The Islamic Republic of Paidika?
A brief Synopsis of Male Homosexuality in Pakistan

Maurice Hong-Cheng Chang


It is all too common to hear examples of the repression of sexuality and oppression of sexual minorities in South Asia. But the problem with sweeping generalizations about sexuality, or anything else for that matter, is the exceptions. Homosexuality is one of such exceptions. Throughout South Asia, homosexuality has been a taboo subject. The issue of “homosexuality” is sensitive and is not publicly discussed but there is, at the same time, a level of acceptance amongst gay men.[1] This tacit acceptance can be best seen in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where ethnic Pashtun men are well known for taking young boys as lovers,[2] a practice now deeply embedded in the local culture and an obvious consequence of the strict segregation of women there. With this “open secret,” homosexuals in Pakistan walk a fine line between harsh legal and cultural prohibition and a form of unspoken social acceptance. Although Pakistan is the state of Islamic Republic that ninety eight percent of the population are practicing Muslim, Islamic tradition frowns on but acknowledges male-male sex and this plays a role in permitting clandestine sex so long as it is not allowed to interfere with family life, which is of paramount importance. Section 377 of the Pakistani penal code says that two men practicing intercourse can be stoned to death, but the rule is rarely implemented. It is fair to say that the rare implementation of official law could be the Islamic culture and tradition of sexual relations between men as mentioned below.

Islamic View on Homosexuality

Homosexuality is considered to be a great sin in Islam. Male homosexuality and lesbianism have no place in Islam. This issue is clear from the primary source of Islam, the Holy Qur’an.[3] A person committing such an act is in violation of God's law and should seek repentance before God gives upon him or her. Allah has condemned Prophet Lot’s people who indulged in homosexuality warning them of dire consequences against transgressing the limits Allah has defined limits for sound human values. However, Islamic norms differ profoundly from Western Christian traditions. Islam treats homosexuality far less harshly than does Christianity. Sex between men results in part from the segregation of women and in part from the poetic and folk heritage holding that the penetration of a pretty boy is the ultimate in sexual delight; it is "frowned upon, but accepted" so long as the participants also marry and have children, and also if they keep quiet about this activity. The Muslim culture and tradition emphasis on family life renders homosexuality far less threatening to Muslim societies than to Western ones.

In other words, with the indigenous and hidden homosexual tradition in Islamic society, homosexual activity serves as a temporary, but valid and important proxy stage of growth between puberty and marriage. Since there is varying but distinct social separation of the genders in Muslim states, young men develop special friendships and informal partnerships with other males, some older, some younger. Most adolescents have their first sexual experiences as they “practice” on each other. Usually the younger partner takes the passive role and the older one the active role. Eventually, in their twenties and early thirties, most go on to exclusive heterosexual marriage. Others, to be sure, go on to marriage but maintain secret sexual liaisons with other men. Often these are men (and women) who are more truly attracted to their own gender but would not dare to reveal it. In any case, sexuality itself is so much more differently configured in Pakistan with Islamic culture and tradition than in Western countries. This is especially true in terms of Muslim’s perceptions of their identity and behavior, in terms of class, with regards to family and religious obligations.[4]

Active/Passive v. Homo/Heterosexual: A Pederasty Tradition of Male Muslims

In Islamic society, the key distinction is not hetero v. homosexual but active v. passive; men are expected to seek penetration (with wives, prostitutes, other males, animals); the only real shame is attached to serving in the female role. In the Islamic cultural (premarital) homosexual behavior there is a mute understanding that sex is mutually consensual, temporary and that it is a form of companionship, if not affection, among peers. Youths usually serve in the female role and can leave behind this shame by graduating to the male role. In Pakistan, there are particularly defined sex roles for “top” and “bottom.” The masculine, straight-acting guy will always be the top, the effeminate guy will be the submissive bottom. Many Pakistani men prefer sex with boyish looking guys.[5] Maybe it is due to Muslim belief that God has promised to those who will earn to go to heaven will have not only Hoors (virgin women) but a choice for what it is called Ghilmans (young beautiful boys).

It must be noted that this Islamic tradition is different with the Greek tradition of “Plato’s love” between Erastes (elder lover) and Paidika (younger beloved). Whether the activity is mutual or forceful, there is an almost universal attitude in the Islamic culture that such sexual indulgence is not “gay,” that is, it's not sex or love between two men who identify as homosexuals. Rather, in a collective mental shell game the meaning of sex is re-framed: heterosexual men engage in homosexual behavior in which the younger guy is not a “female” but obedient and passive and the older one is not a “gay man” but assertive and active. This is more clearly in the situation of Afghanistan -- the dating and courtship appears more coercive, more opportunistic and seems to take advantage of younger guys who almost have no other choice than to accept the money or gifts from bigger and more powerful “commanders” whose bit of authority is bestowed by their gang-member status, their guns and the shattered legal/police system.

Therefore, in Muslim societies where the prohibition against premarital heterosexual intercourse is extremely high -- higher than that against sex between men -- men will find men having sex with other males not because they find them most attractive of all but because they find them most attractive of the limited option available to them. We may go on from this to the conclusion that sexual behaviors between men can be seen as the flip side of the segregation of women. However, this is a very different matter from saying that male homosexuality is just a sexual substitute for men.

Cross Dressing and Cross Gender: Hijra and Homosexuality

There is one further issue about male homosexuality in Pakistan that we must not ignore: the discrimination of Hijra. Hijra is a unique form of gender role expression in Pakistan where man behaves like woman. Hijra in Pakistan can be categorized as different groups, e.g. the born hijra (Khusra), Cross-dresser (Zananay) or transgender (Narban). Homosexuals and bisexuals (only men) who wear female clothes are also known as hijras. Although Hijras are granted equal legal rights and obligations in the society, the attitude towards hijra in Pakistan is also very discriminatory and biased in general. For those hijras who are homosexuals, the situation is worse. Especially men are well aware of Zananas whereabouts living in their locality. Attitude of people towards hijra, show that people who believe that they are born hijras have more positive attitude towards hijra community than the people who believe that they are men behaving like women or both. Moreover, the ideology of muscular domination of the Islamic culture and tradition makes them under the double-discrimination. Now the problem comes further with the open discussion about HIV/AIDS prevention. This is another question worthy of noticing within gay rights studies in Pakistan.

To Be Gay and Muslim?

Cultural and religious traditions keep the “homosexual” relationships essentially hidden in Pakistan; there is no gay life in the Western sense of the word, and any sexual relationships between men have to be concealed and managed behind the context of marriage to a woman. The most common form of male homosexuality in Pakistan was pederasty, whereby an older man entices or coerces a younger male into sex. For thousands of gay people in Pakistan nowadays, that reality is repeated again and again. The idea of “coming out” has never been an option. With denial as their constant companion, gay Pakistanis live in constant fear of being “outed” in this resolutely conservative society that is overtly ignorant and intolerant of sexual minorities. Gay men just do what is expected of them and remain quietly in the shadows, a way of life common throughout this South Asian nation of 140 million. To act in any way effeminately is a sign of weakness and a blemish on one’s own masculinity in this most “macho” of societies. To be gay is to be deviant, an aberration against God’s will which gay men in Pakistan go to great lengths to disguise.


[1] Concerning with Lesbian Muslims, see Irshad Manji, The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith (2004).
[2] Recently, A local Urdu-language newspaper said hat a 42-year-old Afghan refugee, named as Liaquat Ali fell in love with a 16 year old villager, called Markeen and offered his family a “dowry” of 40,000 rupees -- about $650. The family readily accepted. Arranging marriages of 16 year olds is not uncommon in Pakistan, but this is the first known instance where another male was involved. The marriage was held amid usual pomp and show associated with a tribal wedding.
[3] A discussion of Islamic legal system and homosexuality, see Peter Avery, Islam, in Sociolegal Control of Homosexuality 109-118 (Donald J. West & Richard Green eds., 1997). [Hereinafter Sociolegal Control of Homosexuality]
[4] See Stephen O. Murray & Badruddin Khan, Pakistan, in Sociolegal Control of Homosexuality, supra note 3, 119-126, at 122.
[5] Id. at 123.


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