Sahar was a homosexual. She was compelled into an arranged marriage with a 40-year-old man when she was 11. Over time, as she grew up, Sahar came to the realization that she had no emotional or sexual attraction toward men. Forced sexual encounters with her husband were a source of agony and oppression, which she describes as constant “rape”. As a result of these coerced intercourses, she became pregnant and gave birth to a child. Sahar eventually came to understand her own sexual orientation when she was in her thirties and discovered that she was interested in women. However, it was too late to speak about her homosexuality as the Taliban had taken over Kabul, and one of their top priorities at the checkpoints was to hunt down and detain members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Sahar became acutely aware of the growing difficulties faced by the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan and made the difficult decision to leave her home and province behind. Clutching her child tightly, she departed Afghanistan and crossed the borders, arriving in Iran. But, as in Afghanistan, Iran was also not a safe refuge for Sahar or others like her, as the country imposes the death penalty for homosexuality. Sahar eventually contacted a human smuggler who agreed to take her and her child to Turkey for a considerable sum of money.
Determined to find a safe haven where she could live free from sexual identity oppression, Sahar made the difficult decision to undertake the smuggling route to Turkey. Her journey was fraught with danger and trauma. On the way, the smugglers separated her from the other passengers and subjected her to rape and sexual assault. Upon arriving in Turkey, Sahar was physically and emotionally battered. Despite the grave circumstances she faced, Sahar’s efforts to find shelter in Turkey were met with further disappointment. Due to political dealings with the Taliban, the Turkish government did not recognize “escaping the Taliban” as a valid reason for granting asylum, and Sahar was not issued a residence permit. As a result, she and her child were forced to go hungry and sleep in parks, where she was subjected to repeated sexual harassment.
Unable to remain in Turkey and with no possibility of returning to Afghanistan due to the possible risk of being killed both by her husband and the Taliban, Sahar was compelled to flee to Greece with her child. However, her friends have lost contact with her and it is unclear what has become of her since.
Ramez, a 20-year-old transgender, was apprehended at a Taliban checkpoint during the group’s initial year of rule. Ramez was identified from the tone of their voice and endured eight hours of physical torture and sexual assault by four Taliban men while in their custody. However, Ramez was eventually released from the Taliban’s captivity after a ransom was paid, and with the assistance of an organization supporting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, was able to flee the country.
In the second week after the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, when the Taliban men were searching for a target to shoot in Kabul City, they took an LGBTQ+ rights activist into custody. The activist was apprehended at a checkpoint in Kabul, where the Taliban were inspecting people’s mobile phones. Upon discovering content related to same-sex relationships, as well as photos and materials pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community, the activist was identified.
This LGBTQ+ advocate was subjected to physical assault and taken into custody by the Taliban men. While in prison, he was given 80 lashes for his sexual orientation and another 80 lashes for having a tattoo on his hand. ITV reported that he left Afghanistan after ultimately surviving and being released from the Taliban detention.
However, not all individuals have the opportunity to escape from the Taliban’s grasp unharmed. According to documentation from Afghanistan’s LGBTQ+ community organization, as well as Human Rights Watch and Outright International, a person named Gholam, who was a supporter of LGBTQ+ rights on social media and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, was captured by the Taliban and subsequently found dead. His body reportedly “exhibited extensive signs of torture”, indicating a tragic end to his life.
The cases provided above are just some examples of the difficult circumstances that members of the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan face under the rule of the Taliban. Throughout history, Afghanistan’s LGBTQ+ community members have had to keep their identities hidden and have been subjected to violence if they dared to express themselves. The evacuation process after the Talian takeover of the country marked the first time that many individuals within the community spoke openly about their sexual orientation or identity. This was driven by the urgent need to flee the country and avoid the Taliban’s threats of torture and execution.
Artemis Akbary, a member of the Afghan LGBT Organization, told Nimrokh that they have received over 5,000 messages from members of the LGBTQ+ community through the organization’s communication channels since the fall of the Republican regime. These messages, according to Akbary, reveal that despite the significant size of the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan, its members still don’t dare to express their identity.
In 2022, Artemis and their colleagues were able to check 850 out of 1500 messages, pertaining to the personal experiences and identities of members of the Afghan LGBTQ+ community. They introduced 350 of these individuals to countries and organizations involved in evacuating vulnerable people, out of which only 86 of them were evacuated from Afghanistan. In 2021, the organization was only able to help 30 people leave the country.
Artemis stated that a few members of the LGBTQ+ community were also evacuated from Afghanistan by other organizations involved in the evacuation process. However, the exact number of evacuees remains unknown. The evacuation process served as a limited opportunity to rescue members of the LGBTQ+ community from Taliban oppression. Akbari believes, however, that the efforts were not as effective as they could have been due to “a lack of a cohesive program or special plan” for the evacuation of the LGBTQ+ community’s members.
Denial and Exclusion
The LGBTQ+ community, which encompasses individuals who identify as homosexual, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and more, makes up varying percentages of the population in different countries around the world. While there is no specific data on the number of LGBTQ+ individuals in Afghanistan due to a lack of survey, independent statistical research conducted in the United States and the European Union suggests that, on average, between 5 to 7 percent of any society’s population is part of the LGBTQ+ community in some way, regardless of whether they choose to reveal their identity or not.
The fundamental problem faced by the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan, however, remains unaddressed and is actually increasing. There has been no meaningful discussion to recognize the existence of the LGBTQ+ community, and there are no legal protections in place to safeguard the rights of this part of society. The very existence of the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan is still considered “taboo” and denied by both society and the ruling powers.
The LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan faces a two-fold challenge: on one hand, their very existence is denied, while on the other hand, they are subject to violence and elimination. For example, the Taliban have been known to deny, attack, and persecute members of the LGBTQ+ community. The Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid once stated about homosexuals that “We do not have such a thing. if some are found as a result of the occupation, they will be prevented because homosexuality is a crime.” Meanwhile, the Taliban often identify, capture, torture, and even kill members of the LGBTQ+ community.
The common people of Afghanistan adhere to strict gender norms and sexual orientations according to Islamic principles, only recognizing the identities of men and women and accepting sexual relationships between them. However, sexual abuse of children, sodomy, and other forms of sexual misconduct, particularly among the Taliban, are prevalent. Despite this, homosexuality between consenting adults is considered a crime and punishable under Taliban rule. Last week, while a Taliban commander accused of sodomy was released from prison, the Taliban Supreme Court sentenced four men to “killing under the wall.” These men were accused of doing “bad deeds”, which means homosexuality and sodomy for the Taliban.
Four Layers of Violence Faced by Afghanistan’s LGBTQ+ Community
Amidst ongoing discussions regarding the situation in Afghanistan, it is widely acknowledged that the Taliban has been inflicting violence upon the Afghan population as a whole. However, the root causes of this violence vary significantly across different strata of society. As per Artemis Akbary, “The LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan experiences twofold violence. For example, a young lesbian Hazara woman faces triple layers of discrimination. Firstly, she is discriminated against and constrained because of her gender. Secondly, she is subjected to discrimination because of being a Hazara, as Hazaras are under age-old oppression and suppression. Lastly, her sexual orientation makes her a target of discrimination and violence by her own family, society, and the government”.
According to Artemis, the Afghan LGBTQ+ community is subjected to four distinct forms of violence. These include inner violence, violence from family members, violence from society, and violence from the government and the law.
The first layer of violence that the Afghan LGBTQ+ community experiences is domestic violence. In Afghanistan, religious and customary teachings often instill the belief in children’s minds that same-sex sexual relations are a sin. As these children grow up and begin to explore their gender identity and sexual orientation, they may attempt to conform to these social norms, even if they identify as LGBTQ+. This can lead to self-suppression and inner violence, as individuals attempt to suppress their natural feelings and instincts due to a lack of information or understanding.
The second layer of violence that the Afghan LGBTQ+ community experiences is from their own families. Even if individuals discover their gender identity and sexual orientation due to access to sufficient information, their families may attempt to suppress them. This is particularly true for transgender individuals, who may face discrimination from family members due to their different parlance and appearance. “In some extreme cases, families have even attempted to kill transgender children,” said Artemis. “While some have been fortunate enough to be saved, there may be cases where individuals have been killed secretly by their own families, as they view the existence of such individuals as a disgrace to the family”.
Artemis emphasized that a safe and healthy society is one where no individual is subjected to violence, sexual harassment, or rejection from their family or society due to their inherent identity or characteristics.
The third layer of violence that the Afghan LGBTQ+ community experiences is from society at large. LGBTQ+ individuals face discrimination from their friends, relatives, classmates, colleagues, and strangers in various public settings such as schools, universities, streets, and workplaces. In fact, anyone who has a relationship with members of the LGBTQ+ community does not hesitate to use violence in the form of insults, humiliation, and abuse against them. Artemis Akbary noted that, in some cases, members of the LGBTQ+ community have been reported to be rejected, insulted, and even subjected to harassment and sexual assault by those around them.
The fourth layer of violence, discrimination, and suppression that the Afghan LGBTQ+ community experiences is from the government and the law. Historically, there have been no protective laws for homosexuals, transgenders, and other members of the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan. In fact, the laws have been discriminatory, such as Article 649 of the Penal Code which made same-sex relationships punishable by up to two years in prison during the Republican period. With the Taliban’s return to power, the situation has become much worse for the Afghan LGBTQ+ community. The Taliban have declared sex change “haram/forbidden” and have prescribed a “killing under the wall” penalty for homosexuality.
Artemis Akbari highlighted the importance of protective laws for the Afghan LGBTQ+ community, noting that “laws act as a protective shield for the LGBTQ+ community against various forms of violence. To illustrate, if Afghanistan’s human rights institutions attempted to pass a law promoting education about gender diversity, sexual orientation, and equality in the schools and society at large, and mandated the media to support and avoid hate speech against the LGBTQ+ community, it could spark a series of positive changes toward a safer and more inclusive society. But, unfortunately, Afghanistan lacked such laws”.
The International Community’s Blind Eye to LGBTQ+ Community in Afghanistan
Despite the oppression faced by civil society in Afghanistan, various groups and organizations represent different segments of Afghan society, including women, ethnic and religious minorities. Despite challenges, the international community strives to listen to these voices and take appropriate action. However, there has been no significant progress in supporting Afghanistan’s LGBTQ+ community. They are not recognized as a social group and have no platform to express their views on matters of peace and politics.
The LGBTQ+ community is currently facing increased restrictions and threats, but the United Nations and the international community have failed to give it the necessary attention, especially during this critical time.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett has issued two reports on the human rights situation of the Afghan citizens living under the Taliban’s rule. In his second report, published on February 9, 2023, Bennett only briefly mentions the LGBTQ+ community, noting that “gay men have been beaten, arrested, raped, detained and in some cases killed by Taliban officials.”
However, Artemis Akbari, a prominent advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, argues that the UN report, particularly its Pashto and Dari translations, not only lacks a supportive dimension for the members of the LGBTQ+ community but also contains “disgusting and insulting language” directed toward them. It is possible that this language was used due to the unprofessionalism of Bennett’s Afghan colleagues. As a result, Bennett was forced to apologize to the Afghan LGBTQ+ community during a meeting in the EU Parliament.
Solutions to Support LGBTQ+ Community in Afghanistan
Artemis proposes that while long-term solutions such as education and media campaigns are necessary, immediate action from international institutions is crucial. The first step should involve documenting acts of violence against the LGBTQ+ community, engaging in dialogue with them, and developing plans to reduce the threats they face.
In the second step, after assessing the situation of the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan, it is necessary to raise awareness and advocate for their rights on various platforms, considering the country’s specific conditions and circumstances. It may be necessary to facilitate the safe departure of those who are particularly vulnerable, using all available means to ensure their protection. Additionally, leveraging the influence and bargaining chip of the international community to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan against Taliban oppression is also essential, Artemis believes.