations like Aswat and Al-Qaws, are a good place to start. Food for thought.
Check out this article: quillette[.]com/2016/02/03/pinkwashing-and-traitors-to-the-human-mind/
The writer reads like one of those former Maoist types who say they “just woke up” one day to the realities of how great capitalism is and get feted for it in newspapers, like Bernard-Henri Levi or Christopher Hitchens. It’s actually one of the styles of writing I hate the most, cause it’s completely self-serving and relies on the reader’s ignorance of actual history and conditions in the region except for what they read in the western press. Like most of his ilk, he cites Orwell diagnosing a condition, but he doesn’t realize that he’s the one that actually falls into that condition. His prescription for curing the inscrutable, oriental mind of the Palestinians is a healthy dose of bombing and ethnic cleansing until they become white enough that they accept gay people.
First off, Israeli society isn’t the cosmopolitan liberal bastion that he’d like it to be. A center for LGBT youth in Tel Aviv was attacked by a religious extremist in 2009, killing 2, and a gay pride parade in Jerusalem featured 6 stabbings. Less urban areas feature even less tolerance of homosexuality. As Ali Abunimah writes, “large segments of Israeli Jewish society – pretty much everywhere outside “liberal” Tel Aviv [and note this, in Tel Aviv] – consider homosexuality taboo and offer little tolerance for gays”, basically like America. There’s also the canard of gay Palestinians fleeing to Israel. A vulgar propaganda claim, this has no real basis save for the anecdotal reports of some migrants who live in Israel illegally, since there’s no actual framework under which Palestinians can gain Israeli citizenship if they’re being persecuted (persecution of Palestinians, is, after all, a goal of the Israeli state). The Israeli state even subjects gay Palestinians to danger, blackmailing them to become informants under threat of outing them as homosexual to their friends and family.
Within Palestine as it now stands, there’s a long history of acceptance of homosexuality. The Islamic world as a whole was considered far more tolerant sexually than Europe in the 19th century. Western writers condemned Islam as barbaric for this reason, calling them perverted and immoral. Only now that cosmopolitan values have become a hallmark of western capitalism to some degree has this reversed, with western writers now discussing how closed and intolerant Muslims are to denigrate them as barbarians. Of course, the idea of homosexuality and heterosexuality didn’t exist prior to them being conceptualized in Victorian-era studies as separate identities, in order to create a legal, scientific/analytic basis for the juridical subjugation of the former in a time of an increasingly secular state. This was then exported into the Middle East through colonialism. The Ottoman Empire actually decriminalized homosexuality in 1858, which the British reversed in their colonial holding of the Mandate for Palestine in 1936 to “civilize” the territory, the same law that still bans male homosexual relations in Gaza today. In the West Bank, the Jordanian legal code of 1951 that legalized sodomy is in effect. It wasn’t until 1977 that Israel brought their legal code up to that standard.
It’s true that the forces pushing for a reversal of that law in Gaza and the eventual encoding of LGBT rights in legal form in the Palestinian territories aren’t as strong as similar forces in Israel, but once again, this is due to Western nations and their own history of imperialist meddling. The Israeli occupation is so intensely harsh that it makes those who don’t focus on it first and foremost look like Western puppets trying to divide people up. Israel is the one explicit legitimizing force behind the Palestinian Authority, which has otherwise lost the trust of the Palestinian people, who would have turfed out that asshole President Abbas in a second rather than let him stay in power for 11 years. If the PA is not sufficiently LGBT friendly for Israel supporters, then that’s the Israeli state’s fault for picking that kind of puppet. Meanwhile, the force that’s proven itself most willing to take on both PA corruption and the Israeli military is Hamas, characteristics that make it highly palatable to the Palestinian people. Hamas was funded by the Israeli state in its early years, in order to lessen the popularity of secular left wing groups that today, had they stayed popular, would likely be more amenable to homosexuality. Hamas has since been funded heavily by the US allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both of whom only exist thanks to the services they provide to America and both of whom are responsible for the decidedly anti-secular turn that Middle Eastern politics has taken in the past 40 years due to their vast propaganda operations in promoting Wahhabi-style Islam that was previously only well-known in the Arabian peninsula. Hamas also effectively gains from its behind the scenes agreements with Israel (through its patrons Qatar and Turkey) that make it the main enforcer of peace in Gaza, in exchange for a relative ceasefire from Israel. The entire imperial system is maintained by the same western states that the author would like to praise for their supposed promotion of the cause of LGBT rights. If America and Israel cared so much, why wouldn’t they make a more significant effort to stop either discrimination at home or within their ally Saudi Arabia?
Joseph Massad, who’s condemned vehemently here despite being far more knowledgeable than the author, is one of my main sources on this topic. Indeed, Massad takes a page out of Foucault’s book in arguing that the West is historically peculiar in creating an entire identity around homosexuality, rather than viewing it as a facet of sexual behavior. The author in turn has no serious background in the issue and is stupid enough to lampoon it as Orwellian nonsense. He doesn’t understand how becoming a facsimile of something most people associate with the western nations brutally subjugating them might be off-putting. He doesn’t understand why Islam has popular cachet as a force against western domination (not that it really is in any way, but it’s perceived to be and thus gains adherence). He doesn’t understand that many of the overtly LGBT-friendly groups in the Middle East are also neocolonialist western NGOs. He doesn’t know that the indigenous Palestinian LGBT rights group Al-Qaws exists, and he most definitely does not give any thought to the idea that organizing for those rights might be difficult in a situation where you and your family members are getting blown to bits daily (and of course, nothing about trans Palestinians is mentioned in his article, despite his constant use of the LGBT acronym, because his knowledge of that struggle is wholly limited to the liberal mindset of “gay marriage and some anti-discrimination laws”). He hasn’t read books like “Islamic Homosexualities” and “Before Homosexuality in the Arab World, 1500-1800″, which are rich sources on the relative tolerance of the people of the Middle East during those times. He doesn’t know the history, he doesn’t know the lived experiences, and he doesn’t know anything that hasn’t come out of a western correspondents mouth. As Massad always notes, “Western propaganda is based on a chain of propagandistic fabrications, you end up getting [organizations like] AP quoting ILGA quoting other German and Israeli sources. What is always absent is an actual Arab documentary source.”