By Liv Wittenberg.
Though the Taliban’s current policy is to assert that homosexuality doesn’t exist in Afghan society, LGBTQ+ people have obviously always existed in Afghanistan– as they have in every part of the world– for just as long as heterosexual people.
The LGBTQ+ Identity in Afghanistan Before 2021
Persian culture and history point to the longstanding presence of gay people in what are modernly known as Afghanistan and Iran. Historical records show Mughal Emperor Babur as taking many young male lovers– only having an interest in women for continuing his line. Until the 20th century, Persian poetry often contained romantic dialogue between two male lovers. In the local practice of bacha bazi, influential, wealthy older men purchase adolescent boys for entertainment. “The boys are trained to dance seductively at male-only parties and often sexually abused.” Though the Taliban outlawed the practice, they’ve been known to participate in it themselves.
If gay culture has always existed in the fabric of Afghan society, where does the Taliban’s justification for persecuting LGBTQ+ Afghans come from? The Taliban follows the Hanafi School of Sunni jurisprudence, one of the four main Sunni schools of law dating back to the ancient Iraqi schools of Kufah. The Hanifi School acknowledges the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as primary sources for legal interpretation but is also known for relying on systematic reasoning in the absence of precedent. The death penalty for homosexuality originates from Sharia law, which is informed by the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed and his companions, and documented in testimonies, or hadiths.
The punishment not only for same-sex relations– but any heterosexual relations between
unmarried people, or between people and animals– comes from Book 39 Hadith 4448 (English
Translation) found in the Kitab Al-Hudud, or the ‘Prescribed Punishments’ of the Sunan Abi
Dawood, “If a man who is not married is seized committing sodomy, he will be stoned to death.”
The death penalty for homosexuality is also practiced in nine other Muslim countries, including in neighboring countries like Pakistan, where hundreds of thousands of Afghans have fled as
refugees. Volume 7, Book 72, Hadith 774 of the Sahih Bukhari also warns against “effeminate men” and “those women who assume the manners of men,” saying that the Prophet Muhammed cursed them and said to “turn them out of your houses”, a passage which has the potential to impact not only cis-gender but also transgender, non-binary, and anyone who doesn’t comply with strict norms of gender expression based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Book 31, Hadith 4007 of the Kitab Al-Libas, or the ‘Book of Clothing’ of the Sunan Abid Dawood warns against men laying with men and women laying with women without undergarments or looking at each other’s genitals.
Given the moral and religious stigma they face, LGBTQ+ Afghans have been living in fear for their lives and livelihoods in various spheres of life since long before 2021. In terms of the legal environment of LGBTQ+ rights in Afghanistan, in 2018, former President Ashraf Ghani passed a legal reform explicitly criminalizing same-sex relations, expanding on a previous penal code that was also widely interpreted to mean that gay sex was a criminal offense. This pre-2018 interpretation of the penal code meant that in many local courts, being gay was found to be a punishable offense. But apart from the legal status of LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan, socially, coming out or being outed has and continues to put gay Afghans at risk of being forced to leave their home, school, or work, or physically assaulted on the street, or by their families.
This 2022 Human Rights Watch Report, which draws on interviews with 60 LGBTQ+ community members from 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, is a critical source for understanding the persecution LGBTQ+ Afghans face, both before and after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. One component of the report illustrates the violence and discrimination LGBTQ+ Afghans who are now in their mid-to-late 20s faced growing up gay in Afghanistan.
The interviews recount violent experiences in the home. Multiple gay men reported attacks on their lives from family members, being thrown out of their homes, and having to drop out of school due to a combination of public and familial harassment. One man recalls his mother intervening to stop his father from strangling him to death when he discovered his son was gay. He then fled his home.
According to Afghan queer rights champion Nemat Sadat, under the democratically elected governments of Karzai and Ghani, gay Afghans were targeted by Taliban elements of the government and killed using a bait, kill, and dump strategy wherein gay and bisexual Afghans were targeted online by men pretending to be gay, lured into a public space, then killed and their bodies disposed of in secret.
It’s critical to note that human rights violations of trans women, bisexual cis-women, and lesbian cis-women are not proportionately represented in human rights reporting. This, of course, is not due to the fact that violations are not occurring, but because of heightened restrictions on the movement of women outside the home. For example, the guidance issued by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice that women traveling more than 72 km must be accompanied by a close male relative deemed eligible, such as their husband, father, or father-in-law.
Violations of LGBTQ+ Afghan’s Rights Under Taliban Rule
There are layers to the Taliban’s violations against the rights of its LGBTQ+ Afghan population. First, there’s the Taliban’s complete unwillingness to recognize LGBTQ+ people as part of Afghan society. As Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Muhajed told Radio Free Europe, “Homosexuality is banned here. Our society does not accept it, and Islam has also banned it. They don’t even exist in our society. If some have appeared due to the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States and NATO, they are against the values of our society, and we will obviously stop them.”
Then, there’s the Taliban’s policy of capital punishment for not people who aren’t heterosexual: A few months before the U.S. completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 30th, 2021, a Taliban judge from a central province told a German media outlet, “For homosexuals, there can only be two punishments: either stoning, or he must stand behind a wall that will fall down on him.” What does this policy mean for LGBTQ+ Afghans? It means that for anyone whose sexuality is not heterosexual, their life and livelihood in Afghanistan is impossible.
What is life like for LGBTQ+ Afghans Under Taliban Rule Today?
The Taliban’s policy and strategy towards the LGBTQ+ community leaves no room for interpretation. Their plan is to systematically track, find, and kill in secret or sentenced to death by stoning or crushing by a toppled 3-meter wall any person who is not strictly heterosexual.
There is a strong sense that to be gay in Afghanistan is to be awaiting an imminent death. As LGBTQ+ rights activist and gay Afghan Nemat Sedat said in an interview, “LGBTQ+ Afghans really don’t have any options. They can either await a slow death or a quick one.” This human rights watch report shows that the lives of LGBTQ+ Afghans have “dramatically worsened” under Taliban rule.
Persecution of LGBTQ+ Afghans started to ramp up in August 2021 as a direct result of withdrawal. Since then, LGBTQ+ Afghans have fled the country for their lives, been executed by the Taliban, tortured, beaten, detained, outed to their families, or otherwise persecuted. This tracker, which provides only a glimpse of the rights violations LGBTQ+ Afghans have faced since July 2021, documents some of these rights violations.
In a brutal attack on the same day the Taliban overtook Kabul, the boyfriend of a man under the pseudonym ‘Gabir’ was abducted from his home, killed, and returned to his family in pieces to show them “this is what we do to gay people.” Another man was tricked– through an elaborate ruse where the Taliban pretended to be someone who could help him flee the country– beaten, raped, and forcibly outed to his father.
The Taliban themselves are not the only source of violence and persecution for the LGBTQ+ Afghan community– the home has been an additional place of extreme violence. A trans woman was locked up and beaten by her family, a lesbian woman who refused an arranged marriage was killed by her family. Another lesbian woman was forced by her family into an arranged marriage with her uncle–who had recently joined the Taliban– outed, and then imprisoned. According to Nemat Sadat, “When the Taliban come to people’s homes, they ask them to hand over [their] LGBTQ+ people, and so a lot of families, out of fear… will go ahead and murder their sons or their daughters or transgender child out of worry that if the Taliban catches them, they would all be complicit in protecting this LGBTQ+ child.”
LGBTQ+ Resistance and Activism Under Current Taliban Rule
Before 2021, there were LGBTQ+ rights efforts operating with some degree of secrecy in Afghanistan, in the form of NGOs, efforts in the business community to hire, train, and create safe spaces for queer Afghans, and work by individuals to provide information and support for their LGBTQ+ community members via radio and social media. For one large NGO, which provided services to LGBTQ+ people with international funding, its director told Human Rights Watch that its funders in the international community have stopped supporting the organization since the U.S. withdrawal.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community leading advocacy and community support initiatives were some of the first to be targeted by the Taliban when they took over. When a former medical student and LGBTQ+ rights activist under the pseudonym Sohil went to obtain an ID card from a local government office, he was detained, beaten, and had boiling water poured on his body. Roshaniya CEO Nemat Sadat was a professor of political science at the American University of Afghanistan before the Taliban invaded. When he became Afghanistan’s first person to come out as gay publicly, he was forced to resign his post. After his replacement was killed within three days of arriving in Kabul and two of his colleagues were kidnapped by the Taliban, Sadat returned to the States for his safety, where he has since continued his campaign for LGBTQ+ Afghan rights, resettled more than 100 LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees, and published a coming-of-age love story between two gay boys growing up in Afghanistan.
But even given the current conditions of fear and secrecy facing LGBTQ+ Afghans, members of the queer community are finding ways to demonstrate their resistance to Taliban oppression. In early February 2023, an LGBTQ+ rights group based in Afghanistan called the Behesht Collective staged a protest at a private residence with the goal of bringing the world’s attention to the persecution of the queer community under the Taliban and the lack of international intervention. One sign read, “We are exhausted by U.S. Recklessness! Trump orchestrated the Taliban deal. Biden left us behind. Stop punishing us.” When the Taliban regime’s goal is to wipe out your existence completely, life becomes impossible. The only hope for survival is to flee. However, in the countries neighboring Afghanistan, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death, just as it is in Afghanistan.
Slow Violence Against LGBTQ+ Afghans– The Long-Term Effects of Persecution
The situation of rights violations the Taliban is committing against LGBTQ+ Afghans– and the oppressive environment that’s created from that– has already begun to have detrimental effects on the mental and physical health of LGBTQ+ Afghans. In such a hostile environment, where LGBTQ+-identifying people are staying at home to avoid arrest– including in the neighboring countries they’ve fled to stay safe– they won’t be able to get access to the mental and physical health resources they need to stay healthy, like LGBTQ+ support groups, gender-affirming care, and HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention, and STD testing. Some LGBTQ+ activists marry a friend of the opposite sex to avoid suspicion by conforming to heterosexual societal norms. Furthermore, given the extreme environment of oppression facing them, depression is a major consideration for LGBTQ+ Afghans who feel there is no hope for the future. And when it comes to migration, it’s clear that for LGBTQ+ Afghans, resettlement in a neighboring country–including Pakistan, whereas of October 2023, the UNHCR estimated more than 700,000 Afghans have fled since August 2021– where homosexuality is also punishable by death, and Afghans face xenophobic policies and attitudes– is not a solution.
LGBTQ+ Persecution & International Law
Under the current Taliban regime, which has made being gay a capital offense, the lives and livelihoods of LGBTQ+ Afghans are being ripped away one by one. It’s not an exaggeration to say the Taliban is actively exterminating its LGBTQ+ population. What are the international legal implications for LGBTQ+ rights violations?
What the Taliban is doing to LGBTQ+ Afghans fits three of the five descriptors of genocide under the definition of the International Committee of the Red Cross: “In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”
Genocide is “a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part”. It can happen in times of peace as well as in times of war. As the Taliban continues to seek the total destruction of all LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan, international legal norms are developing to expand genocide to additional protected-class statutes, such as gender, sometimes referred to as gender apartheid. Given that ‘gender’ is an expansive term that encapsulates experiences of not only women, but the gender identities, expressions, and preferences of all people, grave violations of LGBTQ+ Afghan safety should also be included under the banner of genocide.
Criminalizing consensual same-sex relations is also a violation of international law under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and freedom from discrimination and protection from “torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” are enshrined under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), but another way the international legal system could support the rights of LGBTQ+ Afghans is through its system of special mandates, which help to promote and enforce human rights on the ground. Similar to the report on the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan, the Working Group on the situation of women and girls published in June 2023, the UN special procedures should issue a report on the situation of LGBTQ+-identifying people. The report could originate from the Office of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan and be executed in conjunction with the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. It should include specific language on which UN legal mechanisms are concerned with the Taliban’s persecution of LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan, especially given that there is no core United Nations human treaty that specifically considers the rights of LGBTQ+ people.
Lastly, when it comes to resettlement, including the resettlement of Afghans from secondary countries like Pakistan–where homosexuality is also criminalized–LGBTQ+ Afghans must be given special consideration for refugee status, due to the specific identity-based discrimination they face. The United States has signed the 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees. According to this report from the UNHCR, “U.S. courts have an obligation to construe U.S. statutes in a manner consistent with international obligations whenever possible.” There is still time to intervene, to get people who are facing persecution and a “well-founded fear of future persecution” because of their membership in a particular social group to safety.
Among many vulnerable Afghans, there is a perception that the U.S. and the rest of the world have forgotten about them. However, there is still time for international leaders to prove them wrong.
Liv Wittenburg is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where she studies international human rights law and gender in international affairs. She’s involved with Fletcher Afghan Evacuation and Resettlement (FAER) and the Leir Institute for Human Security, and is a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Chart: – Attacks Against Members of the LGBTQ+ Community in Afghanistan, July 2021 to November 2023, by Olivia Wittenburg, December 2023, PDF, 9 pages.