By Habiba Nosheen
The names in this story have been changed to protect the women's identities out of concern for their safety.
Five years ago, Fatima was 23 and studying law in Lahore, Pakistan. She wore blue jeans and a loose shirt and sported short boyish hair. That was the first sign she wasn't a typical Pakistani woman.
She leaned in to share a secret she had revealed to only a few other people before: "I'm lesbian," she said hesitantly.
"I think I knew since a very early age," she said. "It felt quite isolating, I feel. Like, I didn't see people or kids around me feel the same way."
In an Islamic country like Pakistan, lesbians can be imprisoned for life. However, Fatima says, it is not the law that gays and lesbians fear — it's family and neighbors, whom she suspects murder many gays and lesbians in honor killings.
A Secret Teen Romance
Fatima grew up in a house with sisters who were always obsessing over boys, a reality that Fatima says she could never relate to.
"From the time that I've known this about myself, every day that I've felt that I'd wish I was just like everybody else," she says.
But her attraction to women became undeniable when she found herself in love with her best friend in high school. She was 18. And she finally worked up the nerve to tell her.
"What was really surprising, I really didn't expect her to like me back. I really didn't," Fatima says. "It was one of the best surprises in my life. I just thought, 'I am going to tell her and she's just going to be like, 'Are you crazy? What's wrong with you?' And the fact that she didn't say that just blew my mind."
My insides are at war with each other. There are days I wake up and think I should just embrace myself. And there are days I think I should just kill myself.
- Fatima, a fake name to protect the woman who was interviewed
The two dated for years, but always in secret.
They would hold hands walking down the street as many women do in Pakistan — it's simply regarded as "sisterly love."
And that idea of "sisterly love" allows female lovers to stay under the radar, even more easily than in the West — until they reach the age of marriage. That's when a lesbian relationship comes into conflict with the very fabric of Pakistani society.
After years of a secret romance, Fatima's girlfriend suddenly left her, saying there was no future for them in Pakistan. She married a man.
Fatima says she can understand why her girlfriend made that decision.
"I mean, I think from the time that you're born you're socialized into believing that homosexuality is unnatural," she says. "It is a disease, and it is completely prohibited."
That sense of abnormality, Fatima says, haunts her.
"My insides are at war with each other," she says. "There are days I wake up and think I should just embrace myself. And there are days I think I should just kill myself."
Leaving the country, Fatima says, is not an option. She says she thinks it's her calling to be a human rights lawyer in Pakistan, to change the country, which is in severe crisis.
'I Hated That Girl'
Fatima recounts the day when she decided to tell her grandmother that she had been in love with her best friend.
According to Fatima, her grandmother said, "That's why I always hated that girl. I just hated that girl."
"But miraculously, when she came back from work, [my grandmother] was completely fine — as if that discussion never had taken place," Fatima says. "The way I looked at it, she was in complete denial of the whole thing."
Shortly after, Fatima married a man, in an attempt to conform to Pakistani values. She told him before the wedding that she was attracted to women, but like so many others in her life he had assumed it was a phase that she'd get over. But two months into her marriage, Fatima met another woman, Kiran, and the two fell in love.
After months of begging, Fatima's family finally agreed to let her get a divorce. "I said, 'I am a lesbian. I am in love with a woman. I need to get out of this marriage, please,'" she says. "All hell broke loose, essentially."
But Fatima won her battle for a divorce. She says meeting Kiran gave her the strength to fight — gave her something to fight for.
They're now living together, and Fatima is a human rights lawyer.
But now there were other problems for the couple, Kiran says.
"There were security concerns in that her husband, who was in a bad place, was freely talking about this situation to other people," she says.
Kiran says that made them scared for a while, with so many people knowing their secret.
But, Kiran says, "it would take some doing" for people to really imagine they are lesbians.
"Yeah, it's not within the realm of possibility," Fatima says, holding her girlfriend's hand as the two giggle. "People don't usually contemplate two women living together, that they are into each other. Good for us."
"Because in our society, women don't have sexual needs, desires, drives, whatever. And those that do, run brothels," Kiran says. "Either you are a nice girl, or you are a fast girl. So if we are fast girls, it means that men come and visit us. If we are nice girls, it means that girls come and visit us, which works out."