top of page

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.

A month prior to the Taliban capture of Kabul, a former senior judge told German newspaper Bild that the death penalty for gay people was mandatory under Sharia law (now imposed across the country) and must occur by either of the equally barbaric stoning or ‘wall-toppling’, practices already seen during ISIS’ brutal rule in areas of Iraq and Syria. Sharia law criminalises all non-marital sexual relationships, which by default includes all same-sex relationships, as zina (adultery). This incurs an automatic death penalty and has been part of the Afghan constitution for the past decade, although NGOs largely agree such punishments have rarely been dispensed, at least through official justice channels.

Nemat Sadat, an exiled Afghan academic, was quoted in inews in believing the Taliban might not enact the public stonings and executions that were a notorious hallmark of their 1996 – 2001 rule but instead, “a different approach of quiet killings: a ‘bait, kill and dump policy’, because they’re trying to get the public on their side.” The Taliban leopard doesn’t change its spots, it just pretends they don’t exist.

No legal protections have ever existed for sexual and gender minorities within Afghanistan and, particularly outside major cities, violence, discrimination and rejection from family and society were daily realities. Yet despite this seemingly insurmountable hostility, small pockets of discrete gay life had begun to emerge, particularly in Kabul. Prior to the Taliban takeover, gay and lesbian Afghans spoke of the requirement to be ‘heterosexuals in public, homosexuals in private’ but with this private sphere containing the ability to meet other LGBTQI+ Afghans in gyms, parks and shopping centres of larger cities. Some interviewees spoke of ‘underground’ cafes and ‘safe’ apartments learnt about through word of mouth or online.

Transgender Afghans, whose history can be traced back centuries, were common within Afghanistan’s nascent fashion and beauty industry. Internet proliferation also allowed the 20% of Afghans with access, to meet potential partners online, albeit this was a channel fraught with ‘honey traps’ used to bait gay and bisexual men into blackmail, physical violence and even murder – a tactic mentioned by the ReportOUT interviewee in 2020 and which has reportedly been continued by the Taliban. One of the bitter ironies accompanying the collapse of this discrete existence are the instruments used by Afghanistan’s LGBTQI+ community to develop a voice, a nascent community and a virtual bridge to the outside world have now become instruments that now facilitate their persecution. The social media footprint made by young Afghans from sexual and gender minorities over the past decade has left many in grave danger, as this content has been silently collated by the Taliban and local collaborators and being used to develop lists of LGBTQI+ individuals who have been forced from their homes, and either into hiding, or on the run.

But, if they take the latter option, where can they run to? Not to their families. A Guardian article from 2012 highlighted the Afghan family structure as:

‘A mini-mafia structure that rules over life and death, providing protection for those who comply with its rules and punishing those who dare to stray from the rules. To be gay and Afghan means to live life in perpetual fear of discovery and betrayal, a paranoid existence spent in continuous terror of forced outing.’ (Arbabzadah 2012: n/p)

The stigma of being gay – or even being labelled as such – carries disgrace not just to the individual but across the entire family and tribal structure...a disgrace which under the Taliban could have fatal consequences for the family as well as the individual. This threat is especially true for gay men in what remains a largely patriarchal society where the senior male of the family is expected to uphold the honour of the entire family unit. At best, the individual will be forced into marriage to uphold family honour, at worst they are at risk of violent reprisals up to and including so-called ‘honour killing’ from family members. Lesbians and bisexual women, particularly those from minority backgrounds, face persecution on multiple fronts from the Taliban whose discriminatory hierarchies extend to gender, ethnicity and sexual identity. Even when a family accepts a gay or trans son or daughter, they will be at risk of reprisals and – unless well-connected – can offer little practical protection against Taliban persecutors and neighbours keen to curry favour by ‘outing’ LGBTQI+ Afghans to their new rulers.

Against this backdrop, the UK government’s response has been tepid, as reported by inews

“We will hold the Taliban to account for the protection of the most essential human rights including LGBT rights,” says a Foreign Office spokesman. “And we will use every available political and diplomatic means to ensure that those human rights remain at the top of the international agenda.” However, when we asked the department to specify whether the UK will attempt to rescue any LGBT people, there is no response.

How the UK government plans to do this without diplomatic relations or any effective presence within Afghanistan is a modern Gordian knot, a problem that cannot be tiptoed around but only solved through bold action. ReportOUT notes the previously shameful Home Office guidance, which advised that a gay man could be safely returned to Kabul were he to conceal his sexual identity – a caveat which breached both British Human Rights Law, UN guidelines and is a stain upon a government which is hosting the much-vaunted ‘Safe To Be Me’ global LBGTQI+ conference in June 2022 and proclaims itself a proactive advocate of LGBT rights globally. The UK government must match its lofty discourse with tangible and proactive action to safeguard the lives and rights of LGBTQI+ Afghans which are currently some of the most persecuted members on the planet.

What does this mean in practice? We make four proposals.

  • Firstly, no diplomatic recognition of the Taliban or unfreezing of assets can take place until there is long-lasting and independently verified evidence that the persecution of sexual and gender minorities has ceased.

  • Second, the UK government must lead Western democracies to speak out explicitly awareness of the plight of sexual and gender minorities in Afghanistan and not just bundle their struggles up into the category of ‘minority’ rights where they will be relegated to a peripheral rank – this should be to both Taliban and other regional powers, many of whose record on LGBT rights is appalling.

  • Thirdly, we call upon the UK government to proactively work with NGOs and charities supporting persecuted LGBT Afghans to exit the country and allow them to begin a new life in the UK under the resettlement scheme,

  • Finally, UK asylum guidance should be fundamentally altered to recognise the horrors already faced by gay, bisexual and transgender Afghans and being explicit that under no circumstances should asylum seekers be deported.

The desire to live as one’s whole self is a universal human desire that we often take for granted in the UK. At ReportOUT, we exist to amplify the voices of persecuted sexual and gender minorities around the globe and so the final voice in this blog should belong not to an observer like me but rather Hilal, who I quoted earlier:

"We are LGBT. It is not our fault. It has been written as such in my destiny, in my spirit...No one can change this. All they can do is to kill me. I want life and democracy. We are human, we want life like other people, but other people can live and we cannot.”

Article By Phil Thomas

145 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page