As Afghanistan falls, for the second time, to the cruel theocracy of the Taliban, the terrible fear sweeping across that war-torn country holds many people in its grip, including its lesbian and gay constituency. The Taliban, ousted from power in 2001 by the US and allied forces, have seized the opportunity of restoring the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, and the judicial atrocities inflicted according to its extreme interpretation of Islamic Sharia law are returning.
Brutal Taliban judicial punishment takes particular aim at those deemed guilty of what it considers to be “un-Islamic” sexual behaviour, be it fornication (pre-marital sex), adultery, or homosexuality. Those convicted of theft and burglary – many surely crimes of desperation in what is one of the poorest countries in the world – may suffer the horrific amputation of a hand, arm, or foot. When the Taliban were in power from 1996 to 2001, women had their fingers cut off just for wearing nail varnish. Women can be publicly flogged just for talking to a man, and stoned to death for extra-marital sex.
On 22 August, a reporter from the German newspaper Bild-Zeitung met with a Taliban judge, Gul Rahim, who spoke without inhibition about the fate awaiting those who disobeyed Sharia law in Taliban-controlled areas: a fate that included amputations, hangings, and stoning or crushing to death. “For homosexuals,” he said, “there are only two punishments: either stoning, or else he must stand behind a wall that collapses onto him. The wall must be 2.5 to 3 metres high.”
A 21-year-old gay student trapped in Kabul, named “Abdul” to protect his identity, last week managed to speak to BBC 1 Newsbeat, when he implored listeners to pray for the lives of LGB people in Afghanistan. He explained that, even before the Taliban had returned to power, it had been impossible to come out as lesbian or gay. He had a partner who lived in a different town and whom he was unable to see because the Taliban were standing at people’s doors and watching who was going in and out. “Life has completely changed,” he declared. “It looks like there is no future for us. We are very scared. If (the Taliban) know, they will kill you on the spot. I cannot ever reveal (being gay) in front of them […] People are dying here. Taliban are shooting people. I am scared for my life. I had many plans for the future. I thought I would have a better life, and it looks like everything has been destroyed.”
Throughout the US occupation of Afghanistan following the 2001 invasion, when the previous Taliban regime was removed from power, homosexuality remained illegal under Afghan law and punishable by prison sentences.
Abdul’s reference to “honour killings” demonstrates how dangerous it was to be gay or lesbian in Afghanistan even before the Taliban once again took over. Abdul knew of cases where fathers would kill their gay sons to restore the perceived “honour” of their family. Lesbian and gay Afghans had already been exposed to such a degree of vicious discrimination and oppression that any meetings had necessarily been furtive and precarious. Throughout the US occupation of Afghanistan following the 2001 invasion, when the previous Taliban regime was removed from power, homosexuality remained illegal under Afghan law and punishable by prison sentences. The US invasion led to the establishment in 2004 of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, with laws that continued to be governed by Islamic theology in a culture where homosexuality is very heavily stigmatised. It seems that the state would largely turn a blind eye to the “honour killings”. Apart from judicial and religious oppression, the police and militias also reportedly carried out violent abuse of gay people.
The primary stated objective of the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan was not to rescue the people from state oppression and establish a democratic country that protected civil liberties. It was instead to neutralise Islamist cells enjoying safe haven in the country and to protect the US mainland from further terrorist attacks. Throughout the US occupation, the judicial and social oppression of women and of lesbian and gay people continued, with homosexuality, and indeed any sex outside marriage, declared illegal, and where transgressors even risked death in “honour killings” or in rural areas of the country where a stricter interpretation of Sharia law was applied.
In October 2016, BBC Afghan in Kabul published an article by Aria Ahmadzai entitled, “Afghanistan LGBT community living under threat of death”, which reported that homosexuality was “rarely discussed in the media and widely condemned as immoral and un-Islamic”. Zainab, a nineteen-year-old lesbian, explained: “In Afghanistan, being lesbian is seen as un-Islamic. If people found out, the result would be death. My family must never know.” All those interviewed for the piece had expressed fear of rejection, of reprisals, and of being murdered, if they came out as lesbian or gay, and all experienced family pressure to get married to an opposite-sex partner.
The gay Afghan writer Nemat Sadat, who now lives in the USA, was also interviewed for the 2016 BBC Kabul article. He explained there were places in the capital where gay people met – such as parks, gyms and malls – but that this normally only led to a one-off encounter. In a culture where most gay people lived at home with their families, they were unable to take anyone back home.
Afghan lesbians suffer severe oppression not only on account of their homosexuality, but also because they are women in a murderously misogynistic culture that has just become even more extreme under Taliban rule.
Given the constraints on the freedoms of Afghan women, his account of these furtive meetings seems to imply they were restricted to gay men. He referred to the great difficulty lesbian and gay Afghans experienced in establishing long-term relationships and friendships, and to their being “trapped by Sharia law”. Of course, Afghan lesbians suffer severe oppression not only on account of their homosexuality, but also because they are women in a murderously misogynistic culture that has just become even more extreme under Taliban rule.
The reaction in the UK to the sudden and chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan has been marked by genuine horror and outrage. These feelings were fully expressed during the seven-hour emergency parliamentary debate on Afghanistan of 18 August, when MPs expressed their fear at an intensified brutalisation of Afghan women and children and decried the general and extensive human rights abuses committed by the Taliban. Of those who spoke, four parliamentarians made explicit reference to the appalling oppression of gay people under Taliban rule: Sir Keir Starmer (Lab), Chris Bryant (Lab), Darren Jones (Lab) and Wera Hobhouse (LD).
Mr Bryant explicitly referred to the brutal manner in which the Taliban execute gay men. In an ironic twist, his concern at the misery left behind by the sudden withdrawal of US troops jars tragically with the optimistic and hopeful words Mr Bryant had shared on Twitter in November last year, when he declared: “I’m proud I nominated @JoeBiden for the Nobel Peace Prize. His zen like calm is going to be vital now, calming the troubled waters, binding the nation’s wounds and strengthening the international rules based order.”
There will be a range of views on whether US troops should ever have invaded Afghanistan, or on whether such a complete withdrawal should have happened at all, or on whether it should have been better planned and executed. However, one thing is clear: all decent people who abhor homophobic and misogynistic religious extremism will be as one in our feelings of dismay, anguish and revulsion at the additional dangers and misery to which, in Afghanistan, the already-beleaguered lesbian and gay community, the community of women, and other groups – including those who have worked with the US or UK governments or military – are now exposed.
We must hope that as many Afghans as possible who are in immediate danger will succeed in finding safe haven abroad as refugees. Tragically, however, many vulnerable Afghans will lack the adequate wealth, good health, or good fortune, to be able to flee. Others will have caring or financial responsibilities to relatives at home whom they cannot abandon. Only a fraction of those whom the Taliban choose to suppress, terrify, and torment, will ever escape to the safety of another land. Many future victims of the Taliban may today still be babies or toddlers, and many will not yet have been born.
Afghanistan has again been visited by a catastrophic evil that parallels the religious cruelty of Europe’s Middle Ages, the latter having taken centuries of suffering, endurance, sacrifice and resistance to overcome. We can only hope that the Afghan people will not have to wait so long for their own liberation from terror, and for the opportunity to live in freedom with the right to love who they wish and to be who they are.
Gary Powell is a gay man and has been active in gay politics since 1980. He is the Research Fellow for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at the Bow Group and the European Special Consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.