Joyland: A Gender Rebellions


Following criticism from conservative Islamic organizations, which deemed the film’s portrayal of a romantic relationship between a man and a transgender to be “repugnant to the norms of decency and morality” and “highly objectionable material which does not conform with the social values and moral standards of our society,” the Pakistani government banned the movie ‘Joyland’ which was scheduled for domestic release this week. The movie, which was officially submitted as Pakistan’s entry for best foreign feature film at the Oscars, tells the tale of Haider, a young married man from a middle-class family in Lahore who joins an erotic dance theatre and falls in love with Biba, a transgender performer. Soon after the notification went viral and the realization hit that a film must have a minimum of one week of theatrical release in its own nation in order to be eligible for this category, a social media outcry was ignited by numerous celebrities and members of progressive, liberal circles, demanding the release of Joyland across the country.

Joyland: Amid Accolades and Controversy

Among the voices expressing discontent over the decision was the director of Joyland, Saim Sadiq, who hails from Lahore and attended Columbia University School of the Arts in New York for his Master of Fine Arts degree. In a lengthy message in response to the ban posted on his Instagram account, Sadiq stated that his team was devastated by this development but fully intended to speak out against the “grave injustice.” Asserting that the film was banned after being cleared by all three censor boards in August due to “baseless rumors” and “complaints from a few individuals” that have trumped the rule of law and the system, he pleaded with the government to restore citizens’ rights to watch the movie that has made “their country’s cinema proud the world over.” Yet another opponent was Sarwat Gilani, a member of the cast, who said in a string of distressing tweets with the hashtag #ReleaseJoyland that Pakistani authorities were caving in to pressure from some “malicious people” who haven’t even seen the movie.

Initially, Joyland was thought of as an arthouse movie with themes involving “desire,” “seeking love, and “wanting to be able to define” oneself as fundamental emotions.

Set in Lahore, Joyland purportedly investigates the taboos surrounding the relationship that forms between Biba, a transgender attempting to pursue a profession as an erotic dancer, and Haider, a member of a traditional household. Much to the dismay of his father and older brother, a third daughter is born to Haider’s sister-in-law. Married but without children, Haider discovers through the passage of the film that his ideas about masculinity are being challenged and significantly altered when he meets Biba, who has struggled with gender identity issues.

Sadiq claims that he was aware that a social issue movie would be perfectly suited for Joyland, but he had been struggling with it from the beginning. Asserting that there was nothing wrong with such films and that they shouldn’t be viewed as social issue films just because they feature a trans character, he added that instead of attempting to transform the world, the film sought to comprehend the diverse subjective experiences of people and their conflicting desires. Who’s to say which is more important? Sadiq asks rhetorically, citing the movie as being about the conflict between morality and one’s personal desires.

One of the film’s producers is Apoorva Guru Charan, a Columbia University alumnus who has lived in India, Singapore, and America. After they graduated, Sadiq was working on “Darling” and his scriptwriting, while Charan was in Los Angeles pursuing a career in producing. “The day that Saim submitted his first draft in screenwriting class, I said, could I produce this film?” recalled Charan. The duo looked at other South Asian films as analogous only in terms of the market, including “The Lunchbox” and “Masaan,” which gained audiences outside of South Asia, after observing that there was an audience for the movie but it wasn’t very strategic. They initially thought of Joyland as an arthouse movie before realizing it could cater to a larger audience. They claim that despite the movie’s three identities—South Asian, arthouse, and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer) diaspora—the character development is so in-depth that it appears quite universal even on paper. Owing to the film’s themes involving such fundamental emotions as “desire,” “seeking love, and “wanting to be able to define” oneself, many of “our investors who have never been to Pakistan were still very much able to connect with the film,” stated Charan.

Surprisingly, at a time when another Pakistani film, “The Legend of Maula Jutt,” is enjoying a successful theatrical release in cinemas all over the world but India, “Joyland” caused a stir at the famous Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF), which held its 11th edition this year in India.

“In these divisive times, it is worth pondering over the many commonalities between our two countries—our failings included—as are reflected in this wonderfully sensitive chronicle of friendship and love.”

Anna M.M. Vetticad on Firstpost at the movie’s Indian premiere.

Accordingly, Joyland was awarded the independently sponsored “Queer Palm Award,” granted to films chosen to be LGBTQ-relevant and entered into the Cannes Film Festival. The accolade, which comes from films nominated or submitted under the categories of “Official Selection,” “Uncertain Regard,” “International Critics’ Week,” “Directors’ Fortnight,” and the “ACID” section, honors a movie for how it handles LGBTQ themes.

Meanwhile, Jamaat-e-Islami party Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan is reported by Al Jazeera to have claimed that the film Joyland deals with a subject that has no place in an Islamic country like Pakistan. Due to its religious significance in the nation, he also took issue with the protagonist’s Muslim name, “Haidar,” as well as the movie’s glorification of a “male love affair.” Declaring that cultural terrorism is a growing trend in Pakistan, he cited cultural norms and the institution of marriage as targets of the film.

Art, and the Power of Suggestion – A Case of Joyland

The vast majority of artists concur, as in the case of dissenters over the censorship of Joyland, that there are no boundaries to art. However, morality and art are frequently linked in provocative and upsetting art. Depending on what is portrayed, such work stirs up the viewer’s or the artist’s personal opinions, values, and morals. Controversies about the rights of artistic freedom or how society perceives art may arise in response to works that appear to pursue or strongly convey a message. The evaluation of artistic creations is influenced by the values held by society at a particular moment in history. When it comes to art and ethics, the relationship between the artist and society is entwined and occasionally at odds. Art is subject to moral evaluation since it is subjective. It is most at stake when society lacks the historical background or comprehension of art necessary to value a work’s aesthetics or content. Throughout history, the public and those in positions of influence in religion or politics have given significant thought to ethics. Today, for many artists, the platform from which to create and convey the message through formal qualities and the medium is the first and most important priority, not ethics.

Nevertheless, there must be some comprehension on both sides of this visual conversation between the artist and society. The public has to recognize that artistic freedom of expression fosters excellence and that artists must be sensitive to and accepting of the attitudes of the general public. In this way, art and ethics require that artists employ their cognitive abilities to produce genuine expressive representations or communicate psychological meaning. This kind of work requires the audience’s ability to be moved by a variety of sentiments from the artist. Artists give their audiences an accurate reflection of their own moral or ethical sensibility as they are creating, capturing, and interpreting it for them.

Additionally, imagery thrives on the phenomenon known as “the power of suggestion.” It is a crucial component of psychology since it affects how an idea is communicated to a person and how that idea matures into reality.

In regards to the more general subject of whether homosexuality should be tolerated or rejected by society, a Pew Research Center survey indicated significant regional variation. According to a public opinion poll conducted in 39 countries, homosexuality is widely accepted in North America, the European Union, and much of Latin America, but it is also widely derided in countries with a large Muslim population, in Africa, in some regions of Asia, and in Russia. There are divergent views on whether homosexuality is acceptable in Bolivia, Poland, and Israel. The public continues to be among the least accepting of homosexuality in Africa and countries with a majority of Muslims. At least 90% of people in Nigeria (98%), Senegal (96%), Ghana (96%), Uganda (96%), and Kenya (90%) in sub-Saharan Africa agree that homosexuality should not be tolerated by society. Even in South Africa, where homosexual actions are legal and discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal, in contrast to many other African nations, 61% believe that homosexuality should not be embraced by society, while only 32% agree. Majorities in the mostly Muslim nations surveyed, including 97% in Jordan, 95% in Egypt, 94% in Tunisia, 93% in the Palestinian territories, 93% in Indonesia, 87% in Pakistan, 86% in Malaysia, 80% in Lebanon, and 78% in Tunisia, agree that homosexuality should be rejected.

Given the obvious predisposition of the Pakistani public toward illicit or explicit notions of homosexuality, it is difficult to understand the liberal wing’s insistence on the distribution of the movie, Joyland, in relatively more accessible cinemas rather than over-the-top media platforms.

The Mainstreaming of LGBTQ in Film

Since the commencement of the film industry more than 100 years ago, there have been representations of queer and transgender people onscreen; however, because of varying levels of censorship, their onscreen representation has a long, convoluted, and frequently coded history. In the earliest popular Hollywood movies, gay characters were frequently exploited for laughs or weren’t outright identified as queer, but a brief relaxation of German film production laws in the early 20th century allowed for LGBTQ movies like “Different from the Others” and “Mädchen in Uniform.”

For three decades in Hollywood, the rigorous Hays Code prohibited depictions of homosexuality in movies, which resulted in a plethora of villains with queer inclinations. Gay filmmakers like Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulous, and Curtis Harrington helped to establish the experimental, avant-garde film scene in the 1940s. These independent, low-budget films were produced without the assistance of commercial film studios, and they frequently featured subjects deemed too sensitive for mainstream filmmaking. This experimental film movement was known as “underground film” by the 1960s. This culture had a significant impact on the homoeroticism themes that would subsequently be used in mainstream commercial movies.

After that, LGBT people appeared more frequently in melancholy tales like “The Children’s Hour” from 1961. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film rating system was introduced in 1968 to replace the Hays Code. This voluntary rating system was developed to assist parents in choosing family-friendly movies for their children. Queer camp in the 1970s witnessed a spike in popularity with the rising prominence of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and the films of John Waters, even though LGBTQ representation remained scarce during the following few decades.

Gay and lesbian film festivals started to appear in the 1970s and 1980s, providing an avenue for people to watch LGBTQ characters and stories.

Gay and lesbian filmmakers began experimenting with narrative style around this time. As independent LGBTQ films proliferated in the early 1990s, B. Ruby Rich, a cinema scholar, and LGBTQ activist coined the phrase “New Queer Cinema” to describe it. The New Queer Cinema movement gave American millennial LGBTQ independent filmmakers—many of whom were gay—a space to express their openness to themes around gay identity and politics by telling fluid, sympathetic tales about queer people. The year 2017 saw the first LGBTQ film, “Moonlight”, win the Best Picture Oscar. Thus, the emerging acceptance of LGBTQ characters and themes in mainstream media was a consequence of Hollywood’s appropriation of the new LGBTQ storytelling potential, eventually transcending into the more traditionally inclined regions of South Asia.

The War of Narratives

While the indignation is relatively more pronounced considering that Joyland received the coveted jury prize at Cannes Film Festival this year, it is neither the first nor possibly the last of instances where the liberal quarters of society have taken umbrage at the views of the conservatives, and the leverage they enjoy in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. A similar debate arose when Dr. Mehrub Moiz Awan, a transgender rights advocate and social media celebrity, was barred from a TEDxISL (International School Lahore) panel in August, a decision he derided as “transphobic.” Furthermore, the controversy over the subject gathered momentum when Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani submitted the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) (Amendment) Bill, 2022, to the pertinent standing committee for deliberation in September to find a consensus on the issue.

In order to give legal recognition to transgender people and ensure that discrimination against them in all spheres of life will be criminalized, the National Assembly passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act in 2018. Years prior, the Supreme Court’s decision on September 25, 2012, that eunuchs were entitled to all of the rights safeguarded by the Constitution and enjoyed by other members of society resulted in the formulation of the statute. However, some religious factions have since opined that because of the law’s ambiguous terminology, homosexuality is granted legal immunity.

Contextually, there have been various ways in which “transgender” identity is defined and understood in Pakistan. “Khwaja Sira” is an umbrella term that refers to all gender-variant identities, often regarded as the “third gender.” There are few, if any, discussions about transgender people and their situations because topics like sexual orientation and gender identity are traditionally considered taboo.

Even though the third gender is now legally acknowledged, there is little popular distinction between transgender and intersex people.

In this context, the Senate bill sought to amend the definitions of gender expression and gender identity. The measure is reportedly intended to redefine what a “transgender” person is and seeks revisions in a number of other sub-sections with the objective of eliminating references to the “self-perceived” gender identities of transgender people.

Intersex or Transgender?

Intersex is regarded as a sub-category of transgender in Pakistan’s Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, which employs a broad definition of transgender. As an intersex, as defined by Islamic law, cannot be equated to transgender, it serves as a symbol of terminology ambiguity and their overlap. A research paper titled Islamic Bioethical Perspectives on Gender Identity for Intersex Patients, which was published in August 2020 by Dr. Nasir Malim and Dr. Aasim Padela, the Director of the Initiative on Islam and Medicine at the University of Chicago, can be referred to better comprehend the difference. It illustrates how intersex patients’ medical needs might be addressed in modern medicine by prioritizing an Islamic lens above a secular-liberal one. It is critical to comprehend exactly what the terms “intersex” and other related terminology used in numerous fields denote. The Intersex Society of North America provides a useful definition of the condition as a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of male or female.

Of particular importance to this discussion is the term khunthā, a term analogous to intersex used globally in Islamic legal context as well as scholarly discourse. The paper defines intersex, or ‘khuntha’, as those born with morphological ambiguity: either with both male and female physical attributes, or a total absence of genitalia. It does this by citing one of the most well-known fiqh scriptures of the Hanafi madhab. A fatwa that summarizes these concepts argues that when a person exhibits both masculine and female bodily traits, we should determine which is more pronounced in his instance. It is acceptable to treat him medically in order to clarify his masculinity if he has a preponderance of masculine traits. It is acceptable to treat her medically if she has a multitude of feminine traits in order to dispel any doubt regarding her gender. Given that this is a medical condition and that the goal of treatment, whether hormone therapy or surgery, is to heal the ailment, not to alter Allah’s creation.

Unfortunately, numerous people in favor of the liberties of gender identity and expression cite this fiqhi recognition of intersex people as ‘proof’ that Islamic law upholds modern gender and sexual norms. Or, on the basis of self-referential identification, restorative practices are comparable to transitioning from male to female or vice versa. These comparisons are invalid because the former focuses on “clarifying the sex” and the latter on “changing it.” Instead of first establishing oneself in Islamic theology, usul al-fiqh, and fiqh, making such an argument is part of a progressive approach that mistakenly adopts secular liberal norms as accurate and imposes flawed exemptions onto Islamic regulations.

Pakistan: On Inclusion and Discrepancies

Interestingly, while all opposition to such liberties with no basis in Islam is dismissed by the liberal wing as transphobic, some members of the misappropriated “transgender” community in Pakistan have also spoken out against the statute that was enacted four years ago to protect them and have claimed that the clerics’ argument against it is legitimate, arguing that the Transgender Protection Act should be repealed since it was passed at the behest of foreign sponsors and that the rights given to transgender people under Sharia are sufficient. It is also worthy of note here that eunuchs were revered and regarded as trusted confidants of emperors during the Mughal empire’s 16th and 17th centuries, and they were frequently employed as royal servants and bodyguards—a far cry from the discrimination now accorded to them in South Asia. Even in western circles, from where the discourse on sexual freedoms is largely disseminated, the debate on LGBTQ inclusion and the rationale for it has not yet been settled.

For instance, in June of this year, the world governing organization for swimming, FINA (Fédération internationale de natation), decided to ban transgender swimmers from elite women’s competitions, promising instead to form a working group to develop an “open” category for them. The subject of transgender rights has gained significant traction as sports, in particular, try to strike a balance between inclusivity and preventing undue advantages. Moreover, transgender rights organizations have been denounced for being misled into thinking that everyone who self-identifies as a woman has a legal right to access women’s places. This not only eliminates the possibility of women using male-free areas without their consent, but goes against accepted global standards; which acknowledge that having single-sex facilities available improves females’ safety, dignity, and privacy.

Establishment of Boundaries

Following backlash from quarters against the ban, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, on Tuesday, established an eight-person committee to investigate claims that the movie, Joyland violated moral and social standards and make recommendations for further action. The committee included—not any religious cleric—but the minister for political affairs and economic affairs and law and justice chairperson, minister for information and broadcasting, minister for communications, minister for the board of investment, minister for information technology and telecommunications, adviser to the PM on Gilgit-Baltistan, PTA (Pakistan Telecommunication Authority) chairman and PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) chairman.

The committee has since concluded that some scenes needed to be cut from the final product and has decided to clear the film Joyland for release.

Regardless, in light of the many discrepancies in what precisely granting such freedoms would entail, it is barely conceivable that a country like Pakistan can either afford or ideologically allow this particular brand of liberal ideologies to take root in society, by mainstreaming the discourse under the garb of artistic freedoms which will undoubtedly pave the path for their ultimate acceptance—and the repercussions that would follow. Thus, it is about time a clear legal and popular distinction was drawn between intersex and transgender people, so as not to allow the latter to adversely affect the legitimate movement for the protection of the former.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.


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