TW: Discussions of sexual assault and rape. Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Samyar went to his stepfather’s village to participate in a family ceremony. The Taliban controlled that district, even as the democratically-elected government controlled the rest of the country. The villagers told Samyar not to go out alone, saying he should dress as a girl, not a boy. Samyar is 20 years old a transgender man in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The village was full of Taliban. As Samyar made his way through along dusty streets, a small child pointed out to the Taliban that he was transgender, that he was dressed as a boy and not as a girl. They chased, and he ran. Seeking shelter in a relative’s house, a member of his family later arrived with a warning from the Taliban – he should wear girl’s clothes, and marry a man. If Samyar refused, they would force him to marry one of their fighters – or stone him in the middle of the village.
Only a few months after this incident, the Taliban ruled the entire country once more. At this time, Samyar was living with his adopted family in the northern city of Baghlan. With no older siblings, it was up to Samyar to take care of the family, visiting the local bazar for food and supplies. It was on one of these trips to the bazar that the Taliban realised he was transgender, wearing male clothes.
“The Taliban beat me with guns in the bazar so badly that other people begged them to let me go, saying I wouldn’t wear men’s clothes anymore,” Samyar says.
“I could not move from my bed for more than a week.”
After the incident at the bazar, Samyar did not leave the house. A prisoner in his own home. He doesn’t want to change his outfit, or to fight for his identity. Life is difficult for him. Every day ends in tears over his identity.
Samyar uses testosterone to change his voice, to grow the beginnings of a beard, to look more like a man in the eyes of the community. During the democratic government, he was able to go out in this way. Now, it remains a dream for him.
Samyar attempted to kill himself six times after he realized he was different to his other friends in the community. He was born in Iran to an Iranian mother and Afghan father. Samyar doesn’t know who his father is. His parents weren’t married, and then his mother left and married someone else. Another Afghan family adopted him, taking him to Baghlan Markazi province.
“I was insulted many times – the people called me Nar Maada (Male and Female), two sexes, a sign of pandemonium,” says Samyaar. “I was isolated from the community, and it depressed me.”
When he was 13, he learnt about the word ‘trans’. “I was always asking myself what are these feelings that I have, why do I appear to be a girl but want to behave like a man?” says Samyar.
“Life is not easy for Afghans but transgender or people with different sexual identities life is hell here. I am proud of myself for being transgender,” he adds.
After moving in with his adopted family, Samyar was beaten by his new father – with vacuums, shovels, sticks, shoes, belts, the butt of a gun. Whatever came to hand. Even then he remained grateful to his new family for taking him in, giving him their surname.
For Samyar, individual privacy is what he wants for people. A world where no one interferes in their lives. The type of freedom where he could walk freely in his identity as a transgender man, without fear. Following the Taliban take over, he now fears for that freedom more than ever.
Samyar remembers identifying as a boy since childhood. He knows he wants to meet a woman, fall in love and marry her. After attending primary school in Iran, he later left secondary school in Baghlan province, ashamed to be in a girl’s school.
He was also sexually abused, many times. Once by a neighbour, once by a human smuggler and once by a woman. The trauma is still with him. It’s not easy to cope with.
Like Samyar, Naweed also experienced sexual abuse.
It was evening as Naweed headed home in Kunar, a mountainous province in eastern Afghanistan. He realised a car with four passengers was following him. Before long, it was too late. When he regained consciousness, he found himself in a dusty room with no electricity. A single candle burned as he opened his eyes. He tried to walk, but could not. He was raped multiple times by four men. They later left and he was able to leave.
He finally reached an asphalt-covered street, ran into some police and asked where he was. He realised he was close to his sister’s house, went there and told a relative what had happened. The relative, an old man, urged him to not tell anyone.
After that, Naweed didn’t tell anyone about the rape. But it didn’t take long for some of his relatives to guess, seeing he was unable to walk properly for days after the incident.
“When I was 12 or 13, I realized I had different feelings about other boys,” Naweed said. “I could not accept it and I went to the fourth floor of our house to throw myself from the roof – but something, I don’t know what, stopped me.”
Naweed is 25 years old and studying journalism at university.
“After the Taliban takeover I didn’t know where to go or how to have a partner,” he said. “It was not easy in the previous regime too, but I had at least some freedoms.”
Naweed’s fear increased. He couldn’t see his partner. They couldn’t walk together, talk or spend time together freely.
“I pretended to be someone else ever since I recognised the feelings – even my hairs have become white,” Naweed said.
Before the takeover, Naweed had different partners in school and university. “Nowadays, even having a partner is impossible,” he said. “If the Taliban realise, they will kill us.”
Naweed’s family is well-known in religious circles. His family don’t know much about his interests. His parents think he is different from his other sons, and so he is often blamed for things. Everything from his talk to his laugh to his walk is a target for criticism.
“If my family realised I am gay, they would kill me with a bullet and bury me,” Naweed said.
Being different is not easy, especially growing up in a Pashtun family. Despite this, he has survived – giving up many things to pass as straight and make his family happy.
Unlike Samyaar and Naweed, Marina identifies as a lesbian and when the Taliban took over, could not even walk freely in her own house. She lived in fear of being seen by the Taliban through her window.
She lived in Kabul was able to live with her partner, Soma. They lived this way without their families knowing about their sexuality. Marina worked in governmental administration and was studying a master’s degree in law at the same time.
Marina knew in school that she was different to the other girls. While her classmates told stories about boys, she did not show any interest. Her family forced her to marry a relative after graduating from high school. But she escaped to Kabul and stayed in a hostel before finding a cleaning job, earning enough for university admission and overcoming many difficulties on the way to graduation.
This was Marina’s life when the Taliban took over Kabul. After searching for options, she and Soma fled to Islamabad. It’s been months and she and Soma are still in Islamabad, looking for visas and flights to move to a safe place where they don’t need to hide their identities.
Naweed and Samyaar remain stuck in Afghanistan, unsure of what their future holds.
“I’ve lost all hope,” Samyaar said. “I don’t know how long I’ll be living in this home prison.”
In Afghanistan, sexuality continues to largely be seen through the frame of religion and culture. Life for those who deviate from accepted norms becomes almost impossible – forcing them to pretend, even at home.