Sexual orientation, religion, family pressure, freedom of choice, and discrimination. These are just some of the issues we discussed with Wajahat Abbas Kazmi, a filmmaker and young Pakistani Amnesty International activist in Italy.
You moved to Italy at the age of 14 and are now 31. Can you tell us about this experience?
I moved to Italy in 1999 with my parents and the rest of my family. They decided on the move very quickly. I thought it would be a short vacation, but we ended up living in Brescia. My family is middle class, Shiite Muslim and pretty religious (my father was president of the Shiite mosque). I tried to blend in with this environment, even though I often argued with my parents over some choices of independence that my sister and I made. In 2006, she and I were the only two Pakistanis who publicly condemned the murder of Hina Saleem, a young woman in Brescia killed by her own relatives because she refused to follow the Pakistani community’s traditional behavioral codes.
Even though I was sure of my sexuality at a young age, I had no role models or examples of gay couples to look up to, so I accepted my family’s pressure for an arranged marriage and was engaged to a cousin. I felt like I had no other choice, I had no way to get out of it. I did, however, try to put off the wedding for as long as I could.
Meanwhile, I was getting more and more interested in the film industry. I took some courses in filmmaking and went back to Pakistan in 2009 to work as a director’s assistant. It was there that I discovered the LGBT community (in fact, it was there that I heard the term LGBT for the first time). I met gay couples and discovered many things I had never known in Italy. However, my family disapproved of my work in cinema and television, and they assumed it was just a phase that I would get over.
In 2011, I made a feature film called “The Dusk” about missing persons in Pakistan, which created quite a bit of controversy. I produced “The Blue Veins” and the following year “Massage for God”. In 2014, I produced “Fatwa – The Final Verdict”, a film exploring the reasons for the increase in religiously motivated terrorism in the world, and especially in Pakistan, and fundamentalist persecution of Shiite and Christian minorities. Censorship and threats blocked the film’s release and I was forced to return to Italy.
At that point, it was clear to me that my passions in life had nothing to do with an arranged marriage. I came out to my parents (over the phone since they had gone back to Pakistan). I told them that I was not attracted to women, that I was not going to get married and that I wanted to lead a different sort of life. They said that homosexuality was a disease and that I needed treatment. Even though the engagement with my cousin was called off, they never stopped looking for another wife for me.
Becoming an Amnesty International activist gave me the courage to come out and break cultural taboos about being gay. Last year there were a lot of demonstrations and a public controversy in Italy about the proposed civil partnership law for same-sex couples. There was a demonstration in Milan and I decided to bring a rainbow sign that said “Allah Loves Equality”!
Where did this idea come from and what consequences have there been?
I wanted to give LGBT Muslims a voice. I wanted the unite two things, homosexuality and Islam, that are usually kept completely separate. Deep down, I was afraid – not about what I was doing but that I would get beat up by someone, especially by a fellow Muslim. I thought the sign would lead to just a few pictures on Facebook. Then, in addition to criticism, ridicule and insults, I also got some compliments and requests for interviews! I decided I would bring my sign to the Milan Gay Pride parade, which I did, all by myself. I kept it up and this year there was a group of ten of us with signs. And not just in Milan, we also went to Rome and Brescia.
Fighting for human rights and going out in the streets against violence is something that is now ingrained in me. I chose the word “Equality” because I believe it is fundamental for us to accept people for who they are and to refuse all types of violence, not just that against the LGBT community.
The most amazing thing is to see Muslims discussing the issue of homosexuality and Islam. Perhaps the majority may still be critical, but it’s important to start talking about it and to make it no longer a taboo topic. I want young, second generation Muslims here to have a choice, an alternative, which is something that I did not have at their age.
Let’s talk about your current documentary film project
Yes, “Allah loves Equality” is no longer just an awareness raising campaign, it is now becoming a documentary on LGBT discrimination in Pakistan. Pakistan is one of the most homophobic countries in the world and it is currently experiencing a growing trend of fundamentalism. The film will tell the stories of LGBT Pakistani, as well as stories of many faithful Muslims (doctors, journalists, human rights activists) who, in the name of their faith, stand up to intolerance and religious fanaticism every day with courage. It will tell stories of tolerance, of struggles against fundamentalism and discrimination and explore non-homophobic interpretations of Islamic texts, like the Quran and the Sunnah.
“Allah Loves Equality” is an initiative created within the “Grande Colibrì”,, an activist project on the rights of sexual minorities in the south of the world. The project was developed with both Italian and international individuals and associations, thanks to the support of Fondo Samaria, Arcigay Gioconda in Reggio Calabria and Progetto Gionata, in addition to other organizations.
Our first crowdfunding campaign raised 1,200 euros. We are now aiming at raising 6,000 euros by the end of July. Please make a contribution here: http://sostieni.link/14720.
In spite of differences in culture, religion, sexual orientation and nationality, what do you think unites us as human beings?
Emotions. They are the same all over.
Translation from Italian by Peter Luntz