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New York Times on gay Pakistan: Get Religion, November 14, 2012 November 15, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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World Ends Tomorrow: Women and Minorities Hit Hardest!

Mort Sahl is usually credited with coining this “fake but accurateNew York Times headline. Though offered as sarcasm, Sahl’s joke has survived for 25 years because it encapsulates the world view many critics see in the Gray Lady’s reporting. The Time‘s intellectual outlook, its weltanschauung, is of an insular urban American establishment. Though this viewpoint is often expressed in the espousal of liberal politics — that is but a surface manifestation of the problem of Times reporting. The deeper issue is of a lack of awareness of issues and beliefs outside the ken of its reporters/readers — an incurious provincialism.

Last week’s 1400-word story on gays in Pakistan is an example of this problem. The article entitled “Gay Pakistanis, Still in Shadows, Seek Acceptance” looks at efforts of the gay subculture of Pakistan to achieve acceptance. There is a great deal to recommend in this story in terms of its local color, characters, and quotes. The “on the spot” work is well done.

Here is the lede:

LAHORE, Pakistan — The group meets irregularly in a simple building among a row of shops here that close in the evening. Drapes cover the windows. Sometimes members watch movies or read poetry. Occasionally, they give a party, dance and drink and let off steam.

A street in bustling Lahore. Displays of affection between men in public, like hugging and holding hands, are a common sight.

The group is invitation only, by word of mouth. Members communicate through an e-mail list and are careful not to jeopardize the location of their meetings. One room is reserved for “crisis situations,” when someone may need a place to hide, most often from her own family. This is their safe space — a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Pakistanis.

“The gay scene here is very hush-hush,” said Ali, a member who did not want his full name used. “I wish it was a bit more open, but you make do with what you have.”

That is slowly changing as a relative handful of younger gays and lesbians, many educated in the West, seek to foster more acceptance of their sexuality and to carve out an identity, even in a climate of religious conservatism.

Homosexual acts remain illegal in Pakistan, based on laws constructed by the British during colonial rule. No civil rights legislation exists to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.

But the reality is far more complex, more akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell” than a state-sponsored witch hunt. For a long time, the state’s willful blindness has provided space enough for gays and lesbians. They socialize, organize, date and even live together as couples, though discreetly.

This is well written in the sense of nicely constructed story line, vivid language, and detail. The author’s sympathies are clearly with its subjects — which is not surprising given the Times‘ outlook.

But there is so much that is unasked or unexplored in this story. And coupled with its dubious philosophical underpinnings it means the story just does not hang together. Let’s deal with the low hanging fruit among my criticisms first. The news that there is a gay subculture in Pakistan is hardly new. Western media outlets have written about this for years. The Times article is a nice color piece on the current state of affairs, but is not groundbreaking. Not all stories can be original or fresh, but this one, unlike NPR‘s 2004 story, has missed the role of religion — Islam — in the debate.

It is true to say that Pakistan’s sodomy law was crafted by the British in 1860. Section 377 states:

whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than two years nor more than ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offense described in this section.crimes against nature.

Yes I too wonder about the Victorians at times. The penal codes of India, Malaysia, Singapore, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldives and Jamaica contain the same language in their sodomy laws as Pakistan and are even labeled Section 377, while the laws of almost all of the Commonwealth nations had or have sodomy laws based upon this language. What is missing in this throw away line about the British being responsible for Section 377 is the introduction of Sharia law in Pakistan.

There are two legal codes at work in Pakistan — the secular British based Section 377 which is hardly ever used — and the modern Sharia law code which is.

The 2010 edition of the Spartacus International Gay Guide, a guidebook for male homosexual travelers, states with regard to the legal framework pertaining to homosexual activity and the situation of LGBT persons in Pakistan:

Homosexual activity is illegal, punishable according to Islamic Laws which were re-introduced in 1990 and according to paragraph 377 with life in prison, corporal punishment of 100 lashes or even death by stoning. Despite the strict laws of Islam regarding moral standards, gay men, transvestites and transsexuals live relatively undisturbed from the police. On the other hand they cannot expect much protection from the authorities. (p. 98)

At the tail end of the story, the Times reports on the U.S. State Department’s foray into the sexual politics of Pakistan.

That clash of ideologies was evident last year on June 26, when the American Embassy in Islamabad held its first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride celebration. The display of support for gay rights prompted a backlash, setting off demonstrations in Karachi and Lahore, and protesters clashing with the police outside the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad. This year, the embassy said, it held a similar event but did not issue a news release about it.

What the Times omitted to say was who was protesting and why. Getting an anti-American crowd going in Islamabad is not that difficult, but the Associated Press story about the incident stated it was religious leaders who were leading the the “Death to the Great Satan” crowds this time round. The AP wrote:

The group, which included the head of Pakistan’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, claimed the meeting — the first of its kind held by the embassy — was the second most dangerous attack by the U.S. against Pakistan, following missiles fired from unmanned drones. … “Such people are the curse of society and social garbage,” said the statement issued by the Islamic officials on Sunday. “They don’t deserve to be Muslim or Pakistani, and the support and protection announced by the U.S. administration for them is the worst social and cultural terrorism against Pakistan.”

By omitting to discuss Islam and homosexuality, and by not presenting the opposing view (disagreeable as it may be for the author) the Times has failed to report accurately. It also missed the opportunity of addressing the question “how came there to be a tolerant attitude towards homosexuality in Pakistan given the Islamic culture of the country?”

The answer is … Islam in Pakistan has changed over the past generation. The tolerant Sufi-dominated Islam of the past has given way to a Saudi Wahhabist Islam. In sum, not only does the Times fail to address the role religion plays in current attitudes towards gays and lesbians in Pakistan, it also fails to address how and why the current attitudes arose.

There is also a missed opportunity to explore what is hinted at by the discussion of the gay and lesbian identity. The Times notes that the “younger gays and lesbians, many educated in the West” differ from the older generation — but also differ from the rural and less affluent or educated persons with the same sexual orientation or nature.

What we have here is the Times defining sexuality such that true gayness is found only in its Western version. Older, rural, less sophisticated persons with same-sex attractions need to evolve — to come up to the Times standards of conduct and thinking. At heart, this article fails because of its blinkered vision of human autonomy.

As journalism the story is weak — no contrary views, no context, no religion — as a moral/intellectual enterprise it is blue-stockinged, blinkered and bourgeois.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in GetReligion.

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