Blue and pink lights shine across a stage as a woman in a mohawk dances next to a white-haired man who sputters garbled sounds into a microphone. A band plays rock music behind them. A transgender woman clad in traditional Pakistani clothes twirls to the beat.
The band finishes their set and the woman with the mohawk asks the crowd for a round of applause for the man, whom she refers to as “goray chacha”—white uncle.
The “white uncle” is Holger Ziegeler, Germany’s top diplomat in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city. And these are the scenes from a video shot in November at Scrapfest, an intimate event the German consulate funded under Ziegeler and one of the first public queer festivals to ever be held in Pakistan. Homosexuality is a crime in the country, and openly queer people are prone to violent backlash from people who want it to stay that way.
The event was meant to serve as a safe space for the city’s marginalised LGBTQ community, but several attendees have accused the diplomat of harassing multiple women and groping a woman at the venue. They believe he exploited his access and status as a funder to sexualize and violate indigenous queer people at an event meant to celebrate them.
The allegations are currently being investigated by the German Federal Foreign Office and have caused outrage among Pakistan’s LGBTQ community. Many are afraid to go public with their accusations out of fear of retaliation and being outed.
“I wanted to be a catalyst for change. I wanted there to be a space for queer desi people like me,” Pakistani-Canadian musician Urvah Khan, Scrapfest’s founder and organizer, told VICE World News. “Us speaking up (about what he did) is important.”
The groping victim, who declined to be interviewed, gave consent to Khan to recount the incident to VICE World News. She told Khan that Ziegeler groped her buttocks while she was standing next to him off the stage, right after Khan thanked Ziegeler in front of the audience.
Video footage of the event seen by VICE World News partially shows the moment of the alleged incident. It shows the diplomat standing next to the victim, who is only shown from the waist up. Ziegeler’s hands are not visible in the frame. Suddenly, she is shown abruptly moving away from him, while looking very upset.
VICE World News interviewed six attendees who said that the diplomat was visibly inebriated and demonstrated predatory and inappropriate behaviour towards guests. The event was attended by at least 60, a close-knit network of queer people.
Shahid, an attendee who requested a pseudonym out of fears of being outed, told VICE World News that he witnessed Ziegeler inappropriately touching multiple guests’ without their consent.
He called Ziegeler’s behaviour a kind of neo-colonial violence against indigenous queer communities.
“The issue is white supremacy. It was about how he demeaned everything and made it about himself in this country,” said Shahid. “We need accountability, acceptance and an apology as well.”
On behalf of the victim, Khan has filed an official complaint against the diplomat with the German Federal Foreign Office, which has launched an investigation into the case and begun taking statements from the complainant and other attendees. The victim and organiser did not file a police complaint because of Ziegeler’s diplomatic immunity and the sensitive nature of the event.
“The Federal Foreign Office takes allegations of sexual harassment extremely seriously. We received a complaint, which will be swiftly and thoroughly investigated and followed by appropriate action if found to be substantiated,” a German Federal Foreign Office spokesperson said in a statement sent to VICE World News on April 27. The spokesperson declined to give details of the allegations, citing the continuing investigation.
Ziegeler did not respond to phone calls, text messages and emails.
Public, openly queer events are almost unheard of in Pakistan. But discreet and intimate gatherings of queer people are common across social classes and rural-urban settings. Scrapfest, created by Khan in 2017, aimed to merge the safety that intimate gatherings offered with a public event that brought together queer activists, performers, and artists under one roof.
“I’ve never seen such an event ever,” Scrapfest attendee Rana, who requested a pseudonym, also for fears of being outed, told VICE World News. “I was so moved that I cried because, although we do meet in groups and there is some activism like at Aurat March (the Women’s March) where we flaunt our flags, otherwise there’s no safe place for us to go.”
Pakistan’s LGBTQ community faces unchecked transphobic and homophobic discrimination and abuse. Although legal penalties against homosexuality are rarely enforced, many queer individuals are forced to hide their identities and pass as straight, out of fear of being persecuted or ostracized.
Despite legal recognition of the transgender community and the recent passing of a progressive transgender rights protection law, instances of sexual and physical assault against transgender people is a common occurrence.
In March, eight transgender women were shot in three brutal attacks in Pakistan’s northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in a span of six days. Three of the women died from their injuries. From January of 2021 to March of this year, at least 24 transgender persons were reportedly murdered across Pakistan. However, many cases of transphobic violence go unreported due to fear of reprisals, lack of trust in the justice system, and discriminatory attitudes in legal and law enforcement settings.
Based in Toronto, Khan made a public statement about the incident on Instagram, without naming the diplomat, on April 22. Three days later, she filed an official complaint to the German foreign ministry, naming Holger Zeigeler as the subject of the accusations and included text messages between herself and the diplomat, along with accounts of the groping victim and statements from attendees.
Khan shared with VICE World News a text message Ziegeler sent her on the night of the event. In it, Ziegeler shared a photo of the groping victim and asked for her contact information, stating that “she is good.”
In her complaint, Khan wrote, “[After] the victim had reached out to me with her statement, I contacted Holger. He apologised and said he was drunk and did not recall this happening, and was willing to apologise to the victim.”
“The victim was traumatised and did not want to see him face-to-face, and requested a written apology. At which point, Holger retracted his [verbal] apology and said that he did not harass her, and that this was a ‘terrorist attack’ on his legacy. I brought up the fact that he had also texted me the night before, requesting her contact with her photo. He pressured me to get rid of that text,” she said in the filing.
But other people at the party also found Ziegeler’s behaviour unsafe. Transgender rights activist Shahzadi Rai said she ended up leaving the event early because of how he behaved towards her.
“He would keep coming up and standing very close, right up behind me and staring at me in a sexually inappropriate manner, which made me extremely uncomfortable. Eventually I turned to him and angrily motioned for him to get away,” Rai told VICE World News. “I left because all the fun from that night had vanished.”
Rana said Ziegeler also harassed his friend at the event.
“[Ziegeler] started talking to me and my friend and he started taking his hand and rubbing my friend’s back. I could see that she was very uncomfortable. Again and again she would take his hand and put it back where it belonged,” Rana said.
According to attendee Shahid, he witnessed Ziegeler attempting to touch women dancing in the crowd, who would keep recoiling from his advances. “Some girls in the crowd were wearing crop tops and this man was constantly trying to touch their body parts that were visible, and I noticed that,” Shahid said.
Pakistan used to carry a rich cultural and political history of queer acceptance that spanned hundreds of years. However, after the arrival of British colonisers, this legacy was systematically overturned through laws that criminalised homosexuality and enforced strict gender binaries. The bitter legacy of colonial era queerphobia has since been reinforced by hard-line interpretations of Islamic texts and the erasure of queer influence from history.
“The things that the West is now preaching about trans and gay rights were already incorporated in our culture. They took that away from us first,” Shahid said. Now, that repression of Pakistan’s LGBTQ community has left its members vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
For Khan, Ziegeler’s financial support for the event has forever tainted her memories of it.
“Now when I think about what happened, I realise that he never wanted to support my vision. He just wanted to come to a show and behave in this manner,” Khan said.
Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.