Category Archives: Pakistan

I’m Number 1!

So I don’t often get a chance to brag, but today I found out something quite fabulous, if I do say so myself. My story on gay men in Pakistan – Is Pakistan a gay man’s paradise? – was Daily Xtra‘s number one most read world story of 2015.

Pakistan is a world of contrasts: a land of fundamentalist Islam, Osama bin Laden’s hideout, and terrorist attacks, where children are gunned down going to school or accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Yet it’s also a land where secular, liberal, young adults socialize by drinking whisky and smoking weed, where you can find used lesbian erotica or buy a dildo on the black market.

Check out all the other stories here.

It’s a pretty awesome way to set off on my next leg of this incredible journey on Saturday – LGBT rights and issues in Latin America!

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Fine, But Just ONE Photo

Subtitle: In Which I’m Handed a Small Child 

After travelling through South Asia, I have some newfound sympathy for celebrities. The being stared at wherever you go, people always coming up to talk to you, people asking for photos with you or often just taking photos of you without asking, people pointing at you…everything you do is something novel that people are interested in and want to get a closer look. It got to the point that I wanted to scream on the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, “Look, I’m just buying GRAPES! They’re just fruit. Let me buy groceries without it becoming a news story!!”

Of course, celebrities get compensated pretty well for these annoyances. But to have to do it EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Geez. I can see why some resort to the make-up free, baseball cap, and sunglasses method of trying to avoid the paparazzi.

Or turn to drugs.

Anyway, I digress.

I now have a little taste of how they feel – I literally escaped from the Indian tourists flocking to me for photos at the Ellora Caves by a still slightly unexcavated side entrance in one of them. Later on, when a couple asked me to take a photo of just them with a statue, using their own camera, I almost hugged them in gratitude.

An example of the attention I would get, particularly when walking through Old Dhaka

An example of the attention I would get, particularly when walking through Old Dhaka

It’s a funny thing with all the attention I got, being the “other.” I’m so not used to being othered. I’m a white, educated, middle class, able-bodied woman. The only way I am othered is because of my sexual orientation, but even that is not as much of an “othering” in Canada today as it has been in the past. And I also can, and do, pass as straight when needed (which is especially useful when travelling through countries where homosexual acts are illegal). I’ve been able to live relatively comfortably in my “average” outwardly appearance to society.

I never realized invisibility was so desirable, and so fleeting.

It all began relatively innocently with a small boy asking for a photo with him in front of a mosque in Old Lahore. That was the only time I was asked in Pakistan, probably because I was pretty much always accompanied by a Pakistani male friend like some sort of amicable bodyguard.

A very cute kid in Old Lahore who specifically asked for a photo of the two of us with his uncle's camera, and then with mine

A very cute kid in Old Lahore who specifically asked for a photo of the two of us with his uncle’s camera, and then with mine

I wouldn’t realize how important that was until I got to India, and then onto Bangladesh.

After crossing the border into India, there was an instance in Amritsar where I realized this might be more of a “thing.” I’d just watched the movie Gandhi for the first time before coming to India, and knew I wanted to visit the Jallianwala Bagh massacre site in Amritsar, where the British cruelly and systematically gunned down peaceful Indian protestors in 1919.

My Facebook status that day was: “The solemnity of Jallianwala Bagh was ruined ever so slightly by the gaggle of giggling schoolgirls all insisting they take individual photos and selfies with me.”

Seriously, though, there were about 15 of them. And they all wanted photos. Individually and in groups. There was also an odd instance of an older man beckoning me over, after seeing this spectacle, and asking me to take a selfie with him using my camera. So I did. I figured it would be rude not to.

Jallianwala Bagh, with a few of the girls. About 10 photos in I figured I should get a photo too

Jallianwala Bagh, with a few of the girls. About 10 photos in I figured I should get a photo too

After posting that status, an African-Canadian Facebook friend commented that I should think twice about agreeing to take photos with people who asked because I was perpetuating internalized racism.

But for me, I’d feel like I would be asserting my privilege even more if I, a white person, told them, non-white people, that I wouldn’t take a photo with them because they were suffering from internalized racism.

It would just perpetuate my own privilege.

But it did get me thinking – why DID all these people want to take photos with me, or of me?

About 4 days into my time in India, in New Delhi, I realized why some people wanted photos. And it was for not-so-nice reasons.

One group of young men at the Red Fort asked for a photo and I agreed. (Side note: I had not yet figured out that when asked by a group for “a photo” it really means you’re taking a bunch of photos with them in different combinations.) The photos quickly devolved into arms around the shoulder – which I did say no to – and then one weird photo where one guy shook my hand and pointed at me with the other.

I was too stunned to really react.

A photo of some children who asked for my name when we were on land, and then cheerfully called out to me when we reached the Buddha statue in the middle of a lake in Hyderabad, requesting a photo

A photo of some children who asked for my name when we were on land, and then cheerfully called out to me when we reached the Buddha statue in the middle of a lake in Hyderabad, requesting a photo

Talk about feeling like an exhibit in a freak show. Especially as this was quickly followed by a group of women at Qutab Minar who looked simultaneously horrified and fascinated by me and therefore started snapping photos with their phones.

I would soon learn that, for men, it can be about telling their friends that they slept with a foreigner. I quickly decided to stop taking photos with single men – for that reason, and for the reason that they often were just creepy. Families, children, women – fine, I’d do it, even when I was annoyed by the quantity of the requests. But men became a no-no.

So maybe, for some people, there is internalized racism there – the idea that they are somehow elevated by having a photo with a white person. But not always – as a Black friend I made in India would get more attention – and hair touching – from the crowds than I or other white women did.

For others, I think, it’s more about the uniqueness of the sight – seeing a lone, tall, white woman as they go about their day. It’s a “Look what I saw, Mom!” moment. One Indian friend compared it to children wanting to take photos of her when she was in Canada because she had a bindi.

In the end, there are probably hundreds of photos of me floating around Facebook and other social media sites, with the family I met in the second class coach to Darjeeling, with the waiters at a restaurant in Bangalore and the hotel staff in Dhaka, with the eloquent teenage girl in Bangladesh who explained to me that she wanted a photo to show others that foreigners visit her country, with the group of children at the Buddha statue in Hyderabad, and with the two families who handed me their babies to hold for their not-so-traditional family portraits (thankfully only one cried), and many, many more. There’s even a short phone video taken by two young police officers in Varanasi.

Seriously.

Photo with the eloquent young girl in Dhaka, and her family, who explained why she wanted a photo

Photo with the eloquent young girl in Dhaka, and her family, who explained why she wanted a photo

How Evalyn Parry Got Me to Pakistan

So yeah, I know. I’m late jumping on the bandwagon that is the love people have for Evalyn Parry. I’d been hearing about her for years from my friends (especially the Quakers), but had never had the pleasure of seeing her perform. Until this past November, when I went to see SPIN at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto.

And I was blown away.

Seriously, people. SPIN is awesome. Evalyn Parry is awesome. Annie Londonderry is awesome. Everything about this is awesome.

So naturally, my obsessive self bought the SPIN album on iTunes. (sidenote: you should all do this right now. Stop reading this blog, go buy SPIN, and then come back. I’ll wait.)

And I’ve been listening to it a lot. So much so that I (only somewhat) jokingly said that The Ballad of Annie Londonderry would be my theme song for this year and a half journey I’m on.

And while I did pack much more than just a pearl-handled revolver and a change of underwear, I have brought the spirit of Annie Londonderry along with me.

A young woman in her 20s (ok, so she was early 20s and I’m late, but who’s counting?), who travelled around the world on her own for over a year. Sure, she did it the entirely environmentally friendly way, via bicycle, but I like to think I can still be a kindred spirit.

Annie Londonderry set off from her home in Boston to stick it to the Man.

Would you take a dare, would you take a wager? What would you wear, would you wear bloomers? Would you care to change things, would you dare to change things? …. would you go alone?

I hope I can make a little change in the world as I go, as I write about human rights and LGBTQ rights in the various countries I visit.

Unfortunately, my crappy android phone had issues putting new music onto it so I hadn’t been able to listen to the album much in Toronto while I was out and about getting ready for the trip. But I decided to bring an old iPhone on my trip with me and put the album on there.

So, as soon as I got on the plane for the 12.5 hour flight to Abu Dhabi (and after watching that super horrible movie – see former blog post), I attempted to sleep with the songs of Evalyn Parry in my ear. And it worked – I was lulled to sleep (again and again, as I constantly wake up on planes) by her melodic tones. I especially loved Open Letter to Igor Kenk, Bicycle Thief:

Then, when I was in Abu Dhabi airport, wandering around and trying to find a bathroom so I could change into my longer skirt (with long tights underneath) and put a scarf around my neck for modesty before boarding the plane to Pakistan, Parry’s song “Amelia Bloomer Sings for Fashion Reform” ironically came on.

Listen ladies, you’ve got me to thank for
Letting you show a little more
of your leg, your legs! …
In my day, a woman couldn’t show her ankles
Not even the legs of a table could be seen
it would be deemed obscene to show the length of your leg
your leg, your legs,
your legs: your political legs

And here I was, about to put my political legs away! So thank you, Evalyn Parry, for serenading me on my journey to Pakistan (and now into India) and for making me smile. You’re awesome!!

Random fact: I couldn’t post this til I reached India as Pakistan has blocked youtube for blasphemy concerns. I’m sure there’s a way to get around that, but I figured I could wait a week 😉

The Liberal Side of Pakistan

Before travelling to Pakistan, most of my friends and family warned me about the dangers I would face, urging me to stay safe. I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived – a country wracked by fanaticism and terrorism, or a nuanced experience of life filled with conservatives and liberals alike.

I found the latter – and I’ve mostly been immersed in the liberal side of Pakistani culture. Of course, this is giving me a bit of a skewed sense of Pakistan, but it is also a side of Pakistan we rarely see in the media.

The Pakistan I witnessed is a Pakistan where religious and secular people can live in harmony, working towards the common goal of countering extremism. A Pakistan where people drink alcohol and smoke pot in the evenings as they joke about the recent reports that ISIS killed two gay men by pushing them off tall buildings, saying “Well, that’s certainly a different interpretation of Sharia law.”

It’s a Pakistan where I mingled with people in the LGBT community, some who identify as activists and some who do not. And a Pakistan where a group of liberal youth hosted a civil society dialogue in the basement of an Islamabad hotel, a few blocks from the infamous Red Mosque, called “Thinking Beyond the Military Offensive; The Need to Challenge the Extremist Narrative.”

That same day, the Punjab government issued an ordinance declaring “A person shall not, by words spoken or written, use any formal forum to support terrorism or terrorists, or attempt to create sympathy for any terrorist or terrorist organisation, or to oppose action of Pakistan army, air or naval force, police or Rangers against any terrorist or terrorist organisation.”

These youth call their group Khudi. Their Twitter account describes them as “a youth-led initiative that challenges extremism & promotes tolerance, pluralism & democratic values through active citizenship & civic & political education.”

I had the opportunity to visit their offices in both Lahore and Islamabad last week. And the friend I stayed with happens to work for them 🙂

One of the speakers at the Khudi event in Islamabad was Mohammad Jibran Nasir who, in the wake of the Peshawar school attacks last month, has started a campaign against terrorism and terrorist sympathizers. He’s received threats from the Taliban and consequently sleeps in a different house each night. There’s an article about him on Buzzfeed for those who want more info.

So yes, this is a different Pakistan than the one I was warned to expect. And yet, it’s still a Pakistan where the majority of people having these discussions, at least in a public sphere, are men. The patriarchal culture definitely needs to be addressed, and perhaps one way of beginning to tackle that is by countering the religious fundamentalism in the country.

“All our hopes lie in this country becoming secular,” one lesbian activist told me. It seems that, on that front, and from what I experienced, progressive Pakistan agrees.

The Many Faces of Old Lahore

First Day in Pakistan

As I woke up yesterday on what was a Lahore morning for me, but was really 1.30 in the afternoon, I washed my face in my friend’s sink on the fourth floor of an apartment building attached to Liberty Market. A huge bird – it looked like an eagle to my Canadian eyes – swooped down from the roof of the building; cars, rickshaws, motorcycles and people bustled underneath it.

Before I left, one of my colleagues presented me with an image of a crowd of people in a balcony, cheering me on. Those people are my former colleagues at the United Church, my friends, and family – both chosen and by birth.

I definitely feel you all here with me in spirit, cheering me on! It’s so amazing to feel like I’ve got this whole journey – this whole life – ahead of me. And who knows where it will lead! 🙂

Welcome to Pakistan: Don’t Get Sentenced to Death!

“May we remind you that bringing drugs into Pakistan is a serious offence and results in a mandatory death sentence,” the flight attendant calmly announced.

Those were the words that greeted me upon my descent into Lahore airport. “Whoa,” I thought. “Here we go.”

It had been an interesting 24 hours. I packed my bags at my parents’ house, had a nice dinner, and went to the airport. There, I was told my camera backpack was too big as a carry on because the flight was full (a moment I would replay over and over in my head on my two flights with Air Etihad, when I saw much larger carry ons being hefted into the overhead compartments). So, not wanting to send all of my camera equipment into the abyss that is checking luggage, I got a laundry bag out of my suitcase and pitched my camera and lenses and cords into it. Y’know, with a few pieces of clothing to act as a buffer. I don’t know what I must’ve looked like in the airport, with my purse and a laundry bag slung over my shoulder.

Quite posh, I should think.

On the first flight – just over twelve hours to Abu Dhabi – I decided to watch a movie before attempting to sleep. I chose “Hector and the Search for Happiness” as it seemed thematically relevant. Plus, I love Toni Collette and she’s in it (albeit briefly) and this is one of the films I wanted to see at TIFF last year.

Well, I should’ve read the Rotten Tomatoes reviews before making this decision. That, or just fast-forwarded to Toni’s part.

Honestly, this movie is awful. At various times I thought, “I really should stop watching this.” But I kept thinking maybe – just maybe – it would get better.

The real clincher was the racist way the film dealt with “Africa.” No, not a country in Africa, just “Africa.” Where of course the protagonist gets life advice from a sick orphan, has a close encounter with a lion, and gets kidnapped at gunpoint only to eventually be released when he name drops a non-African gangster who is somehow in charge and is warmly welcomed back by adoring African women who make him sweet potato stew and dance for him. (Spoiler alert: Don’t see this movie)

Seriously, people. The other places he goes to are deemed worthy enough to be properly identified. He goes to “China” specially, Shanghai. Not just “Asia.” He goes to Los Angeles, not just California or the United States or the Americas. But when it comes to Africa, he just goes to Africa. No specific country because don’t you know that all of Africa is one homogenous country?

Finally, I made it to Abu Dhabi airport where, on my walk from the plane to the terminal, I passed the City of Manchester Football’s private airplane. Kinda cool.

Things I found reassuring about Abu Dhabi airport:
1. The presence of WH Smith and British chocolate.
2. A doodle of a penis inside the stall at the women’s washroom, proving there are the same idiots all over the world.
3. No snow or ice!! 20 degrees!!

Things that unsettled me about Abu Dhabi airport:
1. Somehow, it was evening again and I found myself waiting in an airport at 9pm two days in a row.

Other notable occurrences on my voyage to Lahore:

  • Flying over the mountains in Iraq and Iran was an amazing experience. So gorgeous! Don’t worry – it doesn’t make me want to visit those two not-exactly-super-safe countries anytime soon. But I would fly over them again.
  • It really is a man’s world in Pakistan – men are everywhere. When we landed in Lahore, a bunch of men began standing up to remove their carry on luggage before the plane had stopped, ignoring the female flight attendant’s orders to remain seated. At the baggage claim, it was a veritable sea of men, with the few women and children travelling at 3 am sitting on benches to wait.
  • In clearing customs in Lahore (which was quite easy), there are some interesting signs for designated lines. The usual “Pakistani passport holders” and “diplomats” and “foreign passport holders” were joined by a line exclusively for “ladies” and one for “Deportees from Saudi Arabia.”

There’s gotta be a good story there.