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‘I’m fighting for equal rights’: An interview with Mohra Barakzay

For 11 days, Mohra Barakzay was on a hunger strike to get the world to recognize the gender apartheid in Afghanistan. The 22-year-old Swedish-based queer activist for the LGBTQ+ community garnered extensive support from gender groups and attention from the media, which played a significant role in conveying her voice to the United Nations, the Swedish government, and human rights organizations. 

On September 16, she issued a press release stating that Swedish police had removed her protest tent for security reasons. Mohra Barakzay continued her hunger strike for another two days. On September 18, she decided to end her hunger strike due to her deteriorating health but vowed to continue her sit-in-protest.  

Zan Times interviewed Mohra Barakzay to find out more about her life, how her family reacted to her gender identity, her activism in support of the LGBTQ+ community, and her hopes for the future.This interview has been edited for clarity and length.    

Zan Times: First, please introduce yourself to the readers of Zan Times. They may have little information about your background though they probably know about your recent activism and struggle. 

Mohra Barakzay: I was born in 2001. I have been living in Sweden for two years, but before that, I lived in Afghanistan, and, for a short time, in India. Since the age of 13, I have worked in various Afghanistan-based media, especially in the dubbing department of Aria TV, a channel for children. After that, I worked for Afghanistan TV, Khurshid TV, and other media.  

Due to problems in Afghanistan, I left the country and went to India after graduating from university with a degree in journalism. I migrated to Sweden two years ago and live here with my family. Alongside my civil activism for LGBTQ+ rights, I am continuing my higher education. 

ZT: When and how did you realize that your gender identity differs from the gender you were assigned at birth, and how did it become your primary identity? 

Barakzay: I began to understand this issue when I was around 7 and realized that my gender identity differed from the one I was born with. At that time, I was more comfortable with girls than boys; I played more with girls and used girls’ toys. I liked using my mother’s makeup and wearing her clothes. Initially, I didn’t take these feelings seriously, thinking that these differences would change as I grew older. But over time, I realized that these feelings are a part of my identity and wouldn’t change. This understanding gradually became my primary identity. 

ZT: How did your family members react to this change in your gender, and how were you accepted? 

Barakzay: Initially, my relatives opposed this change. For some of them, this concept was unfamiliar and new. But, with time and my explanations, they gradually accepted the change. My parents also did not understand it, but they accepted the situation over time and supported me. Now, my entire family accepts my identity as a reality and supports me. 

ZT: How did your relatives react to the change in your gender identity? 

Barakzay: Without a doubt, some ridiculed the matter, and some slandered both me and my family. Some also thought that I wanted to make a refugee case to leave Afghanistan and was using this issue as an excuse. This wasn’t much of a concern for me, but it was deeply distressing for my family, especially my grandmother. I love my grandmother very much. Being an older woman, she was worried about the mindset of both distant and close relatives. She suffered greatly from this situation, which also profoundly hurt me. But I had no choice but to be myself, and to fight.  

After ending my hunger strike today, my grandmother called me and said, “Well done, we are proud of who you are. Continue on this path because you will undoubtedly succeed.” I think this is the achievement of my life. When I heard these beautiful words from my grandmother, it truly felt like a significant accomplishment for me. 

ZT: You mentioned that initially, your grandmother was against you, but now she is proud of you. Can you talk to us about your journey from being a source of shame for the family to a source of pride? 

Barakzay: If a struggle is firmly rooted in thought and knowledge, it doesn’t take long to yield results. My battle took about seven years. Given the achievements I have today, seven years isn’t a long time. This achievement so far has only been within my family. But I and other queer individuals must tread much longer paths to fight in society and change perspectives. 

ZT: What made you come out? 

Barakzay: Queer individuals in Afghanistan are recognized by their way of speaking and their gestures, and I was the same. Among relatives, I was referred to with the term “Zancho” and in society with the phrase “Izak.” I suffered and felt pain because ofwith these two terms for years. And it wasn’t just me, but the entire queer community in Afghanistan faced the same fate.  

To get the queer community accepted in society, I made my identity public and began my fight. I started this struggle in India because, even during the republic era in Afghanistan, discussing the reality of queer existence was challenging. That’s why when I left Afghanistan in 2019, I began my fight, appeared on social media, and initiated my civil activism. 

ZT: In the media outlets where you worked, were you actively trying to change public opinion about queer individuals, or was your identity concealed? 

Barakzay: Where I worked, everyone knew I was queer because I would wear light makeup. Because of my gender, I was dismissed from several media outlets.  

In 2018, I wanted to work for Afghanistan TV, but had a mullah who was responsible for religious programs and who later became the head of that channel and he held a [prejudiced view] had certain expectations of me. Sadly, many people in Afghanistan only see queer individuals as sexual objects, and this gentleman saw me the same way and wanted to have a sexual relationship with me. It’s disgraceful and disheartening to me that people who know I’m queer would solicit sexual favours. When I declined the mullah’s proposal, they removed me from my job a few days later. 

ZT: How did you get acquainted with queer individuals in Afghanistan, and are you aware of their current situation? 

Barakzay: I got to know many queer individuals through virtual platforms. One still connects of them is still with me. By getting to know such people, I realized I wasn’t alone and understood what being queer means, what being trans means, where we come from, and other related questions. A significant number are still in Afghanistan and are in dire situations. They are assaulted daily:, the Taliban oppress them, their rights are violated daily, and they are forced into unwanted marriages, sent to prison, and even stoned to death. I am in touch with many, and they ask me to help them leave Afghanistan. Sadly, I can’t do much. No human rights organization stands with us or raises their voice for our rights today. It’s disheartening for us. 

ZT: You are among the queer individuals who underwent gender transition surgery. Can you tell us when and where you had this procedure done? 

Barakzay: I had gender transition surgery about three years ago in India, as medical advancement in Afghanistan hadn’t progressed to the point where it could offer such procedures. 

ZT: Can you explain how you chose your name?  provide information about Mohra Barakzay before the gender transition surgery? 

Barakzay: When I was male, my name was Qudratullah Barakzay. After the surgery, I chose “Mohra” as my name. My friends suggested “Fabi,” thinking that I should have the nickname “fabulous,” which means extraordinary. I just chose “Fabi” and always take pride in Barakzay. 

ZT: Talk about your hunger strike. Did you just want to join Tamana Paryani’s hunger strike, or were you following your own specific motivations? 

Barakzay: I had considered taking action in support of the queer community of Afghanistan about eight or nine months before Ms. Paryani’s protest. However, I couldn’t focus on this matter due to personal life commitments. Later, I noticed all attention was directed towards Paryani, and everyone was protesting for women’s rights, recognizing her as a human rights activist. Yet, no one was mentioning the queer community. This situation frustrated me, so I raised my voice to support the queer community. My primary goal was to support the queer community and, following that, to support Tamana Paryani. 

ZT: To what extent did your hunger strike attract public support for the rights of the queer community? 

Barakzay: I was supported by civil activists. Several women, men, and journalists came and expressed their support for me. However, the broader society remained silent, including writers, human rights activists, and the like. Perhaps they felt ashamed or took a very conservative and political approach, thinking about their political futures. 

ZT: Why did you decide to end your hunger strike? Did you achieve the result you wanted? 

Barakzay: I decided to end my hunger strike for three reasons: Firstly, my health had deteriorated, and doctors advised me against continuing the strike; secondly, my tent was removed by the police; and thirdly, I did not have the required security and had been physically attacked. As a civil activist, I intend to continue fighting for the rights of the queer community in Afghanistan, and I hope to achieve my goals. 

ZT: Who were the people who attacked you? 

Barakzay: Unfortunately, those who attacked me have Afghan backgrounds. As well, some fascist individuals in Sweden told me, “If you want to protest, go back to your country.” Out of fear that the police might stop me from protesting, I didn’t inform the police out of fear that they might stop me from protesting.  

ZT: What was the message that you want readers to know about your hunger strike and protest? 

Barakzay: The main points were that I showcased the queer community in a way that highlights our existence, our fight for our rights, and our refusal to stay silent. Those who always talk about equality and justice, especially the United Nations and countries that claim to support at-risk individuals, need to act on their words. This was a significant challenge for the United Nations and the Swedish government.  

Alongside me, the LGBTQ+ community of Afghanistan, intellectuals, civil activists, and media also supported the cause. The support and accolades indicate that my fight has had positive effects and will continue to do so. 

I will continue my sit-in. It doesn’t matter how long it takes – I’ll continue until I achieve the desired results. Queer individuals in Afghanistan are merely hungry for society’s respect and love and do not ask for more. They are deprived of all their fundamental rights and beg for love and freedom. I’m fighting for equal rights.