By: Maleeha Basharat
The past is fascinating because if seen carefully, it illuminates the elasticity- and politics- of sexual boundaries. For much of the last century, a rewriting of history has taken place. In this context; that of the queer culture of the East. Afsaneh Najmabadi, in her book “Women with mustaches, Men without beards”, explores how the notions of “male” and “female” beauty changed under the Qajar dynasty (1785-1925) in her native Iran. At the beginning of that period, male and female ideals of beauty were remarkably similar. Women with heavy brows and faint mustaches were considered so attractive that they were sometimes painted on or augmented by mascara. The men boasted slim waists and delicate features. In the 19th century portraits of lovers, the genders are barely distinguishable, identified only by their headgear. And the sexual mores and exotic sensibilities of 19th century Iran permitted homosexuality between younger and older men.
Its commonly believed that same sex relations are a “learned behavior” from the Greek and Roman eras. However, multiple portraits unearthed from excavation sites in Asia portray homosexual activity and love. They were, and to some degree still are, kept from public view and speculation.
In the Indian subcontinent, the people known as “Hijras” or the intersex and transgenders, were thriving. They, however, prefer to call themselves Kinnar referring to mythological beings that excel at song and dance. The Mughals highly honored the Hijra community and they were often envied as figures of feminine beauty, grace and accomplishment. A popular form of Urdu poetry-
Ghazal- always featured strong homoerotic subtext.
All this changed during the era of the British Raj. At this point, homosexuality was already criminalized in England. The colonizers attempted to eradicate the Hijras whom they saw as ‘a breach to public decency’. They were placed under a Criminal Tribes Act 1871, and hence subjected to compulsory registration, strict monitoring and stigma, a long time after.
Today, as we try to navigate, unlearn and eventually break free from our colonial imprintsthose of beauty, color, economics, law- we are brought face to face with those of gender and sexual identities. As James Baldwin said “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”
The desi LGBTQIA+ community is suffering from extreme loneliness in this day and age. There is a profound sense of self loath culminating in the repression of our unique identities. Organized religion is one way to feel a sense of belonging and the queer community has been made an outcast. Its time to reclaim our spirituality- God belongs to you as much as He does to any other sentient being.
We- the lesbians, gays, non binary folkx and so on- have always existed and we always will. We will live our truths with love. Love is power. It takes off the masks we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.