“Nobody Knew We Existed:” LGBTQ Voices From Afghanistan

by Victoria Jones

Najib Faizi is a social media influencer who describes himself as the first Afghan drag queen.

Danger, fear, and countless challenges are nothing new to the LGBTQ community in Afghanistan. But now, in a sudden yet not unpredictable turn of events, their reality has become even more imminently threatening. Those familiar with the 1996-2001 Taliban regime can only begin to imagine what their rule will look like in 2021. People in Afghanistan—particularly those who identify as LGBTQ—dread a return to that level of brutality, still fresh in recent historical memory. News outlets like Business Insider and VICE have started to paint a picture of the distress the Afghan LGBTQ community is currently facing. 

However, a media landscape that only emphasizes the terror and helplessness in these accounts risks overshadowing those promoting real possibilities of action and change. Afghan LGBTQ activists, who have dedicated much of their lives to amplifying this issue, assert that Afghan resistance has not been defeated.

The following interviews showcase the different approaches that Afghan LGBTQ activists employ—whether it’s turning to social media and the medium of drag to increase visibility, using internet radio to share stories, or maintaining networks of support in Afghanistan and abroad. It’s essential to understand and appreciate the work these activists do—and have been doing for years. I had the opportunity to sit down with two of them. 

Najib Faizi describes himself as the first Afghan drag queen. He’s a 21-year-old makeup artist and nurse from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Now a German citizen, he came with his sister to Hamburg as a refugee at the age of 11. 

“I’ve been active on social media for four or five years. I speak about LGBTQ rights and women’s rights on the internet,” he tells me.

Artemis Akbary produces a radio program with Radio Ranginkaman for the Afghan and Iranian LGBTQ communities. He says he’s trying to introduce the LGBTQ community to Afghan society and inform them about its members.

“Right now, even the Taliban cannot stop our radio station, which is based in London,” he says. “I produce the program in my home and send it to London, then it’s transmitted in Afghanistan.”

“I decided to do something for the next generation of the Afghan LGBTQ community, to make a better world for them without violence or discrimination due to their sexual identity or sexual orientation.”

Note: These interviews have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you tell me a bit about your background and connection to Afghanistan?

Artemis:

My parents left Afghanistan in 1996 because of the war and went to Iran as refugees. I was born in Iran, and I experienced a lot of violence there because of my sexual orientation. For example, my parents tried to cure my homosexuality. They kept me in the house for two years. And I experienced a lot of violence from people in Iranian society and from our relatives. 

Artemis Akbary is the co-founder of Afghan LGBT and a producer for Radio Ranginkaman

I wanted to start a new life without facing discrimination and violence because of my sexual orientation. So I left Iran illegally, and I walked for more than two weeks to arrive in Turkey. I didn’t have food or water—it was really, really hard. I remember I got lost at one point, and I was so hungry and thirsty at that time. I felt really helpless. Then finally, I arrived in Turkey, and I bought a ticket in the Hakkari province with the help of a smuggler to go to Ankara. In Ankara, I registered myself in the UNHCR, and now I’m a refugee here. I tried to learn the Turkish language and start a new life. Then I met my partner: he is from Iran, and we’ve been living together for two years. I thought I could start a new life in Turkey, but Turkey is homophobic and religious like Iran and Afghanistan. I experienced all that violence and discrimination in Turkey too.

Many refugees come to Turkey, and people are angry because of that. A few weeks ago on Twitter, many Turkish people were saying that they don’t want any more Afghan refugees here. When I go to the market, sometimes people ask me where I’m from. I feel really sad when I’m asked this question. Why does my nationality matter for this person?

Najib:

Where I’m from, in Kandahar, people are very old-fashioned and religious. They are not modern like in Kabul or Mazar-i-Sharif. I had a lot of problems in Afghanistan. My parents are still there.

When I was 11 years old, I wanted to be a Bollywood actor—makeup, styling, dancing. But my father wanted me to be like him and look like him: a man, not a woman. I think he knew I was interested in women’s clothing. For some time, I was not allowed to have male friends; I was always with my sisters and other girls at home. He didn’t allow me to go out. 

I was in school in Afghanistan for six years. I did an English course and computer course during that time. I watched English and German movies. But my parents never went to school.

My mother eventually decided that I should try to go to Germany. I agreed, because I knew in the future there would be problems for me in Kandahar. They gave us money, and I came with my sister here to Germany. My sister is married with two kids now. I’ve been living here on my own for nine years.

LGBTQ people in Afghanistan don’t have homes—their parents kick them out with no money. What are they supposed to do? They can’t work in a shop because they’re not accepted. They have to earn money, so they will prostitute themselves. The government doesn’t allow LGBTQ people to work or go to school. 

I was afraid when I first arrived in Germany. I didn’t want to speak with people. After one year, I realized that I have to be strong, and I have to take my experience and grow from it. Then I started using social media to speak about it. 

Najib Faizi is an activist, makeup artist, and nurse in Germany. Photo by ADQ Khabir

My parents watched my videos, and my mother said, “Stop it, you are not my son, leave us alone, you bring shame to our family name.” I told them, “What should I do? It’s too late now, I’ve been on the internet for two years, and everybody from Afghanistan knows me if they have internet or a mobile phone.” I said, “I will not be stopped. I will do it again.” And I did.

Now I don’t have contact with my family, but I have contact with my sister. She gives them money. They accept my money, but they don’t want to speak with me.

You knew it would be controversial for you to be so open and outspoken on your social media—how did you decide it was the right thing for you to do?

Najib:

I took six months to think about it—should I do it or not? Because I knew it would be dangerous. If I was going to do it, then I wanted to do it 100%. 

I did it—and I lost my family, I lost friends from Germany, from Afghanistan, my close friends, because they had always seen me as a heterosexual man. They never saw me as a drag queen. If you look at my content, I’m a bit like a comedian, because I need attention—if I have that attention, then I can speak about these issues. Millions of people watch my videos on Facebook. 

When I started speaking about LGBTQ rights, I lost everything, and I was very alone. But then eventually, every day there was something new—new friends, people who wanted to work with me and speak with me. And I’m here today.

How do you deal with the constant threats?

Najib:

I organized a demonstration in Germany a few weeks ago. After that, some people made a video saying, “I will kill you because you took the Afghan flag. You are not Afghan, you do not have to take the Afghan flag. I will kill you.” I told the police everything, and they said there’s not much they can do. I said, “They know where I live,” and they told me, “Yeah, you have to leave, we can’t give you security like that.” It was very disappointing to me. 

Najib Faizi and his team organized the first demonstration for the Afghan and Iranian LGBTQ communities just weeks ago in Germany.

In Germany, there’s a lot of hatred towards LGBTQ people. Whenever I take an Uber, train, or bus, you wouldn’t believe what ugly looks people give me or the hateful comments I receive. I want people to know that in Europe there’s not complete freedom either; it’s not totally accepted. Everywhere is still unsafe for LGBTQ people. 

What was it like for the LGBTQ community in Afghanistan before the Taliban returned to power?

Artemis:

I think under our previous government, the situation with the LGBTQ community was a little better. I do believe that. Because, for example, the punishment for same-sex relations under our previous government was just prison. But under the Taliban government, it’s the death penalty. As you know, between 1996 and 2001, many homosexuals were executed. For example, in Herat, two young men were executed because of a same-sex relationship; in March of 1998, two young men were executed again because of a same-sex relationship. But under our previous government, the situation was a little better; the media and newspapers were trying to introduce the LGBTQ community to the society of Afghanistan. The Etilaatroz newspaper wrote many articles about homosexual and transgender people. The media was free to speak about everything, but now with the arrival of the Taliban, they can no longer do that.

I even had an interview with one person from the government of Afghanistan who supported the LGBTQ community. They’re in Afghanistan now, and they weren’t able to escape, but they’re part of the government, and they supported the LGBTQ community. 

Najib:

Women don’t accept it, men don’t accept it. Our culture doesn’t accept it, our religion doesn’t accept it. Every day, LGBTQ people have to fight for themseves. They’ve never been accepted.

Now the Taliban have returned, and they are even more dangerous. But look at my family—my family doesn’t accept me, and a lot of families don’t accept their children if they are LGBTQ. In that way, our family can be like the Taliban, you know…most of Afghan society thinks like the Taliban when it comes to the LGBTQ community.

What does the possibility for change look like?

Artemis:

I think with the situation right now in Afghanistan, we cannot create a movement for the LGBTQ community because our society is so religious and homophobic. Most people in Afghanistan don’t know how to read or write. And it’s impossible to tell them to accept the LGBTQ community—most of them are religious, and in our religion says a same-sex relationship means death. If they see a homosexual person, they will kill them.

For example, we received a message in our radio station from Afghanistan: a gay man from Mazar-i-Sharif said that his father learned of his relationship with another man, and he tried to kill him. He escaped from his house with the help of his mother, and now he is living in another province. Today, I received a message from a transgender woman who said that she put some makeup on and was beaten by people in the street. We cannot make a movement right now, because our society doesn’t know basic things about the LGBTQ community. First, we should give them some information through media, television, radio, and books. Then after the information, step by step, we can build a movement. But right now, we cannot expect a movement in Afghanistan. 

What’s one thing you’d like to tell readers?

Najib:

I would tell them that they have to help the LGBTQ community because they are not different from us. They are kind, intelligent people. Every day, LGBTQ people will be killed or kill themselves, because they can’t live. How can they live if their parents don’t accept them, if their friends don’t accept them, and if the country doesn’t accept them? You know how many LGBTQ people send me messages saying they will kill themselves? And then eventually I stop hearing from them. Every night when I go to sleep, I think about them, wondering where they are, because I don’t have any information on them. 

They need money, they need homes, they need acceptance. It’s a big help if you speak with me and you want to know about the LGBTQ community in Afghanistan. I think everybody has to do it. This topic must be discussed more, maybe on TV, by YouTubers, and other social media influencers.

Several nights a week, I think about my experience on my way to Germany. It was shocking for me. I’ve been here for nine years, and every night I still think about it. It changed my life. And then I wonder, if all LGBTQ people leave Afghanistan, what about those who are born there in the future? I think our government and culture have to change. People have to learn more about the LGBTQ community, perhaps through films or documentaries.

They have to accept our clothes, they have to accept our makeup, they have to accept everything. Not only if we look like other men. That’s why I’m doing makeup and wearing women’s clothes—because they have to accept me as I am.  

Artemis:

I’m asking the whole world to put pressure on the Taliban and not to recognize the Taliban government. Ask your own government to pressure the Taliban to stop violence against women, the LGBTQ community, and social activists. Right now the Taliban are trying to show a positive face of themselves to the world; they’re trying to say that they don’t have a problem with women’s rights, they don’t have a problem with human rights, but they are liars. They’re trying to deceive the world. Right now for example in Herat, one of my friends said that women cannot go outside because of them. If a Taliban soldier sees a woman without hijab, they will beat her or take her to prison. They haven’t changed.

There’s also another thing I want. Right now, there are lots of LGBTQ people in Afghanistan that are in really serious danger, and they are scared of their unknown future. They don’t know what will happen to them, and I want Western governments to grant asylum to Afghan LGBTQ people and make it legal and safe for them to leave Afghanistan.

Please raise our voices, because nobody is hearing us—the LGBTQ community in Afghanistan, Afghan and Iranian LGBTQ refugees in Turkey—nobody in America, Europe, Canada knew we existed.

Resources to support for those interested in learning more about this issue include:

Victoria Jones is the chief editor of INTERZINE.

Categories: Asia-Pacific