Kyla Pasha is one of those rare young women from the subcontinent, having embraced the F-word when so many other privileged women shy from it. “I know! I teach feminism at the university, and women run from it! Which is strange given that so many of their actions, their approach actually is feminist!” she
exclaims. She was to read from her first collection of poetry — High Noon and The Body — in Chennai, and was fitting in a few quick interviews before the audience trickled in.
But before the reading, she was talking, not so much about her writing, but rather the space she and her friend Sarah Suheil have created for the LGBT community in Pakistan. Pasha along with Suheil edits the online Chay Magazine that was launched in 2008.
“We saw how difficult it was to discuss anything about alternate sexuality, gender, and sex. Talking about the body and sex is such a taboo, it’s not really an option. So we wanted to have a space where people could talk about these things,” she says.
The magazine publishes writing in English and soon hopefully in Urdu as well. “We print whatever we want but draw the line at anything that could be considered blasphemous. Writing about atheism is something that could explode in a really bad way otherwise,” she explains. “About half our readers would be from Pakistan, the rest from the diaspora,” she says.
“The thing that really surprised us was that while so many gay people are willing and happy to write for the magazine, there have been very few heterosexual people who have come forward to write about their thoughts on sexuality,” she says, adding that most of the writers don’t even ask for their names to be changed. “The LGBT movement in Pakistan is an underground movement,” she says, and is very wary of gestures of support from the establishment.
“The High Court’s attitude for instance
is very paternalistic towards hijras…they have ordered a census of the transgender community in order to help them. Some seem to be happy about this but some are wary because the community faces mistreatment from the police and a census would just make it easier to find them,” she says. The relative acceptance of Male to Female transgenders is because, “they are still seen to be men.
The hierarchies are slanted in favour of people with a penis as opposed to people without one,” she says.
Most people’s inner struggle tends to
be with religion, Pasha points out. “Most people who are gay and muslim are forced to make a choice — either in favour of religion or their sexual identity.” Pasha, herself, an “internally devout Muslim”, however, adds, “Islam has space for a lot of things that people think it does not have space for because it is an interpretative process and people haven’t realised that yet. There is room for a lot, God forgives a lot.”
Pasha is from Islamabad, “a poor little
beleaguered city” but lives in Lahore where she teaches Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University. She studied and lived in the US where her mother, an American lives for a while but chose to come back
to Pakistan in 2006.
“Five years after 9/11, a friend who had known me for as long, said there was no reason or logic to the attack, that it had been done by mad men. And I realised I had had no effect on him in conveying the complexities of the issue. And I felt useless, so I came back to Pakistan. I grew up there. Actually I’m ridiculously Pakistani,” she grins.
But how does Pakistan view her work? “We’ll find out soon from the reactions when it comes out there,” she grins, before adding the self-effacing line that she seems to use a lot: “I’ve been shy about being a poet there
because it’s one thing to call yourself one in another country but back home everyone knows who you really are,” she smiles, though the tag “woman” poet is not one she is fond of. “I will use any label if it is useful, but I’m just a poet who happens to have a vagina!”