Two young Pakistani women have married in a civil partnership in the UK, becoming the first Muslim lesbians to wed. The news has shocked the conservative masses in their native Pakistan, where LGBT groups are shunned by both law and custom, albeit largely left alone provided they retain a low profile.
It was only in 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Numerous other countries – most in the West – followed suit and accepted homosexuality as a matter of orientation. Some began to legislate against discrimination based on sexual orientation. But homosexuality remains strictly taboo in most of the Middle East and Arab world, where it is considered unnatural under Islam, the dominant religion.
In Pakistan, despite strict laws, there is a quiet tolerance of gays, at least until they attract significant media attention. One example is the late Pakistani-American poet Ifti Nasim, who was the first Pakistani to come out, a decision that led him to stay in the U.S. where he knew he would have fewer problems with acceptance. Still, the Pakistani literary community expressed respect when Nasim died in 2011.
A Pakistani couple jailed in 2007 was more unfortunate. In this case, the husband had undergone two sex change operations, although doctors acting on behalf of the court ruled that he was still a woman (full beard notwithstanding). What was interesting, though, was that the court opted to hand down a lighter perjury conviction – on the grounds that the couple had lied about the husband’s status – rather than applying the tougher homosexuality provisions of the penal code.
The Pakistani newlyweds in the UK – Rehana Kausar (34) and Sobia Kamar (29) – have applied for political asylum, claiming that they fear persecution in their native country. Asylum could ultimately lead to citizenship.
That possibility has raised a few eyebrows in Pakistan, where some skeptics have noted that civil partnership is not an uncommon choice for those aiming to achieve UK citizenship. Since the 2005 London bombings, the path to UK citizenship has become much more difficult for Pakistanis.
While the LGBT community has welcomed the event as a milestone, Islamic scholars in the UK have been cautious in their choice of words. While they proclaim marriage to be between a man and a woman only, they concede that UK laws view things differently. Nonetheless, the couple were denied the chance to marry in a traditional nikah ceremony.
Kausar and Kamar managed to overcome that obstacle. Whether their marriage helps bring the LGBT community in Pakistan out from the shadows remains to be seen.
Malik Ayub Sumbal is an award-winning journalist based in Islamabad. He tweets @ayubsumbal