Afghanistan has long been a dangerous country for its LGBTQ community, which has always been deprived of fundamental human rights. Due to that lack of any legal protections, members of the LGBTQ community have suffered violence at the hands of their family members, communities and society as a whole. With the Taliban in power, the situation has become even more dangerous. Human rights organizations have repeatedly reported that the Taliban are harassing and torturing members of the LGBTQ community.
In May 2023, Zahra Nader, the editor-in-chief at Zan Times, interviewed Artemis Akbary, a LGBTQ rights activist and the head of the Afghan LGBT Organization, about the current situation of the LGBTQ community in Afghanistan, what issues and problems they experience in the hands of their families society, and what should and can be done to improve their situation.
Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Zan Times: I want to start by asking how your experience as a member of the LGBTQ community in Afghanistan? And how did you find and know yourself?
Artemis Akbary: In my opinion, one of the most challenging stages in the life of any member of the LGBT community is to know themself. I was born in the closed society of Iran and grew up in a very religious city. At that time, there was no access to the internet. I didn’t know what homosexuality meant – the only thing I knew about homosexuality was that the Quran had mentioned the people of Lut among whom homosexuality was prevalent and who were punished by God. I always felt guilty and thought that maybe it was just a passing feeling that would go away later.
I remember that the news said that two men got married in a European country, I said to myself, “Is it possible?” I had this feeling myself. Then, with the arrival of the internet, I researched, because I had a strong guilty conscience. On the one hand, I felt like I was going to hell. I was very religious at that time and grew up in a religious family. One day, I told a mullah that I am like this. “You must repent,” he replied. “This is wrong and you should not live like this, you will go to hell.” This caused me to have a lot of guilt and I suppressed my identity, and my suppression caused me severe depression.
And then I got to know the word “gay” through the internet and researched more about myself. First, I had a very good feeling that I am not alone, because, until then, I thought that I was the only person who was like this, and then I realized that no, this is a natural feeling. On the one hand, I lived in a society that denied my existence, suppressed it, and, if they found out that I was gay, the sentence was death. I tried to commit suicide once because of the severe depression I had in my teenage years. I felt very lonely. My family was very shocked and asked why I did this? I was also not in a good mood and said that I was gay. I thought at that moment that my family was very supportive, but unfortunately it wasn’t the case and one of the worst experiences of my life happened after that incident. They harassed and pressured me; my family started treating me practically like a prisoner. I had to escape to Türkiye to get away from my family.
ZT: When was the first time you realized that you are different from others, and what was the effect of that psychological pressure from your family?
Akbary: I knew that I was different since I was a child, And at the age of 18 or 19, I got to know the word: homosexuality. First, a person feels a sense of freedom and feels that he is not alone and feels happy. Then I installed Telegram and found people like me. At that time, when the Internet was not widely available and no one trusted anyone, you had to spend a lot of time talking to be able to trust each other.
But the worst time was when my family found out. A family should be a place where one feels safe, but unfortunately, it was not the case for me, because they took me to the mullahs, who said funny things: for example, one mullah told me that it was Tuesday night and the genie passed by him and then entered his body, then he told me that I should fast for 40 days and recite the whole Quran seven times to get rid of this genie. When they were disappointed with one mullah, they took me to another. One said that when his embryo wanted to be formed, the sperm was dissolved with a genie and this caused him to be born like this and there is nothing that could be done about it. They had taken me to these mullahs enough times that I hated religion altogether. The mullahs were contemptuous toward me, and the contempt was created in my family mostly because of those mullahs.
However, in Türkiye, one family helped me a lot. It was a religious family headed by a mullah and his wife, who was also very religious. When that lady found out that I am gay, she looked at me and said, “God must have created you this way. I should not judge you. I love you as God created you and I respect you.” I realized there was a difference of views; my mother saw me as someone with a demon in my body. Members of the LGBTQ community first experience violence from themselves and suppress their identities all the time. We think that the family is our support, but in this particular case, my family is never like that and it hurts [an LGBTQ] person and causes injuries that may never be healed.
ZT: When did you decide to work using your real name and identity and become the voice of this community? Can you tell us more about that moment and how it occurred?
Akbary: Those terrible events that happened to me in Iran, then the path I took to reach Türkiye all influenced me and made me start my activism, especially when I saw a family help me even though they don’t even know me. My role model was that Hazara woman refugee in Türkiye, a woman who was illiterate, someone who lost her father and brother, and whose own daughter was killed in Türkiye, and had seen so much hardship. She and her husband had lived in Türkiye for 10 years after many things happened to them in Afghanistan.
Then I realized that I was not the only one and that they’d helped many others. I could see that their only concern was to help others, and that gave me a sense of responsibility, because someone had saved me from that situation, and I also felt that it was my duty to help others. But I still didn’t have that courage, because I was really afraid until I read Khaled Hosseini’s books, “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” which was about the situation of Afghan women. Those two books caused me to come out of the closet. I went on Twitter and came out. I wrote about the LGBT community and then I started doing radio. In my opinion, it was that family that opened the path of activism for me.
ZT: You are attacked by many for the activities you undertake. Who has caused the most damage in the course of your activities?
Akbary: When I started my activity, my first interview was with Franak Amidi in a live program on Instagram. He was a BBC journalist. He asked me how many layers of violence are experienced by the LGBTQ community. I answered that there are four layers: themselves, their family, society and people, and the government. If asked again, I will add a fifth layer: human rights activists and those who consider themselves feminists.
Because when I started my activism, I felt pressure from these four layers from all sides. What really pains me is that I have been brutalized, verbally abused, and humiliated many times by those who call themselves human rights activists. Let me tell you my experience. I will not mention people’s names – when the time comes and I am ready, I will mention those people, who are well-known people in Afghanistan, some of whom have been politicians.
When I entered Europe, I had the freedom to travel and established my own organization. I had gone to a conference in Brussels and there were some well-known women’s rights activists. After I finished my speech, I clearly heard them talking behind me: “Now the faggots are also asking for their rights.” This was very painful for me. In that speech, I had said we are being beheaded, we are killed because we were born this way and this is something that is not in our hands and is not a personal choice, and even if it is a personal choice, no one deserves to be beheaded or abandoned by their family.
Then I saw similar reactions in several other places. A human rights activist asked, “Since when did you decide to promote this issue in our society?” Or last year, when I spoke to the European Parliament, an Afghan women activist who has lived in Europe for many years called me into a corridor with a mocking expression and said, “Tell me about homosexuals.”
Wherever I spoke, I have emphasized that Afghan women and the LGBTQ community have a common pain and the violence they experience is from the same root, which is because of the extreme patriarchy that we all experience. We have to fight against this extreme patriarchy together, but to my surprise, many times I have been subjected to violence by the same people who consider themselves women’s rights activists.
Human rights activists have told me, “Hazaras are like this, Pashtuns are not like this.” Somewhere else I was told, “You Tajiks are like this, we Pashtuns are not like that.” It was shocking to me that someone would say such things because of ethnic prejudice. This issue has different layers. Many times I have heard Hazara activists say, “We Hazaras don’t have people like this.”
The media and journalists also overlook the LGBT community. For example, although there were reporters from different media at the last meeting I attended at the United Nations Security Council, they did not cover my speech though it was the second time in the 77-year history of the Security Council that the LGBTQ community was discussed. It was the first time that such a meeting was held in an open manner and two activists were invited to speak in it, one of them was from Afghanistan, and it was expected that the Persian-language media would cover it, but due to discrimination, no Persian and Pashto media covered it. It was only foreign media that covered it and this shows deep-rooted discrimination and cultural poverty. When I say cultural poverty, unfortunately journalists and activists suffer from it as they have no desire to work and reflect on LGBTQ issues. If they mention those issues, they don’t cover it as a human rights issue. When I give interviews with some media, they expect that, for example, I will appear in front of the camera with seven layers of make-up, and I have to appear in front of the camera according to their stereotypes and preconceptions in their minds. Other times, if they cover the situation of the LGBTQ community, they use derogatory language. One of these TV channels had used the phrase “Izak” [a derogatory term for someone who is transgendered] in a tweet; I left a comment and talked to its editor and he agreed to delete that tweet, but he did not rectify it.
To be continued.