Born Criminal: What It’s Like to Be Homosexual in Afghanistan

Interview | Renouncing Islam & coming out as gay, proved to be the biggest challenge for Afghan-origin Nemat Sadat.

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Much is known about Afghanistan’s political turmoil, and that is the main reason the country has been in the news for the longest time. However, not much has been said about the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the war-torn country, which is still trying to negotiate peace.

I recently interviewed Nemat Sadat, who is the first Afghan-origin person to openly come out as gay and campaign globally for LGBTQ+ rights. He has repeatedly been persecuted by the Afghan government and Islamists since he came out of the closet in 2013.

The Quint caught up with 40-year-old Sadat on the eve of the India launch of his debut novel, ‘The Carpet Weaver’. His first book is a tale of young homosexual love, set against the backdrop of the stormy decades of the ‘70s & ‘80s in Afghanistan. Here are excerpts from the interview:


We have with us Nemat Sadat, who’s an Afghan journalist and activist. Nemat, how much of your debut novel draws on your own life and experiences?

Nemat: I share the same identity as Kanishka, the hero. We’re both gay, Afghan and refugees.

How has your book, which deals with a controversial topic, been received?

Nemat: Thankfully, I haven’t received any negative feedback, which is very different from my experience when I came out of the closet in August 2013 – I had received several death threats and a fatwa.

While we all know that former sovereign of Afghanistan, King Amanullah, was very liberal, we don’t know so much about what he felt about the LGBTQ community – whether he at all gave them any importance or not.

Nemat: King Amanullah Khan... if his trajectory would have continued – Afghanistan did continue to pursue secularisation and modernisation – if we had no war these past 40 years, I think the evolution would’ve been decriminalisation of homosexuality, gay rights and gay marriage. I’m here today because King Amanullah Khan allowed my grandmother to get an education – made it compulsory – to have the right to vote. And if it wasn’t for my grandmother and my mother getting educated, my mother, an Afghan woman, being able to independently raise her kids in the US – that situation allowed me to come out as gay.


During your time at the American University in Kabul, did you meet LGBTQ+ members who had survived the Taliban years?

Nemat: They were basically saying that the situation then – at the time I was in Kabul in 2013 – was not much better than under the Taliban. Since I came out as gay, I’ve had Afghans tell me that the Afghan National Director of Security has a “kill & dump” policy with regard to the LGBTQ+ community. This is something that Americans and Westerners are paying for – the US & Allied Occupation. The Afghan government has been quietly tapping into LGBTQ+ groups, trying to break them up by luring them into honey traps. This is the general experience. The LGBTQ+ persons said that at least the Taliban was clear-cut about what they were doing. But with the Afghan government, there was a double face – one ‘face’ for the Western governments, while secretly and quietly persecuting LGBTQ+ people.

In a 2014 media interview, Sadat endorsed Ashraf Ghani as President of Afghanistan, with the hope that Ghani would welcome LGBTQIA rights & freedom.

Now, in 2019, would you still support Ashraf Ghani and his views?

Nemat: I support any candidate that supports LGBTQ+ rights, who’ll come out and openly do that. Ashraf Ghani has not done that. So, there’s no way I will endorse him.

Have you met any queer women and lesbians in Afghanistan? What are their stories?

Nemat: In Afghanistan, I think it’s probably worse to be lesbian; there’s a double threat against you because you’re a woman and you’re homosexual. A lot of times lesbians have messaged me saying, “I’ve had to endure a life of rape by my husband and I can never voice that I have no attraction to him.” I find that at least if you’re a gay man in Afghanistan you can still get out of the house and network with other men. But because of the gender apartheid and gender segregation, women can’t do that. However, if you’re transgender, there is more tolerance. It’s interesting because in the US, transgender people face the most death threats and persecution.

Has your family accepted you, and what do they think about you coming out as gay and also renouncing Islam?

Nemat: Oh yes, yeah. I think it was very hard for them. I came out as both gay and ex-Muslim. And umm… it’s been a gradual process. Of course, I have a good relationship with my mother and sister, and they accept me for who I am and for my beliefs. But with my father and brother, I don’t have any contact.

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