Meet the brave transgender refugee staging the ‘world’s first’ LGBTQ+ Afghan protest
“Life before the Taliban was also not easy for us, but after the coming of the Taliban, everything was totally destroyed.”
Afghanistan has never been a safe haven for LGBTQ+ people, but for trans women like Ozlam, the Taliban takeover in August 2021 plunged her into danger in a way she’d never experienced before.
Overnight, Ozlam and her fellow LGBTQ+ Afghans were regarded as a public enemy – and the Taliban was not afraid to hunt them down.
One LGBTQ+ Afghan was beaten and burned for wearing “western” clothes. Another has a gay friend who was gang-raped by Taliban members.
Ozlam knew Afghanistan wasn’t safe for her anymore, and she’s told PinkNews why she – like so many others – made the difficult decision to cross the border into Pakistan, even though she knows it isn’t safe enough for LGBTQ+ Afghans.
Many desperately want to get to western Europe, Canada, the United States, or Australia – countries where they can be open about who they really are.
‘Harassment, torture and beatings’ every day
When Ozlam speaks to PinkNews over the phone via a translator, she sounds distressed as she talks about her time living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
“Under Taliban rule, we faced harassment, torture, beatings on a daily basis,” Ozlam says.
“We now want to defend our rights and raise our voice because no one is focusing on LGBT Afghans and nobody is taking care of them. The only reason I’m doing this is to defend our lives and to raise our voices to the world, to hear us.”
When the Taliban seized power in August 2021, life quickly deteriorated for Ozlam. She knew she had to get out.
“Recently they attacked my home and they beat me, so that’s why I decided to leave Afghanistan and go to Pakistan,” she says.
Life hasn’t improved much since she crossed the border – she’s escaped the clutches of the Taliban, but she’s now facing financial issues and says Pakistan police are “bullying” her.
Thankfully, she’s on the brink of getting to safety.
Her asylum application to Canada is progressing, and she expects to be able to travel to her new home soon – but that doesn’t mean she’s willing to leave her LGBTQ+ siblings behind.
She’s preparing to stage a protest in Pakistan with the support of Roshaniya, an organisation set up by human rights campaigner Nemat Sadat with the goal of getting LGBTQ+ Afghans to safety.
The protest, believed to be the first ever public demonstration by LGBTQ+ Afghans, will be held in Pakistan. PinkNews has decided not to disclose the exact location or date of the protest to protect those involved.
Ozlam will join the protest to support her fellow LGBTQ+ Afghans, many of whom are still waiting on western governments to take them in.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the LGBT people in Afghanistan who are facing problems. I’m a human rights defender, I want to raise my voice for them as well,” she says.
The demonstration will draw attention to the plight of LGBTQ+ Afghans more broadly, but it will also serve as a damning indictment of the UK government’s approach to asylum seekers.
Roshaniya has a list of more than 1,000 LGBTQ+ Afghans who are waiting to be resettled, but Sadat says fewer than 80 have been admitted to the UK so far.
UK government has done the ‘bare minimum’
A year after spearheading a campaign to evacuate LGBTQ+ people from Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul, Sadat is disheartened by the failure of so many western governments to help bring LGBTQ+ Afghans to safety.
He’s most frustrated by the actions of the UK government, which has become known for its increasingly hostile approach to refugees and asylum seekers in recent years.
In October 2021, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) announced that it had brought 29 LGBTQ+ Afghans to safety. It was a good start, but the lack of progress ever since has left Nemat feeling helpless. He now thinks the scheme was little more than a PR stunt designed to boost the UK’s reputation.
“My message to the UK is to match its words with deeds,” Nemat tells PinkNews. “You can’t claim to be a global leader in helping LGBT+ Afghans, do the absolute bare minimum for PR purposes and then reject the rest of the extremely at risk members of the community.”
A Home Office spokesperson tells PinkNews that the UK will “welcome up to 20,000 people in need through the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme”.
It claims 6,500 Afghans have already reached British shores in this way.
The FCDO tells PinkNews that the UK is a “fierce champion of freedom and the right of all people to be themselves and love who they want free from persecution.
“We will continue to help evacuate LGBT+ people from Afghanistan and do all we can to help at-risk Afghans leave the country,” says a spokesperson.
Nemat says the UK government has failed to deliver on its promise to help Afghans who are at the highest risk of persecution from the Taliban. He has presented his list of LGBTQ+ Afghans to several government officials, but nothing has been done.
He says his work trying to “cut through the bigotry and bureaucratic red tape” is a “vicious cycle”.
‘Charting a new destiny’
Nemat says Ozlam’s protest in Pakistan is significant because it marks the first time LGBTQ+ Afghans have come together as a group anywhere in the world.
“It’s the bravest act to protest at this time when the Taliban rules over Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda and ISIS lurk in the shadows across the region,” Nemat says.
“I’m so proud of Ozlam and the dozens of LGBT+ Afghan activists who will fight for their right to live and chart a new destiny for our people. They are going to march, demonstrate, and protest against the UK failing to save the most vulnerable group in the most dangerous country.”
Nemat says the protest was inspired by a recent BBC documentary about the first group of LGBTQ+ Afghans to arrive in the UK. He has been a vocal critic of the documentary, saying it failed to ask hard questions about why so few LGBTQ+ people from his list have been admitted into the UK.
The documentary turned the plight of LGBTQ+ Afghans into “a heroic PR stunt for Great Britain”, Nemat says.
‘LGBTQ+ Afghans are fighting for survival’
“I watched the documentary. It’s a shame it wasn’t wider in scope to provide more crucial facts about the LGBT+ Afghans and the work I’m doing through Roshaniya,” he says.
“It didn’t ask the tough questions. Instead, it just became a vanity piece for the Foreign Development and Commonwealth Office.”
The documentary was the final straw for Nemat and the many LGBTQ+ Afghans on his list who are still trying to get to safety.
“LGBT+ Afghans are fighting for their survival and there is no turning back. This is the moment for LGBT+ Afghans to fire the shot that will reverberate around the world.
“I’m confident that we will prevail in charting a new course for our people to become free.”
Ozlam echoes that. She wants the world to see people like her as human beings who deserve respect and empathy.
“We want to live our lives the way we want. We have our rights – we want to defend our rights.”
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