Karachi, Pakistan - Pakistan's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has launched a website in a hostile cyberspace in which the government blocks thousands of sites for displaying "objectionable and offensive" material.
"Queer Pakistan", launched last month, aims to act as a virtual support group for an LGBT community on the fringes of mainstream society that has no other platform to interact with one another. The site already has an estimated 8,000 users.
The website attempts to provide psychological support, counselling and networking while raising awareness about sexual health in a country where the topic is rarely discussed in schools or families.
"The LGBT community in Pakistan is a vulnerable group. They exist, but the mainstream society just looks the other way," explained Noman*, who helped spearhead the initiative. "This website is our way of breaking the silence and shame that surrounds us."
"In our society, there is not even basic sex education in schools - it is impossible for people to know about things like an identity crisis or prevention of HIV " - Noman*
In Pakistan, a tightly guarded silence surrounds the issue of homosexuality, which is religiously and legally condemned - making it very rare for those with a different sexual orientation to acknowledge this openly.
Homosexuality remains an offence under Pakistan's penal code, by which a person voluntarily engaging in intercourse "against the order" of nature can be sentenced to 2-10 years in jail - or, in some instances, to death.
Yet despite the moral, religious and cultural taboos, a sizeable LGBT community exists in the country, whose members face considerable problems coming to terms with their sexual identity.
"In our society, there is not even basic sex education in schools - it is impossible for people to know about things like an identity crisis or prevention of HIV," Noman says. "And if you are different or a homosexual, then things are even worse."
Queer Pakistan is a public forum where people can post general questions ranging from family pressure to safe sex, but also obtain private counseling from experts - features that set the website apart from earlier LGBT websites in the country. The initiative has two voluntary medical professionals on board, and hopes to get more.
According to Parveen*, a practicing doctor from Hyderabad and one of the counselors for the website, 90 percent of those who have approached her for help are women between the ages of 20-30.
“They come to me with all kinds of issues - from partners abandoning them due to family pressure to their own families pressuring them to get married. A lot of them just want to leave the country,” she elaborated. “Being able to discuss their problems openly, especially when they are distressed, makes them feel they are not alone.”
Similar sites launched in the past were soon banned, and the threat of being proscribed by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority looms large, something Noman claims that they have made contingencies for.
While several closed virtual groups for the LGBT community already exist on social media platforms like Facebook alongside dating websites, Noman claims that these reflect the concerns of a limited class of people.
"They discuss topics like marriage equality which are completely out of context in our reality," Noman said. "People often brush away homosexuality as a product of elitism or globalisation or Westernisation. And the saddest part is that there is no one from our community who can defend us."
"Providing a platform to share stories and witness others share theirs can be of vital importance to those who do not have such spaces" - Sana Saleem, executive director for Bolo Bhi
Queer Pakistan has ignited equally strong reactions within supporters and critics alike. While some laud the initiative for providing much-needed support to Pakistan's LGBT community, others claim it is a foreign-funded conspiracy.
Noman insists that while overseas activists encouraged and supported him to launch the website in his country, there was no financial assistance.
Experts like Sana Saleem, executive director and spokesperson for Bolo Bhi - a non-profit organisation campaigning for internet freedom and digital security - agree that the internet provides marginalised groups with a valuable platform.
"There is a lot of debate on 'tangible change' when it comes to activism in the virtual world," she said. "It really depends on what constitutes change - even providing a platform to share stories and witness others share theirs can be of vital importance to those who do not have such spaces."
Noman says that while the immediate aim of Queer Pakistan is to provide a safe space for the LGBT community to share ideas, opinions and problems, its long-term goal is to change attitudes towards homosexuality. He hopes that LGBT members using Queer Pakistan will find the confidence to stand up for their rights.
Criticising the mainstream media, which shies away from unconventional topics and often portrays homosexuality in a negative light, he says the internet is the only platform that gives them a voice.
"The risk to our life and security is so great that we can't even meet or discuss these issues in person," he explained. "Helping each other virtually is our next best option."
* Some names have been changed in this article to protect the individuals concerned.