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Tuesday February 27th, 2024

Queer artistes have a hard time entering mainstream media

ECONOMYNEXT: For Rafay Shahzad, a Lahore based Queer musician, entering Pakistan’s mainstream entertainment industry has been a traumatic one.

Yet, with quiet determination, Shahzad, Musician and Video Producer has chipped away at the challenges.
Shahzaddescribed his efforts to distribute his work and to get a role in dramas or Television productionsat the web talk,Born with Pride –Queering Media, organised by the Freidrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) South Asia, on November 16th.

In her opening remarks, ProfessorGauri Chakraborty of the Times School of Media, Bennet University, India and an Associate Producer, who moderated the session, said that the “entertainment industry is an integral participant in popular culture. It has the potential of influencing the perspective on identity among its audiences. Cultural artefacts and very much so in South Asia that emerge out of this mega and diversified industry also have the capability to create voice.”

Prof Chakraborty explainedthat the aim of the webinarwas to explore how queer individuals are
represented in the industry and the impact that it creates on the audiences.

“In recent times the industry in South Asia has begun representing the queer community. But there is too much to be expected, miles to go, the representation is often not close to reality and therefore it’s very important to have dialogue and discussion on the impact of narratives which circulate in the media, and which influence impressions in young minds, in society and therefore this cause is of criticality,” she added.

Asked what challenges he has faced in making a mark in the music industry as a queer person, Shahzad who has a business degree, said the way has been hard and very difficult because of complex challenges.

“In my university years I found it hard to get my foot in the door as there were very few people who had come out (as queer.) It was not OK to come out and I felt very, very alone.”

He says there weren’t any celebrities he could look up to for mentorship. He points out that Pakistan has its Transgender communities and society is “ok with that, but not many were educated. So, in university I had challenges about coming out.” When there were opportunities for roles in drama, for instance “it was a straight person who would get selected.”

But Shahzad says his circumstances changed when he was a contestant in the 2013 edition of the talent show Pakistan Idol. Although he was not selected,the video of his wacky audition became famous garnering around 983,000 hits on YouTube. “I suddenly became very famous in the whole country.

But I could not handle the pressure.” He says he and his family received threats from strangers. “It was very scary.” He felt that he was somewhat like the first Black artistes in the United States who took a long time to break into the mainstream music industry.

He did record a music video several yearslater and offered it to a TV channel which had said it would be “subject to censorship.” He also says he did not want to portray himself as a straight person. But once he released the video on-line and it started to get hits, he had a positive response. “People started to pour out their love.” He says the 10-to-15-year struggle is nowbeginning to pay off.

In Pakistan the first Pride Parade was held just two years ago. “I performed there as a Mime and also performed one of my own songs.” He says he is taking small steps but as a pioneer and at the cutting edge of a new movement, being slow and cautious is better. “I feel that I am opening the way for new songwriters to come on board.”

He also says that the atmosphere at the Universities and Colleges has become better for Queer persons.

“It’s much better than when I was in University. Nobody wanted to talk to me and the situation around us was quite volatile.”

Prof Chakraborty observed that Shahzad’s pioneering effort will make him a “reference point for others to follow. Someone will walk the path with more confidence looking at your journey.” She also asked Shahzad whether there was someone in the family or known to him who offered support.

Shehzad says he had no such support. He said he had to seek assistance outside the family circle from non-governmental organisations which were providing support. He said he met with an organisation called Dostana which provided support. The word Dostana in Hindi/Urdu means “friendship or amicability” but in general society it is also a euphemism for being gay. The organisation however helps people of any sexual orientation.

Homosexuality is banned in Pakistan with whipping, jail or even death prescribed in statutes. A Bollywood Rom-Com called Dostana was banned in Pakistan in 2013 because “it had significant Gay content.”

Shahzad also talked about the small theatre circuit where a gay dramatist had written gay-themed short plays. He says it was hard even to get universities to stage them. One space that was available was through the Pakistan Human Rights Commission.

He also referred to a movie called “Bol” directed by Pakistani Shoaib Mansoor, about a child who had gender dysphoria. The 2011 feature controversially examined gender identity in Pakistani society. The story centered around a male child who felt like a girl. In the story, Shahzad says, the father of the child was “very Islamic.”At the end the father murders the child.

Shahzad also talked about the Pakistani short film “Darling” about a boy and a transgendered girl which won first prize at the Venice film festival two years ago. The director of the film Saim Sadiq “had a very hard time to enter the movie into the festival,” he recalled.

Shahzad says the breakthrough quality of the movie was that an actual trans-person had been cast in it. “Usually, these roles would be played by straight people which are usually caricatures,” he observed.

The question is “are we setting the right light? Is Pakistan only ready for short films like this or is Pakistan actually ready to receive a proper mainstream narrative with a trans character in a leading role or will Pakistan ever be ready?”

Prof Chakraborty said that short films and the “episodic format” is now very popular and has an important role to play in the industry.

Asked whether the entertainment industry showed him support when he wanted to break in as an artiste, Shahzad replied in the negative. “Because even when I worked in the industry, there was no support.

After what happened at Pakistan Idol I gave up for a while. But now that after a long time a music video has been released,I am waiting to see. But honestly I don’t expect much support from the industry.”

Traditionally the music industry in the South Asian subcontinent is controlled by schools which have grown around a particular outstanding musician or family group. Shahzad says breaking into these closed systems commonly called gharanas is tough.

He also found it hard to find a music teacher because they wanted to teach him a particular tradition. “It was after a lot of searching that I found an open-minded teacher who is now my voice coach,” he said.

Despite the challenges Shahzad is determined to stay the course. His passion he says is to sing about his queer experience, “and that, I want to achieve.”

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Sri Lanka sets up fund to help children of Gaza

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East is mandated to provide education, health, relief and social services, and emergency assistance to refugees. (Pic courtesy UNWRA)

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s cabinet of ministers have approved a proposal by President Ranil Wickremesinghe to set up a fund to help children caught in the war in Gaza, a statement said.

The government will contribute a million US dollars and use funds allocated by state agencies for Ifthar celebrations.

Public contributions are also called.

The Presidential Secretariat is requesting public donations citizens for the “Children of Gaza Fund” to be contributed to account number 7040016 at Bank of Ceylon (7010), Taprobane Branch (747) by 11th April.

Deposit receipts should to be forwarded to 0779730396 via WhatsApp. (Colombo/Feb27/2024)

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Top US official calls for inclusive reforms, deeper defence ties with Sri Lanka

ECONOMYNEXT — United States Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma in discussions with Sri Lanka officials had called for inclusive reforms and stronger human rights and also discussed deeper defence and maritime cooperation.

The United States remains committed to the economic growth and prosperity of Sri Lanka, statement from the US Embassy in Colombo quoted the official as telling government, civil society and economic leaders during his February 23-24 visit to Sri Lanka.

“Verma met with President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Ali Sabry to discuss progress on Sri Lanka’s IMF program, including inclusive economic and governance reforms aimed at keeping Sri Lanka on the path to sustainable economic growth.  Deputy Secretary Verma stressed the vital need to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression. They also explored opportunities to deepen defence and maritime cooperation between the United States and Sri Lanka, including strengthening the Sri Lanka Navy’s capabilities to safeguard national security and promote a more stable Indo-Pacific region,” the statement said.

 On February 23, aboard the SLNS Vijayabahu, one of three former U.S. Coast Guard cutters transferred by the United States to Sri Lanka, Deputy Secretary Verma said: “I am pleased to announce that the Department of State has notified Congress of our intent to transfer a fourth medium endurance cutter to Sri Lanka.  The Department obligated $9 million in Foreign Military Financing to support this effort.  We look forward to offering the cutter, pending the completion of Congress’ notification period.  If completed, this transfer would further strengthen defense cooperation between the United States and Sri Lanka.  The ship would increase Sri Lanka’s ability to patrol its Exclusive Economic Zone, monitor its search and rescue area, and provide additional security for ships from all nations that transit the busy sea lanes of the Indian Ocean.” 

 Participating in the announcement at Colombo Port were Sri Lanka State Minister of Defense Premitha Bandara Tennakoon, Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy Vice Admiral Priyantha Perera, and U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung, who remarked, according to the statement: “The United States has previously transferred three cutters to the Sri Lankan Navy, which deploys these ships for maritime operations and law enforcement missions, countering human trafficking and drug trafficking, while supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster response efforts. The eventual transfer of a fourth vessel would be just one more point in a long history of cooperation between Sri Lanka and the United States in preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” 

Verma also visited the site of the West Container Terminal (WCT), a deepwater shipping container terminal in the Port of Colombo. The WCT, currently being constructed by Colombo West International Terminal (CWIT) Private Limited with 553 million US dollars in financing from the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, will provide critical infrastructure for the South Asian region, the embassy said.

“Operating near capacity since 2021, the Port of Colombo’s new addition will be the port’s deepest terminal and aims to boost Colombo’s shipping capacity, expanding its role as a premiere logistics hub connecting major routes and markets, boosting prosperity for Sri Lanka without adding to its sovereign debt,” it said. (Colombo/Feb27/2024)

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Sri Lanka police chief appointment against constitution: Opposition Leader

Samagi Jana Balavegaya leader Sajith Premadasa addresses the rally

ECONOMYNEXT – The appointment of Sri Lanka’s new police chief Deshbandu Tennakoon is against the constitution as the decision lacked required votes at the Constitutional Council, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa said.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday (26) appointed Deshbandu Tennakoon as the 36th Inspector General of Police (IGP) of the country after the Constitutional Council (CC) cleared the official who along with three other police officers were asked by the Supreme Court to compensate 2 million rupees in a fundamental rights case last year.

“CC didn’t approve IGP’s appointment. Votes: 4 for; 2 against; 2 abstentions. At least 5 votes are required for a decision,” Premadasa said in his X (Twitter) platform.

“Speaker has a casting vote only in case of a tie. 4/2 is not a tie! Constitution is being blatantly violated for the second time. Shame on you speaker!”

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena was not reachable for a comment on the Opposition Leader’s claim.

The President Media Division (PMD) said the President appointed Tennakoon “as the IGP in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution”.

The island nation’s Supreme Court on December 14 ordered Tennakoon when he was the Acting IGP and three other officials to pay a compensation of 500,000 rupees each for the violation of the fundamental rights of an individual.

The Supreme Court also instructed the Police Commission to take disciplinary action against the said Police officers including Tennakoon after it considered the petition filed by W. Ranjith Sumangala who had accused the Police officers of violating his fundamental rights during his detention at Mirihana Police Station in 2011.

The Supreme Court held that the four police officers violated the fundamental rights of the petitioner by his illegal arrest, detention and subjection to torture at the Mirihana Police Station, which was under the supervision of Tennakoon at the time of the arrest. (Colombo/Feb 27/2024)

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