Arming Queers/Queering the Army

Patriarchy and masculinity have historically been constructed in opposition to various categories of the feared ‘Other’ which have often been internalized and normalized into ideological subject positions. Such ‘othering’ was particularly violent in the late 19th and early 20th century in relation to the figure of the ‘homosexual’. This paper attempts to explore the nature of homosocial male-bonding in army situations, its indelible link with ideas of the nation in patriarchal society, and the perpetual anxiety regarding homoeroticism that informs such bonding. It will use the considerable research generated on the ideas of masculinity, homosociality, homoeroticism and the newly emergent and loaded category of the ‘homosexual’ in the early 20th century (concomitant with the literature of the First World War) as a framework to understand the construction of desire in the Pakistani army in Mohammad Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes and its ability to put into crisis constructs of the nation.

Leela Gandhi reiterates some propositions of Foucault and Sedgwick, arguing that sexuality, and the homosexual/heterosexual binary as we know it today, are historical constructs emerging primarily towards the latter end of the 19th century in the discussions of the psychopathology of homosexuality (in the work of pioneering sexologists like Kraft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis). These constructs solidified in the early decades of the 20th century, as Freud and post-Freudian psychoanalysis crystallized the conception of sexuality as an identity marker and homosexuality as a regressive/under-evolved/inverted state. Gandhi observes that while expansionist jingoism and cultural nationalism were at its height in the build-up to the First World War, the rigid hierarchical class and gender structure of Victorian/Edwardian society was being swiftly eroded by various phenomena including urbanization, mass industrialization and the unprecedented doubt cast on socio-religious norms that had been the backbone of a conservative society. The experience of brutalization and socio-economic overhaul in the War and encounter with strong nationalist movements in the colonies thus, resulted in a crisis in this construct of the patriarchal nation and therefore in masculinity, epitomized in army life.

With regard to the army communities in WWI, Santanu Das argues that the War allowed for the unfolding of the Victorian fantasy of a utopian male community in which the noble love of a man for other men, “(p)assing the love of women” (Das 124) was explored even as the securities of former modes of life and civilian social mores were being rapidly eroded. Thus, for the first time, all-male spaces like the public school and especially the army became a metonymy for the nation itself. However, such a masculine community is inherently unstable and must construct itself in fluid ways against different factors to sustain its illusion, not unlike the Anderson’s concept of the nation as an imagined community, needing constant and anxious propping up. It continually frames itself in relation to threats that would undermine the ‘purity’ of such male bonds, such as the emerging debate on ‘homosexuality’ and the threat of eroticism in army life.

Later, in the 1970’s, many cultural historians believed that the need for the super-male and by extension, a powerful and emblematic army was rooted in anxiety over the loss of male dominance due to emerging feminist movements as well as the US Army’s crushing defeat in the Vietnam War. In the Pakistani context, this need to hold on to the strong masculine figure was fuelled in part by the failure of West Pakistan to maintain a hold over East Pakistan in 1971 and its defeat by India, as well as by the deposition by Zia of a supposedly corrupt, effete and incompetent Bhutto administration which he claimed pandered too much to Indian interests.

However, for decades before the partition, the Muslim elite in colonial India had been concerned with the declining dominance of the Muslim male and loss of control over women’s sexuality as well as the erosion of a culture under the emasculating colonization of the British. Such anxieties were countered by a remembrance of the powerful male culture of the past through the figure of Iqbal’s ‘Mard-e-Momin’, the figure of the super-male with incredible physical and mental strength and with the power to reinvigorate a supposedly dying culture. Such a figure was increasingly operative in Zia’s militarized 1970’s Pakistan, which fuelled Islamicization by playing on the fears of the erosion of culture. Here, there is a heightened sense that the masculine/macho army (incorporating the Mard-e-Momin) stands in for the nation, a sense which is further complicated by its relations with a highly patriarchal strand of Islam.

In times of crisis, thus, this existing patriarchal status quo tends to essentialize its norm, and solidify in opposition to a created ‘Other’ or ‘Others’ in the socio-political sphere. Gandhi however argues that in such a precarious situation, various ‘Others’ are often viewed as a collective ‘Other’ or deviants and thus, political deviancy – sympathy for the plight of the colonies or for the Communist regime – was associated in the public imaginary with moral and sexual deviancy. Hence, the then infamous figure of Oscar Wilde is associated in the Victorian consciousness with effeminacy, decadence and political and social radicalism. Thus the figure of the homosexual acquires a radical political subversive significance and is used by the nation/political parties as a rallying point to preserve the status quo. Though a systematic distancing of Indian Islamic culture from the figure of the sexual deviant was already an ongoing process in pre-Independence times, I will argue that even in postcolonial Pakistan, especially during Zia’s regime when the nation was being consolidated around the idea of a patriarchal ‘political Islam’, there is a heightened sense that sexual deviancy is associated with political/religious anarchism.

The Pakistani context is further complicated by its interaction with the forces of globalization and by its close collaboration with America in its proxy war against the USSR in Afghanistan. Pakistani policies, thus, incorporated increasing Islamicization of the state and increasing religious fundamentalism, which was backed by America so as to engender the production of mujahideen to aid in the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan, therefore, had to cope with a symbolically liberal (if Conservative and rabidly homophobic under the Reagan administration) America and adjust its policies accordingly. America thus becomes both an opportunistic ally and a ‘liberal’/alien/homosexual ‘Other’ as seen in the description of the US ambassador as “a respectable homosexual businessman from small-town America” (Hanif 1). This uneasy relationship between expedient allies and its resulting friction thus also exposes abuses that the explicit figure of the homosexual has been prone to.

Hanif shows a deep awareness of the constructed link between political anarchism and sexual deviance in his text in the early 20th century which is coeval in Britain’s erstwhile colonies. This is shown, for example, in the ISI’s repeated attempts to ascertain Ali Shigri’s sexuality, with the hypothesis that his proven ‘homosexuality’ would prove his politically subversive tendencies, viz. his plan to assassinate President Zia. Thus he is asked at different points in the novel to verify the existence of a sexual relationship between Bannon and Obaid or between Obaid and himself. More importantly, a Rorschach Inkblot test is used to define Ali’s sexuality and attribute to it his supposed suicidal and subversive tendencies. Ali repeatedly identifies the threat of homosexuality and homoeroticism to any conception of an ideal male community in the army as when he sees one of the images in the test depicting ‘two penises attacking each other’, and then, for expediency’s sake, associates it with “Military Boots at ease” (Hanif 110). Most importantly, the last image of the test seems to Ali to depict “a pair of testicles placed on a block of pink ice” (Hanif 110) and tellingly, he identifies the image as ‘Mangoes’, echoing the eponymous ‘Exploding Mangoes’ of the title which are supposed to be related to the plane crash at the end. Thus, Hanif points out the anxiety immanent in any all-male patriarchal society to undercurrents which can threaten the status quo.

I will argue therefore that to expose the gaps in its construction, Hanif endows such a politically/sexually deviant trope with a positive potential through repeated use of parody, such that he both employs the stereotype of the ‘homosexual’ to political success, giving the army/nation’s subconscious fears a material form, but also questions the stereotype of the ‘homosexual’ and of ‘homosexuality’ as such. Indeed, he ends up interrogating the construction of sexuality itself, offering as a possible alternative, an understanding of the plurality of desire. I will demonstrate this by arguing that various forms of male-male relationships in the novel expose and ironize such practices of nation building.

For instance, the anxiety regarding the subversive potential of homoeroticism is reflected in a hilarious eroticized scene where President Zia is undergoing a rectal exam by a Saudi Arabian doctor. The scene is portrayed with the subtle undertones of a scene of anal intercourse and is illustrated by the doctor’s request to Zia “Birather [brother] bend please” (Hanif 82). The lines between army brotherhood or comradeship, and same-sex sexual acts are thus comically blurred. At the same time, Zia’s head is “between two flags. Pakistan’s national flag, green and white with a thin right-facing crescent, on one side and on the other side, the flag of the Pakistan Army” (Hanif 82). Such a choreographed setting points out the anxiety that homoeroticism poses to a hypermasculine army culture.

However, the most obvious and recurrent symbol of the threat of homosexuality is the fetishized body of a presumably ‘homosexual’ Obaid. Introduced in the blurb as a man who “answers all life’s questions with a splash of Eau de cologne and a quote from Rilke”, Obaid is identified not so much by himself but by his silk scarves, his passion for bottles of Poison perfume, and his silk underwear with pink hearts. Thus, although Obaid’s sexual orientation is not explicitly specified, he is stereotypically portrayed as the dandy and the effete homosexual in a Wildean tradition. I argue that the constitution of this stereotype in the novel allows us not to denigrate Obaid but to identify explicitly the threat of a ‘homosexual’ to the idea of a nation as constructed by Zia, as such a figure is repeatedly associated with politically subversive tendencies.

Thus Obaid is not a self-contained entity but an empty signifier which can be filled with many signifieds. Hence, he is frequently associated with other kinds of radicalism. For instance, Obaid is repeatedly associated with Hinduism and is one point even accused of performing Hindu worship in the army mosque when he is practicing yoga. In fact, his empty white bedspread (thereby signifying him as a fetish) is repeatedly likened to “a Hindu widow in mourning” (Hanif 42). Most tellingly and devastatingly, in the love-making scene between Ali and Obaid, we are told that Obaid’s penis is shaped in “a curve, not just a slight curve, but the semicircle of a new moon” (Hanif 164) – an obvious reference to the symbol of the crescent moon on the Pakistani flag. And indeed, finally, in the fact that Obaid’s fetishized body is in the same plane as Zia when it explodes points to the successful subversion of the coercive patriarchal political order that the queer body effects.

The question of Obaid’s specific relationship with Ali and the ways in which it threatens propagandist nation-building leads to the second part of my paper which relates to Islamic attitudes towards homosexuality in Pakistan and the Subcontinent.

Vanita and Kidwai point out that instances of same-sex sexual attraction, activity and literary conventions around them abound in pre-British Islamic cultures. Despite the Quran and the Shariah (derived in part from the hadith), most often read as explicitly condemnatory of such acts, same-sex sexual activity (and poetry around it) was seen as merely another outlet of desire and was therefore not exclusively glorified or vilified. However, with the advent of colonialism and Macaulay’s antisodomy law of 1860, the subcontinent “entered a transitional phase as older indigenous discourses of same-sex love and romantic friendship came into dialogue with the new Western legal and medical discourses of homosexuality as an abnormality or an illness” (Kidwai and Vanita 222)

Authoritarian military/religious regimes such as the ones that existed in Pakistan are characterized by systematic ‘silencing’ of marginalized groups such as queer groups resulting in their large-scale ‘invisibility.’ Considering this legacy, in a contemporary society where homosexuality is at least publicly thought of as a Western product, a ‘gay’ identity does not/is not allowed to exist. Still, same-sex sexual acts do occur and even though they are punished by law if discovered, they are more often tolerated by a society which turns a blind eye to such activities through what Steven Murray calls “the will not to know” (Kecia 85). In such a situation it is only by becoming a non-being, a non-entity that a ‘gay life’ is possible.

However such a silencing of queer groups is not absolute as hijra/kinnar and other MTF transgender groups are being increasingly recognized and granted civil rights by the Pakistani state today. Concurrently, since the late 90’s, many anti-AIDS NGOs catering to MSM populations in Pakistan have mushroomed with State support. The question therefore is why such groups and why same-sex sexual acts are incorporated within the state welfare narrative whereas ‘gay’ groups and a ‘gay’ political/sexual identity are not. Perhaps the answer lies within the construction of Islamic/Pakistani society along the principle of extreme gender segregation where heterosexual romances outside rigid social frameworks are often more difficult to carry out than male-male or female-female sexual relations. And male-male sexual relations are naturalized and condoned at least to an extent in an all-male environment such as the army in Hanif’s text where soldiers are so sexually frustrated that they have sex with holes in their mattresses. Same-sex sexual acts are therefore distilled and separated from sexual identities as they would undermine the principle of sex/gender differentiation of society. Hijra communities on the other hand would be identifiable through physical characteristics (whether congenital or induced) and their sexual dissidence codified into external identifiablity. By codifying their bodies into a ‘third sex’, they would act as discursive proof and validation for the existence of the male/female binary and the principle of segregation.

Thus, in Pakistan, if same-sex sexual activity is seen either as vice or as ‘play’, it is not seen as a marker of one’s sexual orientation. One’s ‘gay’ identity therefore does not clash with one’s religious identity because an open ‘gay identity’ does not exist, while in the army, in Hanif’s text at least, the external rituals of Islamic worship (if not internal devotion) are enforced.

In terms of Hanif’s novel and contemporary discourse on sexuality in Pakistan, I would like to argue that in the enforced absence of a ‘gay’ political identity, focus on isolated incidents of desire is actually more insidiously subversive to the status quo than would be the mere adoption of a ‘gay’ sexual identity/orientation. In the novel, where ‘the silent drill’ becomes the symbol of a fascist society which accomplishes a systematic silencing of marginal identities, I argue that the oppressive potential of silence is itself subverted by Hanif. Thus, information about sexual activity between Ali and Obaid is conveyed to the reader both sporadically and in a matter-of-fact manner without them exhibiting any internal anxiety while indulging in such forbidden acts, refusing thereby to submit desire to the test of social morality. Besides, Ali’s desire for Obaid is not privileged quantitatively over his heterosexual proclivities which is why the text offers us glimpses of Ali’s desire in relation to women too, and his resultant ‘bisexuality’ destroys the Self/Other binary of the sexuality scale. By celebrating desire (rather than merely codifying sexuality) as erupting at different moments in their lives, and focussing on the ephemerality of such moments along with a non chronological order of appearance of desire, Hanif denies the construction of an elongated timeline of sexuality which would by definition minoritize their relationship as a ‘gay’ relationship.

This is not to say that sexuality does not play its role in subversion in the novel. Indeed, Ali himself is perfectly aware of the transgressive nature of his sexual acts in a political framework and is aware of a certain external revolutionary impulse that they grant him. For a large part of the novel, however, he retains his ‘straight-actingness’ as something internal to him and projects it externally in terms of his hypermasculinity which he frequently opposes to the exaggerated ‘limp-wristed’ masculinity of Obaid which he sees as ineffectual in effecting a plan for Zia’s assassination. Finally however, both masculinities are brought to the same level when Ali realizes that he has betrayed Obaid after torture in the same way that Obaid betrayed him. His masculinity is unable to bear the burden of his expectations and its exaggerated portrayal is thus finally undercut in the novel. Internally as well, this is reflected by his words towards the end of the novel when he jocularly foists off Obaid’s advances by saying “The first rule of survival is you shall not screw thy saviour” (Hanif 238). However the irony with which he infuses his words and the attribution of the ‘active’ term ‘screw’ to Obaid, indicates that Ali also adopts a sexually receptive position in their relationship. Thus towards the end of the novel, the usual binaries of masculine/feminine roles and positions are themselves subverted in favour of the non-categorizing plurality of desire/love. Therefore, finally, their relationship spills over the terms which seek to categorize and anatomize it, incorporating and going beyond the pre-colonial and colonial discourses on sexuality, while undermining the rigid process of nation-building.

Summarily thus, it is significant that the novel is not primarily read as a ‘Queer’ novel but rather its ‘Queerness’ has been incorporated into a general political radicalism which questions in a multi-pronged decentered manner the ideological nature of the patriarchal stronghold of the nation.


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Rovel Sequeira is a student of Literature; he graduated with an English (Hons.) degree from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. He is currently pursuing a Masters in English Literature from St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. His current areas of research are concomitant with his passions in the domain of Queer theory and literature, particularly in its applications in the Indian Sub-continent. He may be contacted at



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