History revisited

Orlando shooting: It’s different now, but Muslims have a long history of accepting homosexuality

Muslim societies have ignored their own history of accepting homosexuality, latching on to a twisted colonial legacy instead.

Days after Omar Mateen went on a shooting spree inside a gay nightclub in the United States on Sunday, killing at least 49 people, clues to his possible motivations are emerging.

Mateen had boasted of links to the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda as well as Hezbollah. While all three groups are well-known West Asian insurgents, they are also at war with one another and represent widely differing theological views. US investigators said that Mateen did not seem to understand the distinction between the groups – a point that makes it difficult to square with the charge of Islamist terror that was considered in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

Mateen was killed by the police on Sunday after he opened fire at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, in a tragedy that was among the deadliest mass shootings in American history.

The 29-year-old was reportedly a regular at Pulse and even used a gay dating app. Reports of him having asked men out have surfaced over the last few days, with his ex-wife claiming she believed he was gay. She also said that Mateen’s father, an immigrant from Afghanistan, had mocked him for his sexual orientation. One of the first statements made by Mateen’s father after the shooting was, in fact, that homosexuals can be punished by God.

Stigmatising homosexuality

Could the attack, then, have been driven by Mateen’s sexual orientation and the shame associated with homosexuality amongst Muslims today – rather than Islamist terror? “Transgressive sexuality and conservative religion can be a toxic mix,” writes David Shariatmadari in the Guardian. “If Mateen felt conflicted about his interest in gay men, it could have been because he believed his faith would condemn him for it”.

While a clear motive is yet to be established, it is a fact that modern Muslim societies condemn and shame homosexuality. In most Islamic countries, Muslims cannot come out as gay without risking stigma and bodily harm.

It is, however, important to point out how recent this homophobia is. For much of history, Muslim societies have been incredibly permissive of same-sex love.

Golden Age

At the height of the Islamic Golden Age – a period from the mid-8th century to the mid-13th century when Islamic civilisation is believed to have reached its intellectual and cultural zenith – homosexuality was openly spoken and written about. Abu Nuwas (756-814), one of the great Arab classical poets during the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, wrote publicly about his homosexual desires and relations. His homoerotic poetry was openly circulated right up until the 20th century.

Nuwas was an important historical figure – he even made a couple of appearances in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (known in Urdu as Alif Laila). It was only as late as 2001 that Arabs started to blush at Nuwas’ homoerotism. In 2001, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, under pressure from Islamic fundamentalists, burnt 6,000 volumes of his poetry.

Most modern Muslims, therefore, have little knowledge of what the Islamic Golden Age was really about, even though they keep on wanting to go back to it.

“ISIS have no idea what restoring the Caliphate actually means," a tweet by Belgian-Egyptian journalist Khaled Diab said. "In Baghdad, it’d involve booze, odes to wine, science... and a gay court poet.”

Baghdad was, till the time the Mongols invaded and destroyed it, the cultural capital of much of the world – the New York City of its time. If Nuwas and his homoerotic poetry could represent the height of Baghdadi culture, it is natural that other Muslim societies would also be quite open to homosexuality. As historian Saleem Kidwai puts in the fabulous book Same-Sex Love in India, “Homoerotically inclined men are continuously visible in Muslim medieval histories and are generally described without pejorative comment.”

Writing on same-sex love

In fact, far from being pejorative, Muslim societies once openly spoke of same-sex love, even celebrating it at times. Mahmud of Ghazni, a towering sultan of his time (971-1030), was actually held up as an ideal for, among other things, deeply loving another man, Malik Ayaz.

Mughal Emperor Babur wrote of his attraction to a boy in the camp bazaar in his 16th-century autobiography – a celebrated work of literature in the medieval Muslim world.

In the 18th century, Dargah Quli Khan, a nobleman from the Deccan travelling to Delhi, wrote a fascinating account of the city called the Muraqqa-e-Dehli (The Delhi Album), which described just how mundane homosexuality was in Indo-Islamic society. At the public bazaars, male prostitutes solicited openly and Khan spoke admiringly of how “young good-looking men danced everywhere and created great excitement”.

Till the 19th century, Muslims treated homosexuality as a part and parcel of life, so much so that students were exposed to romantic stories of homosexual love – a position untenable even today across parts of the Western word. Kidwai writes:

Sadi’s classic Gulistan, containing stories of attraction between men, was considered essential reading for Persian students. Ghanimat’s Nau rang-i ishq, a seventeenth century masnavi describing the love affair between the poet’s patron’s son and his beloved Shahid, was a prescribed text in schools.

Islamic law

Of course, theologically, Islam did consider homosexuality to be sinful, based on the Quranic story of the people of Lut (Lot in the Bible). Interestingly, though, the Shariat, the umbrella term for the various legal codes and schools governing Muslim societies, have no punishment for homosexualty per se – sexual relations between men are outlawed under the larger rubric of adultery. Even then, convictions for homosexuality could only be carried out if the sexual act was testified to by four eye witnesses. This was such a high bar that commentators on Islam such as Hamza Yusuf have characterised the outlawing of homosexuality in the Shariat as a sort of “legal fiction”. Indeed, unlike medieval Europe, instances of homosexuals being punished are rare in medieval Muslim societies.

So what caused Muslim societies to go from coolly reading homoerotic poetry to outlawing and stigmatising same-sex love? It’s tough to nail down an exact reason but here’s an interesting coincidence: there are five Muslims countries where being gay isn’t a crime. All that the five – Mali, Jordan, Indonesia, Turkey and Albania – share in common is that they were never colonised by the British.

Colonial influence

In 1858, in fact, the Ottoman Empire decriminalised homosexuality (a status inherited by Turkey). This was two years before the British Raj created the Indian Penal Code, Section 377 of which proceeded to outlaw homosexuality in modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

So deep was the influence of the 1860 penal code in India that conservative Hindus continue to hold homosexuality to be immoral and in the nearly 70 years since Independence, Parliament has not been able to overturn the law. Subramanian Swamy, Member of Parliament from the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party even went so far as to claim: “Our party position has been that homosexuality is a genetic disorder." This is near-bizarre given that Hinduism, unlike Islam or Christianity, does not even have any textual condemnation of same-sex love.

It appears as though Muslim (and Hindu) conservatives, without knowing it, are actually copying the Victorian mores of 19th century colonialism, while ignoring their own history. This at a time when even Western European cultures have pulled up their socks and gone on to ensure that human rights are available to their people irrespective of random externalities such as the gender they happen to be attracted to.

Note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly mentioned that Mali, Jordon, Indonesia, Turkey and Albania were never colonised rather than the fact that they were never colonised by the British. The error has been rectified.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.