Ali Tawakuli is a prominent activist for the rights of Afghanistan’s LGBTQ+ community and the founder of Rainbow Afghanistan. Before the resurgence of the Taliban, he lived in Afghanistan, where he used an alias on social media to raise awareness about the LGBTQ+ community. After the fall of the republican government, he left to the safety of Europe and currently resides in Germany.
In exile, Tawakuli began openly campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights in Afghanistan. One of his significant actions was the establishment of Rainbow Afghanistan. Recently, this organization released a letter addressing the challenging situation of the LGBTQ+ community, and urging the international community and organizations to end their silence regarding crimes against these community members.
In November, Zan Times interviewed Ali Tawakuli. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Zan Times: Can you first provide some information about your personal life?
Ali Tawakuli: I am 21 and was born in Daikundi province and raised in Herat. Unfortunately the Taliban took control of Afghanistan when I was preparing to take my university entrance exam and I was forced to flee the country. We were individuals who were recognized as LGBTQ+ and though didn’t undertake substantial activities in this regard – our activities were mainly carried out through social media under aliases – for the sake of our safety, I had to leave the country. Eventually I sought refuge in Germany.
ZT: When did you realize you were homosexual, and when did you start your awareness-raising activities?
Tawakuli: I understood that I wasa homosexual when I was 14 years old. I realized that I had an attraction to people of the same sex, and I was pretty shocked. When I was 16 or 17 years old, I gained more knowledge about my identity and connected with others like me. At that time, I believed that the knowledge I had gained through reading should be shared with others, and that’s when I started my awareness-raising efforts.
ZT: Tell us about your goals in launching social media pages and your advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights.
Tawakuli: LGBTQ+ persons in Afghanistan have always been suppressed, and there was no entity providing accurate information about them. The general population did not know about them, and they were often referred to using derogatory terms like “sodomite” and “girly boys.” That’s why some of us created social media pages under aliases and tried to provide more information to the public about who LGBTQ+ people are. Later, when I left Afghanistan, I realized that we should not remain silent in the face of ongoing oppression.
Even when America came to Afghanistan post-9/11, and the republic government was established, being LGBTQ+ was considered a crime because the constitution was based on sharia law and LGBTQ+ individuals were subjected to harsh suppression. There are families who would expel their children upon discovering their gender identities. After being arrested by the police, many of our friends were sexually assaulted by police commanders and security officials who saw them as sexual objects.
During that time, many LGBTQ+ individuals committed suicide. After the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, more committed suicide, some were arrested, and others were mysteriously killed. When I saw the conditions and freedoms for LGBTQ+ here in Germany, I realized that if we remain silent, LGBTQ+ individuals will continue to be subjected to oppression and injustice in Afghanistan. From that moment, along with other activists, I decided to pave the way for future generations to live freely.
ZT: You mentioned the arrests and mysterious killings of transgender individuals after the Taliban took power. Can you provide more information on where and how such incidents have occurred?
Tawakuli: An example of this is in Herat where transgender individuals were arrested and disappeared after the Taliban took control, and their families still have had no news of them. According to my information, at least six individuals disappeared from Herat with more from other provinces. These are cases that we are aware of because we were in contact with many of them while living in Afghanistan.
Currently, there are nearly 10 individuals in Taliban prisons, and they have been subjected to torture. They had approval to live in Germany by the German federal government, but the Taliban arrested them on the day that we were planning to evacuate them from Afghanistan. In some cases, the Taliban do not allow their families to visit them and even threaten their relatives, saying that they should also be punished because their sons engage in “sodomy.”
ZT: How did the Taliban identify these individuals?
Tawakuli: Afghanistan is a traditional and Islamic society, and even during the republican era, some individuals held Taliban-like beliefs toward the LGBTQ+ community. After the Taliban came to power, these same individuals joined the Taliban and started arresting and targeting transgender individuals and activists.
We have evidence that a transgender individual was subjected to sexual assault and physical torture after being captured by the Taliban. We even have video evidence from this individual, who is currently in Pakistan and waiting to fly to Germany. In another case, a transgender couple was arrested by the Taliban just after they were deported from Iran to Afghanistan and subjected to extensive torture for two weeks, including electric shocks and sexual assault. After their parents begged and paid money, they were released and later transferred to Pakistan. Additionally, the fate of many others remains unknown.
ZT: From what you mentioned, can you provide some numbers?
Tawakuli: I can say that nearly 90 percent of transgender individuals in Afghanistan have been tortured and attacked by the Taliban.
ZT: While you were in Afghanistan, how many transgender individuals were you in contact with, and how many are you in contact with now?
Tawakuli: When I was in Afghanistan, we were in contact with about 100 individuals through the social media networks we had established. However, when we arrived in Germany, we tried to identify and assist even more individuals who were in danger. We connected with other transgender activists who were active on social media, and through them, we contacted approximately 2,000 people. Some were subjected to torture and harassment and some were imprisoned in their homes because their families feared the Taliban.
ZT: What have you and the organization you founded done to save transgender individuals in danger in Afghanistan?
Tawakuli: We compiled a list and worked with Germany. Finally, in 2022, the German government granted asylum to 25 transgender individuals. One of the challenges was that no help was being provided for the evacuation of LGBTQ+ individuals. We had to obtain passports, visas, and pay travel expenses. For 2023, the German federal government has announced a quota of 100 transgender individuals. It is not sufficient for a community that has always suffered oppression. Of course, only 13 people have reached Germany so far.
Unfortunately, the process established by the federal government is such that individuals must be inside Afghanistan to be recognized, while many transgender individuals have fled to Pakistan and Iran, are living in dire conditions, and may be deported at any time. If they are deported, Afghanistan will be hell for them because they have no support, their families reject them, and there is nowhere for them to stay. In this situation, if the Taliban arrests them, their death is inevitable. We have protested for the rights of these individuals, but unfortunately, we have not received a response.
ZT: Which countries have been involved in the process of evacuating transgender individuals from Afghanistan?
Tawakuli: We requested assistance from European countries and the government of Canada. Among them, the government of Canada promised to evacuate 600 transgender individuals, but unfortunately, only around 200 or 300 transgender individuals were evacuated while another 300 non-transgender individuals were evacuated under the name of “transgender.” We raised our voices against this misuse, but unfortunately, no change occurred.
ZT: In the current circumstances, what can be the solution to save the transgender community in Afghanistan?
Tawakuli: The only solution to save the transgender community is for them to be relocated to safe Western countries from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. Unfortunately, in recent years, human rights organizations, the United Nations, and countries have not paid enough attention to the issues of transgender individuals in Afghanistan. I have sent multiple emails to human rights organizations, the United Nations, and countries, but none of them have responded. Additionally, UNHCR staff in Pakistan and Iran show improper behaviour with transgender individuals.
ZT: Why do you think there has been such improper behaviour?
Tawakuli: In Pakistan and Iran, individuals working in the United Nations and UNHCR promote Islamic conservatism and have animosity towards transgender individuals. We have recorded many cases where a transgender person went to the UNHCR office in Pakistan but faced mistreatment from the organization’s officials and was expelled from the office without registration.
ZT: How many individuals have you been in contact with who are eligible to leave Afghanistan and neighbouring countries?
Tawakuli: We are in contact with approximately 1,000 individuals in Afghanistan who are scattered across all provinces in Afghanistan, but the majority of them are in Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz, Badakhshan, Kandahar, and even Jalalabad.
ZT: Which international organizations have supported you or your programs?
Tawakuli: No [major] international organization has paid attention to the transgender community in Afghanistan. Despite our efforts, such as sending emails and even protests, they have not shown any interest in our cause. Some international organizations have claimed they are making efforts, but countries either do not accept LGBTQ+ people from Afghanistan and create obstacles. The United Nations and human rights organizations have also forgotten about transgender individuals in Afghanistan.
ZT: Recently, Rainbow Afghanistan wrote an open letter to the United Nations and the world in support of transgender individuals. Could you provide more information about that?
Tawakuli: Two years have passed since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, and unfortunately, the fate of the transgender community is still neglected. We had previously sent letters to human rights organizations, the United Nations, as well as governments, but unfortunately, we received no response. Therefore, we wrote this letter and collected signatures from activists, which we attached to the letter.We shared it with the media and again sent it to human rights organizations and the United Nations. As of now, no one has responded.
ZT: Why do you think no one has responded?
Tawakuli: The LGBTQ+ community as well as Afghanistan as a whole has been forgotten. Today, there is an official gender apartheid in Afghanistan. The Taliban openly commit crimes: they stone people and conduct summary executions, but the world remains silent. Worse than that, the international community appears to be appeasing the Taliban by inviting them to official assemblies and meetings.