The predicament of Afghanistan’s transgender people
By Artemis Akbary
The Taliban Ministry of Health has forbidden sex reassignment surgery. In late August, Qalandar Ibad, the Taliban minister, said in a press conference, “The ministry has consulted ulema about gender reassignment and according to the Sharia rulings it is forbidden.” He further added, “According to Islam, gender reassignment and whether a man wants to change to a woman or a woman to a man is not permissible.”
Suppression of the LGBTQ community and killings of its members by the Taliban is not new, but the adding the prohibition of gender reassignment to the list of restrictions once again demonstrates the Taliban’s commitment to suppress the LGBTQ community, especially transgender people. The term “trans” is used for people who do not consider their gender identity to be the same as the gender assigned to them at birth based on the anatomy and shape of their sexual organs. Trans people may identify as male, female, neither male nor female, asexual, non-binary, fluid, or in any other way. Some trans people choose to make changes in their body and undergo gender confirmation or gender reassignment surgery, and some people do not take this path for various reasons.
Even before the Taliban regained power, trans people did not have access to gender reassignment procedures in Afghanistan, or at least there are not many reports of them being performed. According to a June 2021 report in Etilaatroz, a clinic in Herat claimed to perform gender reassignment surgery. In this report, it was claimed that during a year and a half, 19 people underwent gender confirmation surgeries in the clinic. However, this claim has not been confirmed or denied by the health officials of the time or by queer activists.
What is certain is the fact that gender reassignment is a long and time-consuming process that requires the labour of a team of specialists, doctors, and psychologists. Also, to perform this procedure, a person needs a government licence or a court approval, other government support and approval of the person’s new identity after the surgery, such as getting a new identity card. The previous constitutions of Afghanistan are silent about gender reassignment.
In previous Afghan law, there was only one reference to trans people. In the section on inheritance in the article 2057, “neuter gender” is mentioned, stating “A person, who is neuter gender, and whose male or female identity is not known will receive a smaller share of inheritance compared to sons and daughters.”
The law reflects the perpetual structural discrimination against trans people and other non-heterosexuals. For example, there was no law or system of support to perform gender confirmation, or to change one’s birth certificate, name, or identity card. If a trans person went to the hospital for gender reassignment surgery, they would be ridiculed and harassed.
Due to these shortcomings and legal hurdles, most trans people in Afghanistan had to travel to India and Pakistan to get gender reassignment surgery, which incurred heavy financial costs. Since Afghanistan’s law does not recognize gender reassignment and changing names, these people face serious problems in returning to Afghanistan after having gender reassignment surgery. Even if they succeed in returning, they face even more serious problems readjusting in their new social lives. For example, due to their difference in appearance compared to the photos on their identity cards, they can no longer legally study, work, and even travel.
This is only a small part of the problems of the Afghanistan’s queer community. Denial and intolerance from society when it comes to accepting and recognizing trans people as well as threats of violence force them to migrate from villages and remote areas to big cities like Kabul and Herat. But this migration is not without problems and challenges. Due to their different appearance compared to the norms of the society, trans people are isolated, meaning they do not have the possibility to enter the labour market and continue a normal life. They have difficulty finding shelter.
Despite all the restrictions and deadlocks, most trans people before the Taliban regained power found each other through social media networks and came together in small groups in big cities. They often managed to support each other through collective efforts and shared tasks; they found ways to make a living. For example, some of them danced in wedding parties or social gatherings. It was an opportunity to live, despite the challenges. But now with the Taliban in control, that opportunity has disappeared. Under their shadow, there are virtually no economic opportunities for trans people.
The difficulties of life as well as security threats force many to migrate. However, due to Afghanistan’s passport being the lowest ranking in the world, they are not able to get visas to travel legally, and must resort to the dangerous routes of smuggling, an experience that often exposes them to the risk of rape, murder, arrest, extortion, and prison.
Transgender people in Afghanistan were always deprived of their basic human rights and they have always fought and struggled for their right to life. With the Taliban in power, life has become almost impossible for the nation’s queer community.