Droplets of sweat trickled down his cheek as he stood quivering helplessly in front of his brother. The air was suffocating him as he tried to breathe. His heart palpated faster by the second as he stared at his brother in disbelief. Was he really going to kill me? He thought to himself, as his brother firmly clenched the handgun pointed toward his head. In what he thought was the sparing last moments of his life, Shaf Khan, a gay Pakistani man on a visit back to his home country in 2011, knew his life would be snatched in an instant in the name of his family’s honour.
Although honour killings are more frequent among women, men can also fall victim to the crime, predominantly men that are killed due to their sexuality. Pakistan has the highest number of documented and estimated honour killings in the world, and approximately 1,000 murders are committed each year.
These murders stem from illiberal cultural norms that women and men are to act in an orderly way in society; a common belief system rooted in Middle Eastern and South Asian countries. Women must obey their parents or their husband. Men must act like men. They are instilled with fear from a young age so they refrain from behaving in an immoral manner that could further embarrass their families.
So what happens when they step out of line? Often, it leads to their death.
“I thought I was about to lose my life. For being me. I can’t help who I am and it was frightening that my brother would kill me because of his honour.”
Pakistan is one of 72 countries that prohibits same-sex relationships and can legally punish individuals with a prison sentence; there are 10 countries that punish homosexuality with the death penalty. Primarily countries like Pakistan which function under Sharia Law have strong views on homosexuality, and the shame of having a gay family member pushes families to the extent of murdering their relatives to safeguard their reputation in society. It is considered that a gay Pakistani man does not meet with their religious or cultural ethics, and does not have value in a parochial society.
If Shaf Khan’s mother had not intervened at the moment his brother tried to pull the trigger, he would have gone down as another statistic relating to honour-related killings in Pakistan. Seven years after his violent ordeal with his brother, Shaf lives a more liberated life in London as an openly-gay man. Meeting with Artefact in the luxury retailer Selfridges, Shaf wasn’t afraid of being expressive and flamboyant in his personality and fashion taste. Wearing tight fitted jeans and a florid low cut T-shirt, the strenuous days of wearing a shalwar kameez (Pakistani clothing) to play the role of a patriotic Pakistani man were long behind him.
“That was the first time I went back after migrating to the United Kingdom in 2006 and I am never returning,” Shaf said. His lively tone quickly became serious, “I thought I was about to lose my life. For being me. I can’t help who I am and it was frightening that my brother would kill me because of his honour.”Although Shaf never came out to his family, his sexuality was a pressing topic on his brother’s mind as he continuously doubted him. “In my town, there were many gay men that were beaten up because their families thought they were gay. I always heard in the southern part of Pakistan gay men were thrown off cliffs because they were caught having sex with another man. That put fear in me because I knew my family were capable of doing this.” Shaf said. “They used to beat me all the time. It was horrible. I always knew I was gay, in my house women and men were separate and I would always hang around with my female cousins and learn to do make-up. I was more comfortable with them.”
Migrating to a new country, full of unfamiliar faces and a foreign culture very different to the one he was exposed to was frightening, but for Shaf it was his sole option to escape Pakistan’s violent approach towards homosexuality. Alone and aged only 19, Shaf was finally given the opening to explore his sexuality in an open and secure environment. He immediately involved himself in the gay scene by going to gay clubs in London and meeting people he could relate too, as well as dating men outside his race.
“I left my entire life behind for my freedom, so I am the happiest person at the moment. I have no one penalising [me for] the way I walk, or how I dress. I don’t have to be in that controlling environment anymore.”
Due to the negative stigma and threatening behaviour towards the LGBTQ+ community, Pakistani gay culture remains underground and constantly under threat. Thousands still live with the constant anxiety of being outed and perpetrated by society, but just like Shaf, they have the endless desire to explore their forbidden sexuality and express their true identity.
One activist, who does not want to be named, uses Facebook as a means to connect with other members in the LGBTQ+ community. “I join groups so I am updated with news that normally doesn’t get spread on national news stations. They don’t care for us so they don’t want us to be heard. My family do not know I am a lesbian, and I’m scared to tell them, but I turn for my online friends for support.”
“I have lost too many friends to suicide as they’re not allowed to be their true authentic selves”
In 2016, the Pakistani parliament unanimously passed legislation against honour killings after the numbers had continually risen. If prosecuted, the offender could face up to 25 years in prison, even if they are forgiven by their family, which in previous cases has saved offenders from punishment. The legislation however still does not protect members of the LGBTQ+ community from violence and murder.
Regrettably for Shaf, returning to his home country is out of the question, whether they legalise same-sex relations or not. “You can be safe from the law but you won’t be safe from the people. Communities would still be objective to homosexuality so they will still be violent. I don’t believe there will ever be a law protecting us, especially in an Islamic country under Sharia Law.”
When living in a progressively liberal nation such as the UK, it’s difficult to fathom the concept of honour-related killings or violence. It’s a thought that rarely seems to cross our minds. Would I kill my brother because he was born gay? Of course not. In an ever interconnected and globalised 21st century, the notion of upholding an honourable reputation in society is far from normal practice.
No matter how offended parents are with their child’s sexuality, death has never been a reasonable consequence. Nonetheless, it doesn’t mean it still doesn’t happen in minority communities. Around 12 people from ethnic backgrounds are killed in the UK in an honour-related killing every year, and thousands of young boys and girls are living their lives in fear, despite merging themselves into British culture.
“I’ve heard my parent’s talk absolute dirt about the LGBTQIA+ community, calling gays disgusting. I know they’ll disown me.”
Over the last 50 years, the UK has progressed to shield individuals like Shaf from discrimination. Once, like Pakistan, the UK characterised homosexuality as a ‘sinful’ crime and punishable by death. However, today it has put laws in place legalising same-sex relationships, going as far as to introduce laws to protect them from hate crimes.
As a result, our streets hold parades with vocal members of the LGBTQ+ community each year as they colourfully march for equal rights and openly celebrate their sexuality. Although Shaf finally feels that he’s in a sheltered environment, it’s unfortunate that thousands are still suffering in silence under Britain’s protected policies.
Tarek, whose last name cannot be revealed, leads a secretive life his parents are to never know of. Born into a converted Islamic household from Middle-Eastern descent, his parents uphold their reputation strongly in their community. For Tarek, this makes it difficult to come out to his parents as a gay Arab man.
“I find it extremely difficult as I constantly have to live a double life. I am two completely different people when I am with my family and when I am with my close friends. ” Tarek said. “I go about it how any secretive son, daughter, would go about hiding anything. I make up fake stories to provide alibis for me, I’ve pretended my boyfriend is straight and is in a relationship with one of my female friends.”
Several years ago, Tarek apprehensively came out to his parents after a series of abusive events that occurred with his ex-boyfriend. The impertinent response from his parents was not what he wanted. “My parents had kicked me out and sent me to therapy to see if I was sick or something. They let me back in if I promised not to utter a word about anything, and just go back to being straight. As long as I’m not breaking any rules or ruining anyone’s reputation or fully coming out, they’re content with me keeping my mouth shut.”
Now aged 21, Tarek has weaved gay culture into his everyday life after years of being conflicted with his sexuality. In a world concealed from his parents, he proudly recognises and introduces himself as a gay man, and shows off his current relationship on his social media, but in an ideal situation, he’d prefer not to hide from his parents. “I’d like to hope in a perfect world they’d embrace me with open arms but I’ve heard my parent’s talk absolute dirt about the LGBTQIA+ community, calling gays disgusting. I know they’ll disown me.”Karma Nirvana is one of the few organisations set up in the UK to support victims of honour-based abuse, and forced marriage. The organisation was founded in 1993 and has become established as an award-winning national charity, providing a helpline of direct support for victims and speaking on honour-based violence in public. Ambassador for Karma Nirvana and LGBTQ+ activist, Lucky Roy Singh from Manchester, explains the importance of the organisation and his involvement.
“Karma Nirvana helps you with training on how to tell your story and what protocols laws and enforcement resources of help there are to tackle forced marriage and honour-based abuse – it’s a huge achievement to be an ambassador for Karma Nirvana and I’ve been able to help so many people.”
With more than 30 thousand followers on Instagram, Lucky Roy Singh uses his social media as an unrestricted platform to exhibit his drag persona ‘Miss Lucky’, and be open about his arduous journey as a gay Indian man. His posts are full of his exuberant drag persona which he says “is no longer a woman in a scarf who is a wounded lifeless corpse, but a powerful woman who has reclaimed her life, her persona, and stands up for things she believes in.”
In 2017, Lucky released an autobiography Take a Walk in my Big Indian Heels detailing his account as a gay man dressed as a woman in order to marry his partner in a Sikh ceremony. He reluctantly committed to this role so his partner’s family could maintain their reputation in society, and was promised three months of dressing in drag, which later became ten. Without constraint, Lucky spoke about the mental and physical abuse he was subjected too from his mother-in-law, how his family had initially forsaken him when they learnt about his same-sex marriage, and his suicide attempt in his book.
“My story has helped young individuals to realise that your happiness is key and that there are bad times out there, but you have to live your true authentic self and try and push through. The most powerful thing for me is to witness my story in non-LGBTQ+ Muslim and Indian community, supporting their LGBTQ+ friends in schools, by standing up for them and doing research into what help is available for their peers. The conversations my story has opened has been exceptional.”
After Lucky’s suicide attempt, his family realised that Lucky’s contentment was more vital than the repressive cultural beliefs they were taught to follow. Their acceptance was a step forward in the LGBTQ+ Asian community, as it demonstrated that a parent’s perspective on an offensive subject can be reformed through education and enlightenment. “My family and my two siblings adore what I do, and are so happy with the great response I have had from the community and others around me. They are grateful that my story has helped so many people. My parents are my greatest fans and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”In June this year, a historic and revolutionary decision was made by India’s supreme court when they unanimously governed to decriminalise same-sex relations. It was a ground-breaking judgement for gay-rights and it’s further challenged other countries’ criminalisation of homosexuality. The conversation of being gay and being from an Asian or Middle Eastern background needs to be opened up on larger platforms, with more focus on how honour-related violence can shape one’s mental health.
With Bollywood actor and activist Aamir Khan discussing LGBTQ+ issues on his television show in India, and soaps including same-sex relationships from ethnic backgrounds, it’s gradually becoming less taboo, and more openly articulated. Nonetheless, the practice of honour-related violence on the LGBTQ+ community has a long way to go as we need to broaden and educate minority communities in the UK, as well as in South Asian, and Middle Eastern countries.
“Personally for me, the more conversations that happen around these subjects the better. I have lost too many friends to suicide as they’re not allowed to be their true authentic selves,” Lucky says. “There are still so many people suffering in silence who don’t have a voice, who don’t have a choice but if we change parents perspective on how you live or let your children live, and how it shouldn’t be affected by anyone’s opinions, then can we save lives.”
For more on Lucky Roy Singh’s story, you can follow him via Instagram @luckyroysingh and Twitter @Lucky_roysingh. You can contact karmanirvana.org.uk for a direct helpline.
Featured image by Brett Sayles via Pexels CC