Let's talk about sex, and rights, Pakistan

A new magazine aims to spark a debate about sexuality in the Muslim country. Andrew Buncombe reports from Lahore
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The Independent Online

Scroll down the contents of the latest online edition and you'll find articles entitled "Innocence", "The Predicament of a Polygamous Lesbian" and "A Cry in the Wilderness: Male Homosexuality in Pakistan". As you might imagine, they have already drawn plenty of comments. The managing editors, Kyla Pasha and Sarah Suhail, insist their new venture is not a gay magazine. However, Ms Suhail, who is openly gay, says she was partly inspired to develop the project after living in Seattle. She wanted to set up something for gay and transgender people back home. "I wanted to create some sort of queer space here, but then we thought that perhaps would not be safe," said the 26-year-old researcher in an interview at her Lahore apartment. "So we thought about a magazine instead."

Ms Pasha, 29, who teaches at a university, added: "It's not a gay magazine. It's a magazine about sexuality. People can talk about any sort of sexuality but it seems people are more interested in those that are most marginalised – gay, or third gender. We've actually struggled to find content relating to straight sexuality."

The editors are keen to encourage debate about sexuality within their country and challenge received wisdoms. The magazine – which publishes essays, poetry, photography and art – is not just about promoting gay equality, but also promoting the rights of women and the right of people to make their own choices regardless of what society might say. Ms Pasha said the venture was as much inspired by talking to female friends, who were ridden with guilt because they did not wait to marry before having sex, as by anything else.

That Chay is produced out of Lahore is perhaps no surprise. This historic city in Punjab has long been considered a cultural and artistic oasis in a country increasingly pulled back and forth by political turmoil and militant violence. Yet even here, the dark forces of religious extremism have had an impact; last year a number of popular juice bars, where young men and women could happily sit together, were bombed in an attack by militants. And in both Lahore and Karachi, the gay scene is largely underground.

The magazine's style is deliberately provocative. Just take the name. Chay is the name of the "ch" sound in the Urdu alphabet. In turn, "ch" is a shortened form of a highly derogative term for the female genitalia. The editors say they are trying to reclaim the word, usually spat out in insult, in much the same way as the word queer has been taken back by the gay and lesbian community. "We have named our magazine Chay as an act of resistance to the popular pejorative," they wrote in their first edition. "It is both an attempt to reclaim our language and engage with some of its sexist trappings."

Their efforts to create room for such a debate are taking place against the backdrop of a society which is seemingly repressed when it comes to matters of sexuality and where women often suffer discrimination. Orthodox Islam rejects homosexuality – though there are a growing number of revisionists who suggest otherwise – and while the more moderate tradition of Sufism has been influential in Pakistan, society still has little room for people who are openly gay.

Indeed, the editors say that in the world of politics, sport, television and the movies there is just one example of a "celebrity" who is openly not straight. That person is Ali Saleem, a young bisexual television host and anchor who is best known for dressing up as the middle-aged widow Begum Nawazish Ali.

In this unlikely mélange of Pakistan-meets-Dame-Edna-Everage, Saleem is able to interview politicians and celebrities. Yet he does much more than that, flirting and joking and talking about sex in the way that a male, or real female, host could never do.

"My existence on TV discredits the misconception that Pakistan is a country of bearded extremists," he told a journalist last year. "I want to show the world that we are just cool, normal people."