Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Afghans and people who do not conform to rigid gender norms in Afghanistan have faced an increasingly desperate situation and grave threats to their safety and lives under the Taliban, Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International said in a report released today.
The 43-page report, “‘Even If You Go to the Skies, We’ll Find You’: LGBT People in Afghanistan After the Taliban Takeover,” is based on 60 interviews with LGBT Afghans. Many reported that Taliban members attacked or threatened them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Others reported abuse from family members, neighbors, and romantic partners who now support the Taliban or believed they had to act against LGBT people close to them to ensure their own safety. Some fled their homes from attacks by Taliban members or supporters pursuing them. Others watched lives they had carefully built over the years disappear overnight and found themselves at risk of being targeted at any time because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“We spoke with LGBT Afghans who have survived gang rape, mob attacks, or have been hunted by their own family members who joined the Taliban, and they have no hope that state institutions will protect them,” said J. Lester Feder, senior fellow for emergency research at OutRight Action International. “For those LGBT people who want to flee the country, there are few good options; most of Afghanistan’s neighbors also criminalize same-sex relations. It is difficult to overstate how devastating – and terrifying – the return of Taliban rule has been for LGBT Afghans.”
Most interviewees were in Afghanistan, while others had fled to nearby countries. In addition to worrying about these countries’ laws against same-sex relations, interviewees outside Afghanistan lacked proper immigration status, so were at risk of being summarily deported.
Afghanistan was a dangerous place for LGBT people well before the Taliban retook full control of the country on August 15, 2021. In 2018, the government of then-President Ashraf Ghani passed a law that explicitly criminalized same-sex sexual relations, and the previous penal code included vague language widely interpreted as making same-sex relations a criminal offense. LGBT people interviewed had experienced many abuses because of their sexual orientation or gender identity prior to the Taliban’s return to power, including sexual violence, child and forced marriage, physical violence from their families and others, expulsion from schools, blackmail, and being outed. Many were forced to conceal key aspects of their identity from society and from family, friends, and colleagues.
However, when the Taliban, who had been in power from 1996 to late 2001, regained control of the country, the situation dramatically worsened. The Taliban reaffirmed the previous government’s criminalization of same-sex relations, and some of its leaders vowed to take a hard line against the rights of LGBT people. A Taliban spokesperson told Reuters in October, “LGBT… That’s against our Sharia [Islamic] law.”
A Taliban judge told the German tabloid Bild shortly before the fall of Kabul, “For homosexuals, there can only be two punishments: either stoning, or he must stand behind a wall that will fall down on him.” A manual issued by the Taliban Ministry of Vice and Virtue in 2020 states that religious leaders shall prohibit same-sex relations and that “strong allegations” of homosexuality shall be referred to the ministry’s district manager for adjudication and punishment.
Despite making repeated pledges to respect human rights, the Taliban have engaged in widespread rights abuses since retaking control of the country, including revenge killings, systematic discrimination against women and girls, severe restrictions on freedom of expression and the media, and land grabbing. In this context, marked by systematic abuse of power combined with virulent anti-LGBT sentiment, Taliban officials and their supporters have carried out acts of violence against LGBT people with impunity.
A gay man said that Taliban members detained him at a checkpoint, beat him, and gang-raped him, telling him, “From now on anytime we want to be able to find you, we will. And we will do whatever we want with you.” A lesbian said that after the Taliban takeover, her male relatives joined the Taliban and threatened to kill her because of her sexual orientation.
Rainbow Railroad Operates in Secret to Bring People to Safety
Most people interviewed believed their only path to safety was asylum in a country with greater protections for LGBT people, but very few LGBT Afghans escaping Afghanistan are known to have reached a safe country. Only the United Kingdom has publicly announced that it has resettled a small number of LGBT Afghans. Organizations assisting LGBT Afghans say that hundreds of people have contacted them, seeking international protection and resettlement.
“The Taliban have explicitly pledged not to respect LGBT Afghans rights,” said Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s critically important for concerned governments to urgently put pressure on the Taliban to respect the rights of LGBT people, ensure that assistance they provide Afghanistan reaches LGBT people, and recognize that LGBT Afghans seeking asylum face a special risk of persecution in Afghanistan and neighboring countries.”
All names are pseudonyms, for their protection
A few weeks after the Taliban took control of Kabul, Ramiz S. headed to his former office to collect his paycheck. Ramiz, 20, had stayed away from his office because he worked in a profession that the Taliban had targeted for retribution. But he needed the cash.
He had to pass through checkpoints and at one, an armed man shouted, “You are an izak,” a derogatory term for gay people. One man hit Ramiz in the throat, punched him in the stomach, and kicked him in the back. They loaded him into a car and took him to another location where four men whipped and then gang raped him over eight hours.
When they released him, the men said they would come for him again. “From now on anytime we want to be able to find you, we will. And we will do whatever we want with you,” Ramiz recalled the men telling him.
Shortly afterward, Ramiz received word that two men came to his office and demanded his records, including his address and his family’s address in his home province. Ramiz went into hiding, but Taliban members repeatedly visited his parents’ house demanding to know where he was. At one point they occupied his family’s home for three days, interrogating family members and beating his siblings. Ramiz rarely left his hiding places, but when he risked a trip to the doctor, a Taliban member whom he believed knew about the attack spotted him and beat him.
About two weeks after the Taliban captured Kabul, Hamid N.’s boyfriend’s parents came knocking on Hamid’s door. The two men had met at university and been a couple for about a year, though his boyfriend’s parents just thought the young men were friends.
They said their son had been missing for two or three days. But Hamid hadn’t heard from him either. The next day the family found their son’s body.
The parents returned to Hamid’s house, saying they had heard rumors that Hamid was gay, and feared their son might have been killed because of their relationship. “It was a warning for me, too,” Hamid said, describing urgent steps he took to flee the country.
Brushna Y. was living with her uncle’s family in a small village. In July, about six weeks before the fall of Kabul, her cousin discovered Brushna with her female partner and reported them to Brushna’s uncle. Her uncle wanted to kill her, Brushna said, to “get rid of this shame” from the family.
Brushna managed to escape and returned to her parents’ house in the city. Her uncle and male cousins demanded that she be killed. Her parents refused and engaged her to a man who didn’t know she was a lesbian. But her uncle and cousins weren’t satisfied. “Why did you engage this daughter of yours? She needs to be killed,” she overheard one of her relatives say.
As long as the previous government was in power, she wasn’t too worried. “At that time there was no Taliban – there were police,” Brushna said. “No one could kill me easily.” But when the government fell in August, her uncle and male cousins joined the Taliban. Now, they insisted, they had the power to kill Brushna if her father would not take action. “If you’re not going to do this, we will do it,” she recalled a relative saying. “We have the authority.”
Her parents arranged for a speedy wedding, beating Brushna when she tried to refuse to go through with it. Then her parents paid her husband to take her to a nearby country, telling him he’d have more luck finding work there. But one of her cousins got word to her husband that she is a lesbian. Now, Brushna said, her husband beats her nearly every day and will not allow her to leave the house. “I’m afraid he will kill me, or my uncle’s son will kill me,” Brushna said in a brief phone call while her husband was out of the house, the only time she was able to make calls.
Farid Q., in his early 20s, said that he had confessed to a neighbor in August that he had a crush on him. The neighbor hadn’t rejected the overture, so Farid was hopeful they might strike up a relationship. “After the Taliban took over, I was texting him and I saw that he had [pictures of] Taliban members as his display picture,” Farid said. “I texted and asked him, ‘Why did you join the Taliban? They are not good people.’ He said, ‘Are you a good person? You are gay.’ Then he started threatening me. …He said, ‘Even if you go to the skies, we’ll find you. We will arrest you – because I shared all of your info with Taliban groups.'” Farid said the man and other Taliban members came to look for him at his home several times a day for a week, but family members hid him until he was able to flee.
When Taliban forces took their city in August, Aimal W. and Aryan D. took shelter with two other trans women in an abandoned hostel. The neighbors would often insult them. Their friend Riza was the most masculine of the group, so she would go out to buy food for the others. “Every moment we receive threats and calls,” Aimal said. “Even children on the street say, ‘You’re still here? Why hasn’t the Taliban taken you yet?'”
Six weeks under Taliban rule, the neighbors decided to take matters into their own hands. One morning in October, someone started pounding on Riza’s door at about 6 a.m. When she opened it, a group of more than 20 neighbors pounced on her, Aryan and Aimal said, beating her viciously and tearing off her clothes.
Aryan tried to intervene, approaching one woman in the mob to ask, “Why are you doing this?” “You’re making our community filthy,” the woman replied. “We are going to call the [Taliban] police and they’re going to clean you from this place.”
Riza’s friends fled, leaving behind all their belongings. Aimal saw a police car drive up as she ran away and saw men tying Riza up with a rope. Aimal later sneaked back to the neighborhood to see if she could find out what happened to Riza. A friendly shopkeeper told her he’d last seen Riza being loaded naked into the police car.
More than 10 days passed before Aryan or Aimal heard from Riza again. Riza found Aryan by chance, after her captors had dumped her on the street in men’s clothes and without a cell phone. Aryan saw that Riza’s body was covered with purple and green bruises, and it looked like Riza’s nose had been broken. Her head was patchily shaved and covered in cuts. Taliban members had also shaved her eyebrows.
“You will be a sign to the public and to your trans community,” Riza recalled her captors saying. “It is a lesson, and you should stop dancing and sex work.” Riza told Aryan she’d been held naked at the police station and beaten every day.
Aryan said Riza recalled a Taliban commander telling her that if he ever saw her in the city again, he would kill her. “You should leave the capital and go back to your family,” he allegedly said. Aryan bought Riza a meal and a bus ticket home, though her family had disowned her and she had nowhere to stay there. She has not heard from Riza since.