RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We've been bringing you our series The Hidden World of Girls, produced with the Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva.

Today, we go to Pakistan, to the city of Lahore. We'll meet a young woman who shares her story about coming to terms with her sexual orientation in that Islamic state.

Reporter Habiba Nosheen met several times, over the course of five years, with a woman we'll call Fatima. This woman and others in our story have asked us to conceal their identities to protect them against reprisals in a country hostile towards gays and lesbians.

HABIBA NOSHEEN: I met Fatima alone for the first time at a cafe in Pakistan, in the City of Lahore five years ago. Fatima was 23 at the time and studying law. She wore blue jeans and a loose shirt, and sported short, boyish hair. That was the first sign she wasn't a typical Pakistani girl.

As we sat sipping cappuccinos, she leaned in to share a secret she had revealed to only a few people other before: I'm a lesbian, she says hesitantly.

FATIMA: I think I knew since a very early age. It felt quite isolating, I feel. Like I didn't see people or kids around me feel the same way.

NOSHEEN: In an Islamic country like Pakistan, homosexuality is banned under Section 377 of the Pakistan Penal Code. Violators can be punished with imprisonment for life in addition to a fine. However, Fatima says it's not the law that gays and lesbians here fear, it's families and neighbors.

She suspects that many gays and lesbians are murdered by their own familiy or clans in honor killings. Fatima grew up in a house with sisters who were always obsessing over boys, a reality that, Fatima says, she could never relate to.

FATIMA: From the time that I've known this about myself, every day that I've felt that I wished I was just like everybody else.

NOSHEEN: But her attraction to women became undeniable when she found herself in love with her best friend in high school. She was 18 and finally worked up the nerve to tell her.

FATIMA: What was really surprising - like I really didn't expect her to like me back. I really didn't. It was one of the best surprises of my life. I just thought I am going to tell her and she's just going to be like, are you crazy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FATIMA: What's wrong with you? And the fact that she didn't say that blew my mind.

NOSHEEN: The two dated for years but always in secret. They would hold hands walking down the street as many women do in Pakistan. Women holding hands is simply regarded as sisterly love. And that idea of sisterly love allows female lovers to stay under the radar, even more so than in the West, until they reach the age of marriage. That's when a lesbian relationship comes in direct 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 a lesbian relationship in Pakistan. She married a man.

Fatima says she can understand why her girlfriend made that decision.

FATIMA: I mean, I think from the time that you're born, you're socialized into believing that homosexuality is unnatural, it is a disease and it is completely prohibited.

NOSHEEN: That sense of abnormality, Fatima says, haunts her.

FATIMA: 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 wake up and think I should kill myself.

NOSHEEN: Leaving the country, Fatima says, is not an option. She thinks it's her calling to be a human rights lawyer in Pakistan.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

NOSHEEN: A few days after our first meeting, we meet again in her car. Fatima skillfully navigates her way through the chaotic streets of Lahore.

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

NOSHEEN: At every intersection, scores of children jump on the car begging for money, and at every intersection, Fatima pulls out her wallet and hands out 20 to 50 rupees to the street children, without hesitation.

As we sit in her white Honda, she says she decided to tell her grandmother that she had been in love with her best friend. Her grandmother says...

FATIMA: That's why I hated that girl. You know, I just hated that girl. And miraculously, actually, later in the night when she came back from work, like she's completely fine towards me - like that discussion had not taken place. She was, the way I looked at it, in complete denial of the whole thing.

NOSHEEN: Shortly after, just like her ex-girlfriend, Fatima married a man in an attempt to conform. But two months into her marriage, she met another woman, Kiran, and the two fell in love. Recently, I met up with Fatima again.

How's it going?

FATIMA: Good. How's it going with you? Hello. Why don't you come up, have a cup of tea or something?

NOSHEEN: And a lot has changed. She is no longer a student. She is a human rights lawyer.

Fatima brings me to her apartment and her girlfriend gives me a tour of their place.

KIRAN: We're in our living room, which is full of lots of light and big windows. Yeah, this is our home.

NOSHEEN: Soon after the two met, Fatima decided to get a divorce from her husband.

FATIMA: Well, I said, you know, I am a lesbian.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FATIMA: I am in love with a woman, I need to get out of this marriage, please. All hell broke loose, essentially.

NOSHEEN: But Fatima won her battle for a divorce. She says meeting Kiran gave her the strength to fight.

So you said no one would ever imagine that you guys are lesbians?

KARIN: I don't think so. I mean, I think it would take some doing.

FATIMA: Yeah, it's not within the realm of, you know, possibility.

KARIN: Yeah.

FATIMA: People don't usually contemplate two women living together, that they are into each other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FATIMA: Good for us.

KARIN: Because in our society, women don't have sexual needs, desires, drives whatever - and those that do, run brothels.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KARIN: You know? You're just, either you are a nice girl or a fast girl. So if we are fast girls, it means that men come visit us. If we are nice girls, it means that girls come visit us - which works out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NOSHEEN: For NPR News, I'm Habiba Nosheen.

MONTAGNE: You can hear other stories from our series The Hidden World of Girls: Girls and the Women They Become at our website, NPR.org.

(Credits)

On this Martin Luther King Day, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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