Between The Sword and The Wall: The Plight of Sexual and Gender Minorities in Afghanistan

The anguished voices of Afghan sexual and gender minorities heard over the past six weeks have been devastating. The testimonies of those left behind as Western forces withdrew, the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban swept to power speak of both terror already experienced and the despair at any hope of a better life within their native country being extinguished cruelly and violently.

Multiple Western media outlets have chronicled the horrors faced by these communities:

"They made threats to my brother, and they said to him that if I return home, they will kill me (for being LGBTQ). Journalists, women's rights activists or those who worked with foreigners, they were removed...but nothing has been done for us. We will definitely be killed” Hilal, gay man (CNN)

“If the [Taliban] found out that I am a lesbian it will make them angry. I am also Hazara [minority Shia Muslims, who are often targeted by extremists], so it’s even more difficult for me. They can rape and kill me,” Sunita, lesbian (The Guardian)

"I was telling myself that the Taliban would come and kill me. I was afraid, I was crying all the time... so I asked my [gay male] friend to prepare a marriage document." Marwa, lesbian (AFP – Reported in Buenos Aires Times)

“I am terrified. It’s like a nightmare. I don’t feel safe even in my room. I’m scared of the Taliban. When I see them I feel they will know who I am and they will come to beat me, kick me or send me to prison. I am the only earning member of the family; I was a schoolteacher. Now, I do what I can to provide food and pay my rent. Sometimes, I can’t find work and stay hungry. I’m banned from working because my employer also fears for his life.” Laila, transgender woman (The Guardian)

“First, they took [my boyfriend] out of his house, beat him and beheaded him. The Taliban said this is what we do to LGBT+, to set an example. We were so happy. Now, I’m lost and broken. I’m all alone here. He was my everything and I lost him. We had promised each other that we will go to a foreign country for a master’s degree, and then we would get married,” he says. “We promised that we would never give up. When I tried to commit suicide, this promise keeps coming into my head”. Ahmadullah, gay man (Attitude)

Alongside these direct experiences, evidence of physical and sexual assaults against sexual and gender minority Afghans have emerged, threats have been made against their families and hundreds of individuals have gone into hiding for fear of being on a Taliban hit list. The plight of sexual and gender minorities has disappeared in the rear view mirror of departing Western powers, leaving them, to quote a Spanish idiom, between the sword and the wall – a hopeless situation from which there is no ‘good’ option or outcome.

That Afghanistan was anything but a haven for sexual and gender minorities prior to the Taliban takeover is indisputable and has often lost in the media discourse focused on the intensified persecution of the past two months. Last year, ReportOUT spoke to a gay Afgan man who discussed the triple rejection he had experienced from his family, society and religion, all of which vehemently deny the concept of same-sex love, which, in the case of gay men, is associated with both paedophilia and Western decadence.

The legal threat towards sexual and gender minorities in Afghanistan is also not new. The domestic criminal code was actually strengthened in 2018 under President Ghani to explicitly criminalise same -sex acts:

  • ‘Musaheqeh’ - same-sex intimacy between women punishable by up to one year’s imprisonment (Section 645). Same-sex intimacy between men with penetration, punishable by up two years’ imprisonment (Section 646).

  • ‘Tafkhiz’ – same-sex intimacy without penetration, punishable by to one year’s imprisonment (Section 649)

  • ‘Ghavdi’ – ‘inciting’ two or more people to commit sodomy by introducing them or facilitating a location for them to commit the act. The same principle is applied to heterosexual adultery. (Section 650)

The Taliban has not made any explicit proclamations about sexual and gender minorities since coming to power, and is presenting a public face of studied reasonableness, no doubt attempting to curry sufficient favour to gain the billions of dollars of (currently suspended) foreign aid it will require to govern and feed its people. Yet their history, theocracy and discourse combine to leave no question that the policy towards sexual and gender minorities will emerge as something between proactive persecution and outright extermination.