Zuhail (50) fled Pakistan in 2005. He never went back. “It is not safe for LGBTQIA+ people because of the law against homosexuality”. This is the story of Zuhail. Looking for more courage.
Homosexuality is not accepted in Pakistan. There is even a law against homosexuality. Article 377 of the law states that “carnal handling against the natural order” is punishable, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. That provision only applies to sexual intercourse between men. Then there is also Section 4. This law states that intercourse outside of marriage is punishable, based on the principles of Sharia. Since non-heterosexual marriages are not legally recognized in Pakistan, all same-sex sexual intercourse is outside of marriage and thus prohibited. The punishment? Death by stoning for married people, or 100 lashes on the back for unmarried people.
“From childhood I knew I was only interested in boys. But I never told anyone. Only my best friend from school knew. I didn’t even know the word gay”
In 2002, Zuhail worked in Pakistan as a digital programmer for a TV station. Seven months later, he got a job offer at a Pakistani TV channel in Thailand. He was 30 years old. At the time, his parents tried to arrange a marriage for him. And he saw that job was an opportunity to avoid that. So Zuhail moved to Thailand, where he worked for almost three years. The first two years went well. But then Zuhail met Hazeem, a Pakistani man who worked for another TV station. They became friends. But after a while Zuhail wanted more. He began to fall in love with Hazeem. But he didn’t dare to tell, as much as he wanted to. He was scared. So he kept it a secret to himself.
He was scared. So he kept it a secret to himself.
Eight months later, Zuhail gathered his courage and told Hazeem about his feelings. Hazeem was shocked. He got angry and left. Not the response Zuhail expected. But he wasn’t surprised either. The next day, at work, Hazeem came to him. “I never want to see you here again. Now go away and never come back. If you don’t, I’ll tell everyone about you“. Zuhail felt threatened. He was so afraid that he immediately resigned and returned to Pakistan. He didn’t know where else to go. Once at home, Zuhail went to his best friend. He told him about what had happened in Thailand. His best friend advised him: “You cannot stay here, Zuhail. First, your parents will try to arrange a marriage now that you’re back. Second, what if you will have the same problems as in Thailand in the future? It’s dangerous for you, and your family”. At that point, Zuhail decided to flee to Europe.
No one knew he was gay, especially in Pakistan. He never told anyone.
In 2005, Zuhail arrived in Belgium. He was 33 years old. He immediately applied for asylum and subsequently stayed temporarily in a refugee camp in Brussels. He then went to an asylum center in Kapellen where he stayed for two months. Afterwards, when he received a preliminary positive decision from the Immigration Department, he moved to the center of Antwerp. A final decision was not possible at that time, as there was little evidence that he fled from danger because of his sexuality. It was difficult to demonstrate. No one knew he was gay, accept for Hazeem and his best friend. He never told anyone else. But the preliminary decision was already a step in the right direction. Zuhail could finally start a new life. Yet he was still afraid to tell others about his sexuality. Especially people from the Pakistani community. The first year he lived in Antwerp, only his social worker and his lawyer knew that he was gay.
He was afraid to be seen by people in his community.
Every month, Zuhail went to the town hall to get a stamp on his alien card. Once he saw a brochure on the table in the waiting room, about the various LGB organizations in Antwerp. He hesitated at first, but – sure no one could see him – took the brochure and put it in the inside pocket of his coat. Zuhail was lonely. He wanted to get to know people who would understand him. People like him. But he was still afraid to take steps on his own. So he decided to ask his social worker for advice. And he did, at the next appointment he had with her. “Which one do you think is best for me?” She referred him to Viche and House Rose. Zuhail got an appointment with the coordinator of the organization Viche. He went there. After the conversation, the coordinator told him that every Sunday there is a social gathering for LGBTQIA+ refugees. They go for a walk together, for example, to the cinema or to a cafe. He asked Zuhail to come along. Zuhail hesitated at first. He was afraid to be seen by people in his community. But he decided to go anyway.
They agreed to meet at 1 pm the following Sunday. At half past one Zuhail was already there. Half an hour early. But he didn’t go in yet and stayed on a distance. Out of fear. Moments later, he saw other people approaching. Zuhail felt more tension build up in him. He doubted: to enter or to leave? Pacing in front of the building, he tried to make a choice.
“What if someone recognizes me? What if I see people from my community ?”
1 pm. The group is about to leave, but Zuhail was still walking in circles, full of doubt and fear. Not knowing what to do. After ten minutes, the coordinator called him. “Zuhail, are you still coming today?”, “Yes, I’m already there. I’ll be with you in a minute”. He hung up and was a bit ashamed that he had been standing in front of the building for so long. But the fear was still there : “What if someone recognizes me? What if I see people from my community?” he thought to himself. But he had to go in now. He’d told the dispatcher he was there already. Mind at zero and he went inside.
The longer they walked in group, the more comfortable he began to feel.
It was Zuhail’s first time meeting other LGBTQIA+ people. They walked in group through the city. At first Zuhail was still scared and shy. But the longer they walked, the more comfortable he began to feel. “Would you like to join us at the gay pride in Brussels in May?” the organizer asked Zuhail during the walk. “Yes, that is good” Zuhail replied without hesitation. So, in May, Zuhail walked his first pride with the group. He felt so strong that he didn’t even care about the people who saw him there. He didn’t even care if people from the Pakistani community saw him there. Walking together in a group gave him courage. He even gave an interview for television.
He also felt more courageous, having spent so much time with others who understood him.
In July 2006, Zuhail started volunteering for the House Rose. It was summer. His task was to stand at Groenplaats for a few days, provide information about LGBTQIA+ and House Rose and answer people’s questions. One day one of his neighbors passed by, a young Pakistani man. He greeted Zuhail and asked what he was doing. “Oh, just volunteering”. Zuhail replied. When Zuhail came home that evening, his neighbor came up to him and confronted him. “Are you gay?” Zuhail was startled at first and felt fear. But on the other hand, he also felt more courageous, having spent so much time with others who understood him. “Yes”. This was the first time he admitted it to someone from the Pakistani community. He was no longer afraid. His neighbor didn’t seem shocked. “I still respect you, I have no problem with you. But try to hide it from other people because not everyone will respect you in our community”.
Being open about his sexuality became easier for him after the first time he admitted it to his neighbor. But, as his neighbor warned him, this was not taken well by everyone.
In the years that followed, Zuhail went monthly to House Rose in Antwerp. Within time he got more and more courageous. Being open about his sexuality became easier for him after the first time he admitted it to his neighbor. But, as his neighbor warned him, this was not taken well by everyone.
He had too much courage to be afraid.
Zuhail always put his shoes outside his apartment, in the common hall. He always did that. It was a habit. But one day they were gone. Stolen, he says. So he bought new shoes and didn’t leave them outside his apartment anymore. Until one day he forgot and had put his shoes – from an automatism of the past – in the hallway. His shoes were gone again. But his old shoes, which had been stolen before, were placed there instead. There was a letter in one of the shoes, with threats and insults. It was not clear from whom the letter came. But it didn’t do much to Zuhail. He had too much courage to be afraid.
In 2007, Zuhail’s younger brother, who worked for a Manchester TV channel, saw his interview from gay pride. He immediately called his older brother, who lived in Pakistan and worked for a political party, to tell him the news. It wasn’t until a year later that the older brother asked Zuhail about the video. Zuhail told his brother that he was gay. For the first time, he came out for a family member. At first his older brother was calm. He told Zuhail he would help him. “You must marry a girl. I will take you to a doctor to get you back to normal”. Zuhail told him he was fine and refused his so-called help. His brother became angry: “Then you should never come back to Pakistan, you will get our family in trouble. If you ever come back, I will personally arrange for you to be arrested”.
Zuhail’s brother, of course, also feared his reputation as a politician. Then his brother sent messages and voice messages, saying the same things as in the phonecall. Hoping that Zuhail would change his mind anyway. But he didn’t. So was it good for nothing? No. Finally he had proof. With his brother’s threatening messages, he went to the Immigration Department to complete his file. Moments later, after years of waiting, he got a final decision. Zuhail was recognized as a refugee.
Zuhail has two Facebook accounts, one for his friends in Belgium and one for his family in Pakistan. He still has to hide his identity.
To this day, Zuhail never went back to Pakistan. Other than his two brothers, none of his family knows he is gay. He even has two Facebook accounts, one for his friends in Belgium and one for his family in Pakistan. He still has to hide his identity. But still Zuhail gets more and more courage. To hopefully one day have the strength to go back to his motherland and visit his family.