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Dark Hollows which Swallow my Dreams: Socio-cultural norms against LBQ women in Afghanistan

By Basira Paigham | Issue #22

Afghan queer woman in Dublin pride (courtesy of the author).
Afghan queer woman in Dublin pride (courtesy of the author).

Conservative social and cultural norms that are prevalent in Afghanistan mean that LBQ (lesbian, bisexual, and queer) women are invisible. While women in Afghanistan face discrimination and social isolation, LBQ individuals face significant challenges and intersectional discrimination in Afghan society, where homosexuality is deeply stigmatised and penalised according to Article 427 of the Afghanistan Penal Code. LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer) people have faced death, torture and forced marriage.

This article provides an analysis of the situation faced by LBQ women in Afghanistan following the resurgence of Taliban rule. Drawing upon available reports and research, we can see the specific challenges and experiences of LBQ women within the context of the Taliban's conservative interpretation of Sharia law. While there is a need for updated, on-the-ground research, this article aims to shed light on the increased risks, persecution, and marginalisation faced by LBQ women today.

After two decades, the Taliban returned to Afghanistan in August 2021. Since returning to power, the Taliban has made notional claims in support of human rights, but has explicitly remarked that this respect does not include LGBT rights. In practice, they are imposing strict gender norms and excluding women from education, work, entertainment and other social, political and economic activities. While women face severe violence, isolation and discrimination, LBQ women experience a double exclusion and discrimination due to the country's conservative and patriarchal society and homophobic socio-cultural norms.

Testimonies in a report by Outright International reflect the conditions on the ground. Fatima, a 26-year-old lesbian, says that, from the moment the Taliban returned to power, ‘the world changed to a dark hollow that is trying to swallow all of my dreams, my happiness, my peace, my achievements, my education, my job.’ Her uncle, a well-known leader and a Taliban ally, arrived at her family’s house with eight Taliban soldiers, in August 2021 following the Taliban’s return to power. Fatima had been working at a local university but she was forced to leave her job and was replaced by a man who is a Taliban loyalist.

Women in Afghanistan are also at risk of forced marriage, which is prevalent across the country. Forced marriages often result in women being trapped in abusive relationships and denied any agency or autonomy over their lives. LBQ women are particularly vulnerable to forced marriages, as their sexual orientation is often seen as a threat to the patriarchal norms of Afghan society. For example, Najwa is a 31-year-old lesbian who is facing the threat of forced marriage by her uncle and relatives who are Taliban supporters. She fled her home town to seek safety but has struggled to find a safe place in Afghanistan to hide as Taliban are imposing new limitations day by day.

The situation for LBQ women in Afghanistan is further complicated by the lack of support and resources available to them. LBQ individuals in Afghanistan are forced to remain hidden and are unable to access any support or resources that might be available to them in other countries. This discrimination extends to transgender individuals in Afghanistan, who are also unable to access any medical or mental health services that are tailored to their specific needs. Nasira, a 25-year-old trans man who, with his mother, was beaten by his uncle and relatives, says, ‘My injuries are fresh and deep. I can’t walk, stand, or move’. His mother and cousin tried to take him to the doctor, but the doctor rejected treatment because of his gender identity.

It is almost impossible for LBQ to escape to other countries to seek asylum; the Taliban do not allow women to travel without being accompanied by a man. Marwa, a lesbian and women’s rights activist, was trapped in Afghanistan unable to cross the border because she did not have a male family member. However, in 2021 she managed to cross the border by preparing a marriage document with her best friend, who was gay. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, she says, ‘I was alone. If I continued to stay alone or stay with my friend (my husband now), the Taliban might arrest us. That is why I asked him to prepare a marriage document.’.

Despite these challenges, these case studies demonstrate a resilient and courageous LBQ community in Afghanistan. Through underground networks and online platforms, LBQ women find solace in connecting with others who share similar experiences. These spaces offer a sense of belonging, validation, and support, allowing LBQ women to express their identities in a more accepting environment. However, these spaces still carry significant risks due to the conservative nature of Afghan society and the potential for persecution by the Taliban.

Despite this, LBQ movements and advocacy networks of Afghan LBQ women human rights defenders—both in Afghanistan and in the diaspora abroad—are trying to advocate for LBQ women rights, visibility and freedom. On Lesbian Day of Visibility this year, Afghan LGBT, one of the first advocacy organisations for LGBTQIA+ rights in Afghanistan, publicly called for international humanitarian organisations and media to stand with Afghanistan LBQ women.

To support and protect Afghanistan LBQ women in this tough situation, awareness-raising about the challenges faced by LBQ women in Afghanistan is crucial. Many people are unaware of the discrimination, violence, and harassment that these women experience on a daily basis. By highlighting these issues through mainstream media, social media campaigns, and public advocacy, we can build greater public support for the protection of LBQ women's rights.

In conclusion, LBQ women and transgender people in Afghanistan face significant challenges, including discrimination, violence, and a lack of support and resources. While the Taliban's recent takeover of the country has worsened the situation for LBQ women, Afghan LBQ human rights defenders advocate for LBQ women who are at risk under the regime. There is an urgent and essential need for the international community to listen and take action to support LBQ individuals in Afghanistan, to ensure that their human rights are protected—and their voices heard.

Basira Paigham is an Afghan queer who is working as a board member of the Afghan LGBT organisation and is a UN Rights and Religion Fellow at Outright International. She has been advocating for Afghan queer rights since 2016.


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