By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Issa Fazli says the double whammy of his transformation from a Muslim daughter into a Christian son blew his dad over the top: "He said he would make my life a living hell, and he did a good job of it."
Days before a hearing to determine his status in the U.S., Fazli sat in his New York apartment with a Bible on his knees and read verses from Matthew about the persecution of the faithful. (The hearing was postponed.)
Flashback to 1999: Issa was Fareeha, a thirtysomething Muslim woman and longtime U.S. resident just working her way through school. After a sex-change operation, he grandly renamed himself Issa—the Arabic name for Jesus.
In 2000, living in New York at the time and his sex change complete, Fazli quietly married Saadia Asghar, also Pakistani and also a student at Columbia Teachers' College. Soon after, Fazli says, his parents lured him back to his hometown of Lahore with the promise of a traditional wedding celebration. Instead, the newlyweds were greeted by explosive anger from their powerful and prominent fathers.
Sex changes are more common and more accepted in some Muslim countries than one might think, says Fazli, but his parents were "not gung-ho." At least as big a problem was the couple's conversion to Christianity. Fazli's father, a retired judge and strict Muslim, believed, according to his son, that he "had dishonored the family, spoiled his reputation—in the Eastern sense, been disobedient." What began as a month-long visit to Pakistan turned into four long years of family feuding in the worst way, with some official repression mixed in.
At first, Asghar says sardonically, it was simply "good old gossip" spread among family members. But there was something more sinister going on. After they missed their original flight back to the States, the government-controlled airline wouldn't let them buy new tickets to New York. "They would say they needed our fathers' permission," says Asghar, "and we were in our early thirties!" In the meantime, Fazli's passport expired and the government refused to renew it.
The unhappy families were using their plentiful government connections to keep them in the country, because, says Asghar, "they wanted to teach us a lesson."
As the months wore on, the couple says, the harassment increased. They had left their families' homes and were living in rented apartments while they tried to get new travel documents. But some landlords shut off their electricity or pushed them out with no explanation. Carcasses of chickens, cats, and dogs were left on their doorstep. They say they were followed and even spied on, and that their home was burglarized. When they went to the police, they were met with polite inaction. "They would pretend to help, but they would never file a report," says Asghar, because "they knew who I was." That's not a sign of paranoia: Her father, a former inspector general in the country's biggest province, "used to be their boss," she says.
As they waited for their families' anger to subside, Fazli started what he laughingly describes as a "pathetic, near-zero-circulation" Christian-inspired magazine. And in a testament to their faith—and perhaps as a fuck-you to their families—they officially registered their conversion to Christianity with the Pakistani government. Bad idea. It is, after all, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. In retrospect, they say, their vocal Christianity probably earned them additional enemies inside the government.
Eventually, Asghar complained to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the National Commission on the Status of Women—agencies that investigate the honor killings and forced marriages that still infest Pakistan.
Nighat Saeed Khan, a Lahore human-rights activist who is familiar with the case, says that Fazli and Asghar were probably never in immediate danger—"maybe some of it was a bit of paranoia"—but confirms that there was "definite harassment" by the couple's families. "There was a pressure from the family for them not to come out, for them not to be themselves," says Khan.
Fazli insists that the brakes on his car were tampered with, that "goons on motorcycles" chased him down, and that his own bodyguard—hired with the couple's savings—was bribed by the families and hired to kill him.
Letters from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to various government agencies, obtained by the Voice, suggested that government agents, paid off by family members, could be responsible for the harassment, and the human-rights group called for an investigation. Soon after, the Pakistani media picked up on the saga, and several English and Urdu newspapers detailed their complaints. One article quoted an unnamed government intelligence agent who admitted to trailing the couple.
With public pressure on his side, Fazli was finally allowed to renew his passport and return to New York in 2005. Several months later, his wife, after applying for a student visa, also returned to New York, where she is now pursuing a psychology doctorate. But their problems have followed them across the ocean.
Fazli's immigration status came under scrutiny as soon as he returned. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials contended that he surrendered his permanent-resident status by leaving for four years and sought to deport him. Fazli argued that his stay in Pakistan was involuntary. To hedge his bets, he has applied to U.S. authorities for religious asylum.