By Paiman Arman*
Activists from the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan sent an open letter to the United Nations and international human rights organizations, urging them to “break the silence and stop normalizing the tragedy against the LGBTQ community.” The activists explain that LGBTQ+ individuals are targets of “hateful violence and attacks” and claim that at least 10 community members are being detained by the Taliban.
In this letter, they not only protest the international community’s silence in the face of oppression and torture of LGBTQ+ members by the Taliban regime but also emphasize that what is happening to the LGBTQ+ community and the women of Afghanistan can be described as “gender apartheid.” They call for an investigation into and documentation of the crimes committed by the Taliban against the LGBTQ+ community and accountability for those responsible, as well as help relocating community members to safer countries. As well, the activists caution that the international community and the United Nations should not tolerate or appease the Taliban, including engagement with the regime.
Afghanistan’s LGBTQ+ community faces comprehensive discrimination and continuous denial for their diverse sexual and gender orientations, which are viewed as taboo, negative, and abnormal by parts of society. In a highly conservative, superstitious, and patriarchal society like Afghanistan, freedom as well as individual rights, diversity, and ideological differences have traditionally not found acceptance. In 2018, the previous government explicitly criminalized same-sex relations although such laws were not widely enforced until the Taliban’s return to power.
Some Taliban leaders have even demonstrated a more extreme position against the rights and freedoms of LGBTQ+ individuals, whom they label as “sodomites.”. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson, openly regarded homosexuality as a crime and that their interpretation of sharia includes punishment such as stoning and being “walled in,” which involves pushing a wall onto them.
In May of this year, the Taliban’s chief judge announced that they are committed to implementing hudud (Islamic punishments). Since then, the Taliban have issued 175 death sentences, 37 stoning sentences, and four sentences of being walled in as punishment for those deemed guilty of “sodomy.”
According to reports, the Taliban detained a gay medical student named Hamed Saboor at an intercity checkpoint in August 2023. After torturing him, they executed him and sent a video of his killing to his family. Furthermore, Taliban members detained two other gay men who had been deported from Iran the previous year. Their fate remains unknown.
Given that Afghanistan is under the rule of a fundamentalist and exclusionary group with ideological and ethnic prejudices toward LGBTQ+ individuals, there is no safe place in the country for individuals and groups with distinct individual and collective identities. In addition to coping with the threat of eradication, rape, and stoning by the Taliban, the LGBTQ+ community also encounter threats, discrimination, and abuse from ordinary members of society, even their family, friends, and colleagues.
As a result of such persecution, LGBTQ+ individuals are among the most vulnerable social minorities in Afghanistan. Yet their pleas are largely ignored by the United Nations, international community, and international organizations.
Searching for a solution
A descriptive-analytical approach to addressing homophobia can lay the groundwork for a better understanding of the current situation of LGBTQ+ individuals in Afghanistan and finding solutions to the current crisis.
The campaign for equality and freedom requires multidimensional efforts, including theological, legal, social, and political activities. Therefore, in addition to external (secular) campaigns, an internal approach (from within the religious establishment) should be taken, reinterpreting traditional and religious sources or texts, considering rational and modern scientific theories, and providing new interpretations that are compatible with and responsive to the contemporary needs of human society.
A) Intra-religious approach
Traditional interpreters, including Ibn Hazm Al-Andalusi, offer alternative interpretations of the story of the people of Lot. Among modernist interpreters, someone like Siraj al-Haqq Kugle stands out. Since preconceptions and assumptions of interpreters play a role in shaping the interpretive trend and results of their readings, Kugle believes that the understanding and interpretation of religious scholars and traditional interpreters regarding human sexual orientation are based on an underdeveloped understanding of modern scientific theories. Therefore, to interpret human sexual orientation, one must not overlook the robust empirical evidence presented by current scientific theories. For new interpretations of religious texts/sources, scholars must be knowledgeable and informed about recent applicable scientific achievements.
It must be emphasized that a patriarchal and traditionalist interpretation of religion, including sexual orientation, may not necessarily lead to a correct understanding. Other systematic interpretations may exist that consider different orientations compatible with religion. If the women’s movement, despite being numerically equal to men, faces severe and profound obstacles and challenges, it is natural that smaller groups like LGBTQ+ individuals will face a longer and harsher path to asserting their rights. However, they must continue their efforts to achieve these rights and equality.
Kugle believed that the most fundamental step in responding to homosexuality is from a social, ethical, and jurisprudential-legal perspective. He argued that homosexuality is not unethical from a Quranic perspective, is not condemned socially, does not incur any eternal punishment, and, from a jurisprudential-legal standpoint, is not a crime, and that there is no statement in the Quran that subjects them to punishment.
He also argued that the study of the oral tradition and the Prophet’s practice shows that he did not punish individuals for same-sex sexual activity. Only the companions of Muhammad and later followers of these companions came to that conclusion, based on legal reasoning.
New interpretive approaches by scholars such as Kugle have gradually made their way into the public discourse. Examples of those approaches, which can challenge religious dogma’s rigidity and open avenues for legal, legislative, and behavioural reforms, can be found in both Sunni and Shia communities.
B) Secular approach
One of the most significant reasons why the rights of individuals with non-heterosexual orientations and behaviours have not been explicitly included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is due to the resistance of countries like Russia, China, as well as certain Islamic nations, and, in general, extremist and conservative policy makers, especially in advanced countries. Nevertheless, such rights have now been emphasized and endorsed by the United Nations, with more than 90 countries signing statements in support. Furthermore, the United Nations itself has ordered the elimination of gender-based discrimination among its staff.
International human rights bodies have affirmed that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected under international human rights laws, and discrimination based on them is prohibited. In other words, any differentiation and discrimination in people’s rights because they are sexual minorities is illegal.
Now, the groundwork is being laid for the rights of queer groups to be officially recognized as human rights. Therefore, in addition to intra-religious efforts, legal and social activities must be carried out to destigmatize and institutionalize these rights by incorporating them into official international documents.
In conclusion, the foundations of theological and jurisprudential-legal support for changing public perception of queerness and queer individuals can be more easily established with a descriptive approach and an examination of the tragic situation of LGBTQ+ individuals under the rule of the Taliban and reporting it to the domestic and international public. Through comprehensive protest campaigns, we aim to achieve the desired objectives in this area, including reforming the foundations and documents of international human rights, including the rights of queer individuals and international recognition.
The open letter from the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan is an essential and influential initiative and should be supported by civil society and human rights advocates as well as media activists.
*Paiman Arman is the pseudonym of a writer and human rights activist from Afghanistan.