By Mercedes Mehling via Unsplash

The Plague of Homophobia in South-Asia

As part of a Post-colonial module offered by QMUL, we had to read the novel Guapa. It is about a gay bar in a country in the Middle-East. I loved the book; it was so heart-breaking and thought-provoking. A recommended read! It, very, lightly, revealed the fact that homophobia was not prevalent in oriental countries till after colonisation, and the great British empire. Countries like the UK are quick to condemn countries that are homophobic, which they should, but they are not willing to fully admit that they were there ones who lit this hatred and fear towards members of the LGBTQ+ community. They recognise their part to play in this oppressive and homophobic regime many countries have, but that is not enough. As a South-Asian woman, I am constantly seeing the irrational hate towards the gay community and the powerful rejection they face on a daily-basis, and this is while I am living in a country with gay rights. 

Instead of focusing on the middle east, like Guapa does, we will be focusing on South-East Asia. 

The History

In the 19 century, the great British empire made a mission to create a code of laws that will be enforced in its colonies. “The British drafted these penal codes with a moral, religious mission in mind” and were therefore made to criminalise same-sex relationships. Britain left these countries in a mess, with unjust legal codes inherited and still in place. Codes that many countries are still finding difficult to break away from. These codes were to protect the Christian church and their moral institutions from native and vulgar customs known as homosexuality. For Britain, these laws were necessary in order to stop this sickness that was homosexuality from spreading. Prostitution was allowed to some degree, as it benefitted men, but not a person’s right to love whom they wanted. In India, only a few years ago, homosexuality was decriminalised. India had a law called section 337. ‘It is a 157-old colonial-era law which criminalises certain sexual acts as “unnatural offences” that are punishable by a 10-year jail term’. These offences are consensual homosexual activity performed in private, none of which affects or harms society. Notice how this law is recognised as a ‘colonial-era-law’. Colonialism has taken much from us, and it still continues to do so, even a person’s right to love. This criminalisation is focused on men-on-men relationships, making it harder for men to be more vulnerable and perpetuating this toxic ideal of a strong and stoic man. There are 72 countries that still criminalise gay sex, over half were ruled by the supposed Great British empire. “Out of those, 31 still have laws based on the original colonial anti-LGBT legislation…this includes countries as diverse as Malaysia, Pakistan and Uganda.”  

Why was the British so concerned with male homosexuality?

The British Empire used the church and subverted its teachings to suppress the gay community. Christianity called for tolerance and forgiveness, something the British empire was not willing to give to the LGBTQ+ community. 

Patriarchy reads ethics through the prism of gender binary and thus mandates the hierarchy and divisions that sustain patriarchy…”

Britain silenced the gay community because the alternative was Britain’s patriarchal society – which is heavily reliant on this man of the house figure- would fall. If men were free to love whom they wished, then the patriarchal constitution of heterosexual marriage would fail and there would be less control over women. Power of the elites would weaken. The restraints on men and women would loosen. Gay rights actively worked against the controlling patriarchal family life. This silencing of human sexuality was fundamental to the patriarchal system of the British empire.

Patriarchy in this way both kills love and elicits repressive violence against any threat to its authority.”

Picture by Maico Pereira via Unsplash

Before the British empire:

If it was not obvious in the previous paragraphs, South-Asia had no laws against homosexuality. In fact “Hindus embraced a range of thinking on gender and sexuality as far back as the Vedic period, around 4000 B.C.” India was much more fluid in their beliefs around sexuality and gender, as shown through their pre-colonial texts, religious and not. This binary way of thinking in India, Bangladesh and the rest of south-Asia was introduced through colonials.  According to many historians, there was much tolerance and freedom of sexuality in India pre-colonialisms. In the 16th and 17th century, Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty (India and Pakistan) unashamedly wrote about his love for men. This shame and taboo desire surrounding homosexuality was introduced entirely from the British rule. There are many myths and stories where same sex relationships are normal, beautiful and full of love. ‘Male-male attraction (is) one of the themes of pre-colonial Urdu poetry’ according to author Vanita. If you remember, the Hindu god Shiva has both female and male characteristics, indicating the progressive and liberal nature of south-Asia before British rule. 

Just like homosexuality being a foreign concepts to the British empire, the banning of gay relations was foreign to 18th century South-Asia. Unfortunately other south-Asian countries, like Bangladesh or Kashmir, have not broken away from this homophobic legal system. 

The British empire’s propaganda – Sodom and Gomora 

The story of Sodom and Gomora differs from the Abrahamic religion. We will focus on the Islamic version as Islam is one of the major religions in South-Asia. Centuries ago, Islam did not focus on homosexuality much. It is briefly mentioned in the Quran and it’s ranking as a sin and punishment are unknown-unclear. According to Muslim scholar, Kecia Ali, “the Qur’an objects not because the men in question sought same-sex intimacy but rather because they intended non-consensual violation.” Much of the story of Lot, is about violent crimes, usually sexual, against people, mainly men. Some believe that the Quran verse 29:29 is about violent homosexual attacks and threats against the angels. There is the belief that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was punished for many sins and not just one. The Quran here also indicates that there is to be wisdom and mercy shown before any accusation or punishment. In Islam, there is no set punishment for being gay like there is now in South-Asia. The punishments of people who are gay in these South-Asian, Islamic countries, like Bangladesh or Pakistan, is once again inherited from this British -colonial rule. 

The Plague of Homophobia in South-Asia

Some say that those who are accepting or tolerant of the gay community are too Western or liberal. Yet, being gay is historically not something the British accepted first. It took centuries for the British to accept this coummunity and support them. It was the British, this West, that criminalised being gay. To fight for gay rights is actually anti-imperialistic. Furthermore, being liberal is not a bad thing. So many cultures and races fight for freedom and the chance to be able to express their identity. One cannot change their race just like a person cannot change their sexuality. To oppress the LGBTQ+ community is to perpetuate this oppressive regime the British empire began.

This is not the only place to find information about colonialism and its relation to homosexuality. Please feel free to click on each hyperlink that has more focused information.

Professor Mukhia, a historian responds to the decriminalisation of homosexuality with:

“In 2018, we recovered what we had lost during colonial times – a more open attitude toward the LGBT community.

Professor Mukhia

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