Note: Here is the second and final part of our interview with Artemis Akbary, an LGBTQ rights activist and founder of the Afghanistan LGBT Organization.
In the first part, Artemis Akbary talked about his personal development, including his discovery of his sexuality, the difficult experiences he encountered with his family and society, how he decided to reveal his gender identity, and how he became an LGBT rights activist.
In this section, he criticizes the attitude of media, journalists, feminists, and civil and human rights activists toward the LGBTQ community in Afghanistan, as well as the indifference shown by the international community and UNAMA. Akbary also talks about the content of his historic speech at the UN Security Council and what it was like being the second LGBTQI activist to address that body.
ZT: Why are such views prevalent among human rights activists and journalists toward the LGBTQ community?
Akbary: Prejudice is really the thing that has the biggest impact. I was in a meeting about Afghanistan. A reporter was video recording the event. When it was my turn to speak, he started taking videos and pictures of the crowd. Then, when the person after me started talking, he turned the camera again and began recording his speech. It was very painful for me and I was very annoyed. Unfortunately, ethnic prejudice, other strange prejudices cause such behaviours. Sometimes the reporter has no problem and wants to cover me, but the media policy and values that prevail in the Afghan society make them victimize us. Or, if they report on us, it is prejudicial, for example, they invent ideas about dance and make-up, and do not talk about our human dignity, and legal, social, and political demands.
ZT: In your opinion, how much does this marginalization play a role in seeing members of the LGBTQ community only as people who have problems and not accepting them as actors in different fields including having political roles and demands?
Akbary: I’ve seen it happen many times to women and the queer community. Tanya Kayhan is a successful woman in Austria and has appeared several times in the Austrian media as an example of a very successful Afghan refugee woman. We were together in a conference where political issues were discussed, yet, when Tanya talked, I could see the men turning their faces away, some of them grinning and ignoring her words. I myself, who was there as a queer, was not considered a person at all. At another conference where Afghanistan was discussed, they did not take me seriously when I asked a question though I have the knowledge, having studied political science and am currently studying international relations. For example, they say that I do not have the necessary ability and understanding to come and talk about political issues. I have written many articles and my university has published several of my pieces, but when I send the articles to Afghan media, they expect me that if I write an article, it will be about the LGBTQ community. When I speak in public, my words are interrupted. They just want me to talk about myself, the LGBTQ community, and weaknesses, and not about the strengths and about our rights.
ZT: We talked about how people’s gender has often disqualified them from politics. How can this be changed?
Akbary: This is a very difficult question. I try not to comment on the current situation in Afghanistan, which is very complicated, because sometimes my opinion may be very uncomfortable for those inside Afghanistan. With the previous administration, I always said there was potential for things to get better for the LGBTQ community. Then, although there were criticisms and questions about whether women’s rights were a show, we could have the same show for the LGBTQ community as I saw flexibility. The prosecutor of Kabul supported the LGBTQ community, there were a number of famous people from the LGBTQ community, and we saw that the community had become a little more open, that people wanted to talk, and even though the media used wrong terms, their intentions were to support LGBTQ rights. The situation was getting better.
In my opinion, if there is a change in Afghanistan, there should come from a change in public opinion. If, for example, foreigners came to Afghanistan and installed a government with Western values, but because the views of the majority of the people had not changed, there was still violence against women, forced marriage, child abuse, and many other things. I think people’s mentality should change. I have not lived in Afghanistan, but I have talked and lived with Afghan refugees. I have not lived in Afghanistan, but I have talked and lived with those who have been immigrants. Many of them are not literate, they look at everything through the lenses of religioun. When someone has information about liberalism, Marxism and feminist ideas, in addition to religious ideas, they changes their glasses and examines the matter from different angles. Because many in Afghanistan see issues only through the lens of religion, this causes violence against the LGBTQ community. But there is potential. For example, in the same short period of time, I saw that the media, especially newspapers, tried very hard to talk about the LGBTQ community. They tried to change people’s views. For example, when Laila Hossaini, known as Sabour, was attacked, we saw a wave of popular support for her. But when the Taliban came to power and declared war on science, knowledge, suppressed the media and imposed other ideas on the people again, then we saw regression.
ZT: Given that the Taliban have practically eliminated women from society and say that the LGBTQ community does not exist, do you think it is possible to spread awareness in a way that changes mentalities?
Akbary: We live in the 21st century, in which people have access to the internet and social media, and countries can no longer prevent the infiltration and dissemination of information from abroad by controlling their own borders. In Iran, information was very limited and they had no information about the LGBTQ community. Many people, even members of the LGBTQ community, do not know the difference between gay and trans. Now, in the mass demonstrations that have taken place in Iran, we see that some are holding the rainbow flag and support the LGBTQ community. The LGBTQ community is politically organized. We can see how much stronger that movement has become because several media outlets provided good information. While the people in Afghanistan have access to social media, Iranian people do not have full access to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Telegram, WhatsApp, and Instagram. But these same media, despite the restrictions on them in Iran, were able to change public opinion.
This change will definitely happen for Afghanistan; if the information is correct, it will definitely happen. This requires a collective effort. We don’t have that many LGBTQ activists, though this is not a reason to say that the LGBTQ community in Afghanistan is weak but rather we do not have a safe environment for them to feel safe and start their activities. This outreach is a collective effort: Feminists, human rights activists, journalists, media, must work hand-in-hand to make things go right. We can do what the Iranians did.
ZT: I want to know what demands you raised at the United Nations? Do you see a way to achieve them?
Akbary: I spoke at the United Nations about the situation of the LGBTQ community in Afghanistan, especially the narrative of several people whose lives we documented with Human Rights Watch. There was a story of a gay man who informed the public through social media and he was killed in a horrible way, and the life of an Afghan intersex woman who has been subjected to violence many times because of being intersex. I told the story of Sahar, a lesbian woman who, when she was a child, was forced by her family to marry an older man. Though she said that she was too young and didn’t even know what sex meant, she was raped daily.
I gave statistics of how many of the LGBTQ community experienced violence, and I talked about what solutions should be devised to create a safe and legal asylum path to those who are in danger, and about LGBTQ asylum seekers in transit countries like Türkiye. I also criticized the international community, which has been vocal about the situation of women, ethnic, and religious minorities, but has been silent on the plight of the LGBTQ community. I criticized the UNAMA [UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan], which was established in 2002 to defend the rights of all the people of Afghanistan, but so far it has not done anything for the LGBTQ community.
I said that UNMA should form a solution and a strong relationship with the LGBTQ community in order to be able to help them and provide humanitarian aid. I recommended the ICC [International Criminal Court], of which Afghanistan is a member, should be given a separate mission to investigate violence against the LGBTQ community and punish its perpetrators. I noted that there are mechanisms by which the ICC can conduct humanitarian interventions and prosecutions of gender-based violence.
ZT: Can you talk about the organization that you founded, including its activities and services and what you have achieved?
Akbary: When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, we saw that there was no organization to help the LGBTQ community, and we launched a campaign for members of the LGBTQ community to be relocated to somewhere safe. Because of this campaign, many media and politicians contacted us. First, we were able to send financial aid to many people. We talked to a number of foreign non-governmental organizations who came forward to help with the LGBTQ community. Then we officially registered our organization in the Czech Republic. We don’t receive any funding from anywhere. All our work is voluntary, and we collected money through fundraising and sent it to Afghanistan to those in need. Later, with the cooperation of other organizations, we were able to evacuate a few people, and relocate them to safe countries. Unfortunately, the number was very small. For example, in 2022 alone, we received more than 1,500 requests, but we evaluated only 835 requests, of which 117 people received financial aid inside Afghanistan, 29 in Türkiye, and 86 people were relocated, which is a small number. Importantly, we raised the voice of the community, about whom the world was silent.
ZT: Is there anything else you want to share with our audience?
Akbary: I gave this message in the Security Council: No one on Earth should experience violence, sexual harassment, rape, and murder because of who they are, who they love, and what they are – even if it is his personal choice or because he was born the way he is. No one on Earth deserves to experience violence.
ZT: That message was beautiful. Thank you again for your time.