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‘I wish I was a woman so I could get married or a man so I could work’: an interview with a transgender

The LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan is in crisis. Marginalized under the previous government, it faces humiliation, suppression and outright oppression under the Taliban. Its members are deprived of legal support and social acceptance and are increasingly persecuted.  

Sorayya Mahboob, an activist for sexual minority rights in Afghanistan, talked with a transgender woman named Gulali about the struggles and hardships that she and the LGBTQ+ community are enduring in Afghanistan (her name is changed to protect her identity). The interview, which was conducted by phone in April 2023, has been edited for length and clarity.  

Sorayya Mahboob: Please introduce yourself. 

Gulali: I am 36 years old. I studied up to ninth grade, am currently unemployed, and live with my paternal family in Kabul. 

Mahboob: Tell us about how you learned of your gender identity?  

Gulali: I learned some things about gender identity in several educational classes that had been held by an organization before the Taliban came [back to power]. What I remember is that they said gender identity has two parts: one is the individual’s own feelings and satisfaction, and the other part is what people recognize us as. That means that gender identity is in two parts: the identity that one personally feels, and the identity that is imposed on us by others. 

Mahboob: So, what is your gender identity? What do you feel and how do others perceive you?  

Gulali: Until I was 14 or 15, I didn’t understand what my gender identity was. I wasn’t happy with being a girl. I felt like I was neither a girl nor a boy. My family was very closed off – nobody was allowed to talk about sexual matters. None of our family members were very educated, and they were also very religious. The environment at home was very restrictive.  

From my childhood, I liked playing with boys. I liked the boys’ games. I wasn’t satisfied with my body. I wanted to be a boy. I wanted to go to school with boys but I didn’t have this right. I even remember in my teenage years, I wanted to touch girls’ bodies. I wanted to sleep with girls or women, but I didn’t have the courage to express these feelings to anyone.  

Many times, I was upset, had headaches, and felt suffocated at home. Overall, I had not found myself and I didn’t trust anyone to tell them about my problems. I wanted to tell my mother several times, but as I started to say something, I got scared and changed the subject. I wasn’t happy with being a girl. I wasn’t satisfied with my feminine identity.  

Even my [menstrual] periods were different from those of others. I had no sexual interest in boys and had an intense fear of marriage. It was during the Karzai administration that I went to a doctor for a female illness. She told me that I have a high level of male hormones and explained to me that I could even turn myself into a man. With fear and shame, I asked her what my problem was. She said that I am a transgender woman. Afterward, I searched the term “trans” a lot. When I had an internet-enabled phone, I read a lot about it and understood that I am trans. But my family, neighbours, and everyone believe that I am a woman. Once, a woman in the neighborhood told my mother that her daughter was masculine. She didn’t understand that I am also trans. 

Mahboob: Does your family know about your gender identity and feelings? What do they say about you? 

Gulali: I was 23 or 24 years old when one of my father’s acquaintances came to ask for my hands. As soon as I realized it, I pretended to be ill and cried, saying I won’t get married. My father came to me and first gently asked why, did I love someone else, and such questions. I replied that I was completely repulsed by the idea of getting married. He got upset, kicked me in the head and stomach, and left. The suitor left, and then my mother privately asked me what was wrong. I swore that I don’t like men; I’m scared of marriage and copulation.  

I think my mother talked to the doctor and the doctor had told her about me being transgender. She had told my father, and gradually all the members of the family got to know about my situation. Everyone’s behaviour toward me changed. I felt everyone was disgusted with me. They treated me like an untouchable person. For several months, maybe even a year, my father and brother did not talk to me. I was like a prisoner. I couldn’t participate in any ceremonies or weddings. I tried to commit suicide a few times. I suffered a lot. Then slowly, with my mother’s efforts, my father and brother’s behaviour towards me improved.  

Mahboob: Are you married? Tell us about your circumstances. 

Gulali: About 10 years ago, due to family and societal pressure, I was forced to marry someone who already had four children. I can’t say much except that I was severely tortured. He treated me like an animal. On our wedding night, he realized that I wasn’t like other women [Gulali cries]. Things that happened to me that no human can endure. He used a stick on me [more crying]. I had to report the abuse to a female police officer, and she showed me a safe house, where I fled to away from the abuse and torture. But even the women in the safe house and its staff used to taunt me. I was in the safe house when my husband divorced me and took 100,000 afghani from my father. 

Mahboob: How do your neighbours and friends treat you? 

Gulali: Until I got married, no one else knew about my situation except my family. I didn’t interact much with others and I was introverted. When I went to the safe house, my husband told everyone that I am not a “woman.” He called me a eunuch and things like that. 

When I left the safe house and returned to my father’s home, everyone’s attitudes and behaviors had changed both because of my escape and my gender issues. Everyone treated me with insults and contempt.  

Many neighbours severed relations with us. It was really hard. My father repeatedly said that he had lost all his honour and dignity because of me. Eventually, the conflicts in our area increased, and my father moved our family to Kabul. Here in Kabul, nobody cared about anyone, and no one knew who I was. 

Mahboob: What impact does the Taliban coming to power have on your situation? 

Gulali: When I came to Kabul, I had been introduced to an organization through the staff of the safe house where I was working. The head of the organization talked to a foreigner who could help me transition and prepare for my gender-reassignment surgery and treatment. A lot was done, then the Taliban returned, and everything was ruined.  

The organization was closed. I lost my job. Providing for the house expenses was on my shoulders. It’s been almost two years without an income. My gender transition plan and treatment were cancelled. My ruined life became even more ruined. 

Mahboob: What bothers you the most?  

Gulali: Everything. No one understands me. No one knows about my problem. I’m always imprisoned. I go out covered with a chador. There is nowhere for me to experience freedom. There is no refuge. My father can no longer work. My brother has gone to Iran, and we have no news from him. My mother is sick. We have consumed all of the money I had saved during my work with that organization. Community elders consume the foreign aid themselves.  

I wish I was a woman so I could get married or a man so I could work. 

Mahboob: What do you want from aid institutions and organizations?  

Gulali: I wish I could get treated and get rid of all this suffering and misery. I wish the Taliban would let me work. I have nothing else to say. I just wish I could get free from this misery sooner.