Pakistan’s Women Heroes : Sarah Suhail

Women who Named the Unnamed
Tribute to the Brilliance

Sarah Suhail
queer feminist activist

Building Spaces of Love, Acceptance
and Compassion for Pakistani Queers

By Kyla Pasha

She reminds you that she’s walking next to you
when you think you’re behind her, or in front of her

Those who know Sarah Suhail know two things about her from the off: she smiles a lot, and she can probably help you out. Sarah, born in a family of doctors in Lahore in 1982, is a lawyer, teacher, and avid learner who is known among her friends and comrades as generous with her time, spirit, and resources. She has been an integral part of feminist, queer, and working peoples’ organizing coming out of Lahore in the last 15 years as she has lent her great diversity of energies to a number of movements and formations in that time. In 2008, she co-founded Chay Magazine with me, Pakistan’s first known effort to have a consistent conversation around sex and sexuality. Around that time she became involved with organizing mutual learning and support with queer people and, over a decade on, she continues to prove herself instrumental to building autonomy, self-sufficiency, and strength among Pakistani queers.

Beyond these words, it is hard to encapsulate Sarah’s life thus far in a chronology that makes sense. That is to say, with the wealth of her life still before her, Sarah has managed to hoover up a tremendous amount of knowledge across a wide breadth of arenas. She is a lawyer of the high court and a member of the Punjab Bar council, yet is known mostly for her work in (first private and then) public sector universities as a teacher and mentor. Her own undergraduate degrees are in Economics and Law, and her masters and PhD are in women’s studies; across all of which she has followed a passion for justice.

With feminist comrades, Sarah organized a public conversation between women on ‘Sexism in leftist and progressive spaces‘, an event that sparked the formation of The Feminist Collective (TFC). TFC is an autonomous feminist collective that searches for and creates opportunities to intervene constructively to highlight important feminist intersections. Simultaneously, she has worked with and learned from the struggles of fisherfolk, landless peasants, prisoners, and escaped bonded labourers.

I asked her comrades, our mutual comrades, what they would say about her if they were given this job. One said, ‘For me, it is her moral clarity in the pursuit of justice, even in the most befuddling and harsh circumstances, — the kind that gives you the strength to speak truth to power yet always remain open to growth and learning — that have truly made me see her as a mentor and moral guide in many respects.’ Another, supposedly just riffing with me so I could get started on this piece, said, ‘She reminds you that she’s walking next to you when you think you’re behind her, or in front of her.’ And a little while later, ‘She’s everyone’s unknown heart.’

That this resonates with me is no surprise to anyone who knows that Sarah Suhail has been my first and last advisor, confidante, co-learner, and friend every minute that I have known her. She stands among the women in this celebration fidgeting restlessly and smiling shyly: Sarah understands herself as one in a web of many working towards building something better, and more just, than what we currently endure. In that struggle, wherever she can be of service, Sarah shows up.

Below is a Q&A with Sarah.

When did you realize that you were different?
I had a sense of my difference from an early age but it manifested itself as unease with the expectations to conform with conventional femininity. I realized I was properly queer when I was 17 and I fell in love with my first girlfriend.

When did you own it in public?
I’ve been doing queer organizing since 2007-2008 and we started working underground very slowly trying to create a sense of community. But over time, most people in the movements that I work with know that I’m queer. I spoke about it at a conference in Lahore, but largely I try not to talk about it too openly since security is always a concern in our context.

How was it for you to grow up queer in Lahore?
Growing up queer in Lahore was both isolating and wondrous. Isolating since I didn’t know anyone else like me so I thought that I was alone and wondrous because since I felt intrinsically different I felt I had my own world where I had to fight at every step to be different but still felt loved by mother and the rest of my family. It was strange I guess, so they never really made a big deal about how I was gender non-conforming and gave me space to be who I wanted even when outside everyone sort of taunted and bullied me for not fitting in. Over time though as I grew, I enjoyed the freedom of not having to conform to the requirements of convectional femininity. I didn’t fully recognize the difference in upbringing since my grandmother was the head of our household and I was essentially being brought up in a matriarchy. It was a beautiful and magical thing that made me believe that I could achieve anything I put my mind to irrespective of gender.

How about queer communities?
For the queer community in Lahore we are slowly but surely building spaces of love, acceptance and compassion even when we face the violence of compulsory heterosexuality and natal rejection. This is violence faced from people closest to us. So, to heal and recover from it and build community that doesn’t replicate those toxic patterns is a slow and painstaking process. We are loving and courageously engaged in this process.

Do queer women feel supported by the feminist movement/s in Punjab and Pakistan?
The interface of the feminist movement and the queer movement is so important because we can’t do it alone. Feminist ethics, solidarity, poetry and openness that the women’s movement creates in society is foundational for queer acceptance. That is why some of our work focuses on how our queerness helped develop our feminist consciousness and how our feminism impacts our queerness.

Kyla Pasha is poet and feminist activist based in Lahore. Her first volume of poetry, High Noon and the Body, was released in 2010. She is also the co-editor of Two Loves: Faiz’s Letters from Jail. Kyla researches religious life and national structures interfacing with sexuality; and is pursuing a PhD in Religious Studies at Arizona State University, focusing on ritual spaces and utopic longings in marginal Muslim communities. She is currently working on her second book of poems.


Women Who Named the Unnamed
Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes

Saturday, September 28, 2019
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