Kashmir- Under the vast umbrella of queerness, each individual carries a unique set of experiences, particularly influenced by their geographical and cultural context. Consider a queer individual finding their space in the city of Bangalore - their journey will differ from that of a fellow community member in Assam. Beyond this, various societal factors play a defining role in shaping one's reality.
Now, let's delve into narrative of a Kashmiri individual within the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Here, the challenges are layered; not only does one face the constraints of a conservative society and the absence of inclusive policies, but an additional layer of scrutiny from the state agencies. Queerness is about visibility and any form of scrutiny becomes a negative force. The impact intensifies when this scrutiny is taken over by the state, an agency traditionally vested with the power to dictate societal gender norms.
The Mooknayak spoke to Dr. Aijaz Ahmad Bund who is a LGBTQIA+ activist from Kashmir, about his latest work. He is the founder and Chairperson of Sonzal Welfare Trust that works for the welfare of gender and sexual minorities in the state of J&K. In order to understand the complex dynamics of the state of Kashmir in relation to queerness, our journalist had a long but serene conversation.
The first topic of dialogue was his recently published research titled ‘Unlocking Closet’. Opening about the book and the influence of religion in his work, Aijaz explained, “Unlocking Closet is a qualitative study about the livid experience of 11 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual persons living in Kashmir, carried out between 2017-2023. It begins with the discussion around Islam and homosexuality, both of which are considered antithetical to each other and tried to see the significant moments in their lives in relation to it.”
He further explained the need to study the influence of religion by stating, “Such a discussion was important to bring about the queer-sensitive interpretations of the holy text. In the popular discourse, Islam is always thought to stand against homosexuality due to its supposed stand on gender and sexual roles. However, one thing which is missing from the whole discourse is the voice of those who are living as queer Muslims. The question that we constantly try to address through our book is if it is possible to be both queer and Muslim at the same time.”
A discussion on queerness and Kashmir cannot be had without acknowledging the various intersectional identities and the role each of them play in moulding a person. But the fact that Ahmed Aijaz carries with him three intersecting identity- being queer, Muslim and a Kashmiri, definitely has an added pressure. Talking about his experiences, Aijaz revealed, “It is not just about living in Kashmir, but also the fact that Kashmir happens to be the one of the most militarized regions of the world. That makes our experience so different from that of the queer people living in other regions of the nation. There have been many instances of violence, vicious hate campaigns, physical assaults and microaggressions that unfortunately have become a part of my life. I might be one of the few openly queer persons advocating for the rights of the community in Kashmir, making me more prone to violence.”
Aijaz continued to talk about the violence one might open themselves to when they decide to be visibly queer in a militarized region such as Kashmir. He said, “there are many forms of violence. Being openly queer means a lot of control exercised by different institutions. You already seem like a threat to multiple institutions owing to your nativity. Then you are restricted from openly performing your sexuality as queer bodies are subjected to surveillance.”
Coming out of the closet to embrace one’s identity might not be an act which many Kashmiris from the community understand or would want to do. The activist very intricately details, “The overall experience of being queer is same for everyone all over the country but when it comes to coming out of the closet, the act might seem empowering to some, but it is not the case here. Coming out might seem like a ritual for almost all queers but in Kashmir, it might mean opening the pandora’s box of problems because your visibility makes you more vulnerable. This is why you will not see much visibility of queerness from this region as it might mean compromising their safety and security of themselves and their family. We as a community have been existing, whether we come out or not.”
While talking about sexuality, it is pertinent to understand that gender will also play a role in complicating one’s situation. The activist; through his study, explained “Queer Muslim women, on the other hand, have different experience than queer Muslim women. This is because they not only are the victim of homophobia, but also the victims of misogyny and direct patriarchy, resulting in multiple layers of oppression. Even at the safe spaces that we have been creating for many decades now, we see fewer female participation than male participation.”
Pink-washing, described as the practice of attempting to benefit from purported support for LGBTQ+ rights, often as a way to profit or to distract from a separate agenda, has often found its way into state-sponsored violence. Aiding that, questions regarding the relation between queerness and politics have also increased, most notably during the time of Delhi Pride March when participants carrying banners stating ‘Queers for Palestine’ were targeted on social media. Aijaz has a message for those who feel one’s identity and politics can be exclusive of each other. He said, “When you say you’re queer, your existence is political in nature. You cannot choose to be apolitical then. There is no court legitimising heterosexual unions. State has more right on us then we have on ourselves.”
The queer activist continued, “Queer Palestinians are not only facing homophobia but violence in the form of apartheid and settler-colonialism. But Israel is claiming itself to be a safe haven for LGBTQIA+ individuals. This form of ‘pink-washing’ is not only present there but happened at Kashmir too when article 370 was abrogated. A narrative was fed through the media that it is going to liberate queer Kashmiris. But homophobia is still existing and it in no way means we require a tyrannical regime to empower ourselves. Queer movements have been taken over by such regimes and many queer people have aligned themselves with such regimes, giving rise to the term- ‘homo-nationalism’.”
At the end of the long discussion, Aijaz Ahmad had a message for our readers who may be having a difficult time finding a balance between their identity and religion. He remarked, “I would like to tell my LGBTQIA+ siblings who are Muslim that you are valid and loved. Islam is not anti-queer. Read the texts yourself, know the interpretations and context of the texts to empower yourself while facing the societal narratives.”