Afghan transgender people settle in Pakistan

Issues surrounding gender and sexuality have always been considered taboo in ultra-conservative Afghanistan, and this has only worsened since the Taliban regained control of the country in 2021. Some members of the LGBTQ community deemed the Taliban’s return too dangerous and fled to neighbouring Pakistan along with countless other Afghan refugees. Afghan transgender people escape Taliban persecution only to find “a worse situation” as refugees in Pakistan.

In late 2023, Pakistan initiated a controversial program to deport Afghan refugees without proper documentation, further heightening concerns for LGBTQ refugees like Laila Khan and Jannat, two young transgender women who spoke with CBS News while residing at a guesthouse in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

Human rights organizations report that hundreds, if not thousands, of Afghan transgender refugees have sought refuge in Pakistan, with approximately 50 already seeking legal protection through the courts in Peshawar.

Laila and Jannat confide to CBS News that life under the Taliban was unbearable, but their circumstances in Pakistan have not improved significantly.

The Taliban’s “truly depressing” takeover

Jannat, who prefers not to use her full name, shared her experience of growing up in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion with a Western-backed government in power. Despite facing rejection and hostility from Afghan society, she was fortunate enough to complete her education up to grade 12.

However, since the Taliban regained control, the mistreatment of Afghanistan’s transgender community has worsened. The Taliban regime refuses to acknowledge the existence of transgender individuals as a distinct group. Consequently, they have no means to seek justice when subjected to gender-based abuse or discrimination.

Khan, speaking to CBS News, explained that they were relatively safe in Afghanistan prior to the Taliban’s return. However, after the Taliban’s victory and subsequent takeover, they were unable to even venture outside. The situation has become profoundly disheartening.

Khan recounted an incident in which they were pursued by Taliban security forces, ultimately reaching their home. The Taliban forces admonished Khan’s parents to keep the “shameful” individual at home and warned them to prevent Khan from “corrupting others.”

“This is not my fault,” Khan asserted. “I did not choose to be this way; it is how God made me.”

“We are in a worse situation.”

Jannat and Laila decided to leave their country due to safety concerns. However, Jannat admitted that she also had reservations about seeking refuge in Pakistan.

“I used to read about the violence against transgenders in Pakistan,” she said. “It frightened me, but I had no other choice.”

With the assistance of a European organization dedicated to helping Afghan transgender individuals, they successfully crossed into Pakistan. However, they revealed to CBS News that transgender Afghans encounter similar security challenges in Pakistan as they did in their own country.

“Being an Afghan refugee in Pakistan is already difficult, but being a transgender refugee in a country that is not very accepting of the LGBTQ community makes it even harder,” Khan explained.

Khan shared her experiences of discrimination since arriving in Pakistan, such as a landlord who refused to rent her home after discovering she was transgender.

“I had the money to afford it. The landlord had all the necessary paperwork ready, but once he saw us, his attitude completely changed, and he rejected the rental agreement,” she recounted.

Khan also mentioned that she regularly faces harassment and discrimination in Islamabad. She recounted incidents on a crowded bus where fellow passengers refused to come near her, a taxi driver who verbally harassed her, and even police officers who subjected her to invasive searches to ascertain her sexual identity.

“In Pakistan, our situation has worsened,” Jannat expressed. “Not only do we face hostility as refugees, but once the authorities discover that we are transgender, their treatment towards us becomes even more brutal… I can’t even visit a doctor or go shopping.”

Rights granted, but not guaranteed?

“Pakistani citizens who are transgender or identify as the third gender are officially recognized as a minority group and therefore entitled to specific civil rights. However, this is not always the case for refugees,” Khan informed CBS News. The term ‘third gender’ refers to individuals who do not identify as either male or female.

Hayat Roghani, a lawyer who has represented transgender Afghan refugees in cases at the high court in the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar, explained to CBS News that transgender individuals are recognized as a minority group under Pakistani law. This recognition grants them certain civil rights, such as property ownership and voting, for Pakistani nationals.

“Afghanistan provides absolutely no rights or safety for transgender individuals,” he stated. He added that his advocacy organization is currently handling the cases of around 50 transgender Afghan refugees. Some of them lack the necessary documentation to stay in Pakistan. This is causing concerns about their deportation back to Afghanistan.

“The lack of rights and safety for transgender individuals under Taliban rule is deeply concerning,” expressed Farzana Riaz, the president of Trans Action Pakistan, a rights group based in Peshawar. “Unfortunately, even for transgender Afghans who manage to cross into Pakistan, their problems continue. It’s just a new chapter of challenges.”

Peshawar police spokesperson Alam Khan stated, “I don’t believe any of the transgender Afghans have been deported. As a law enforcement agency, we commit ourselves fully to addressing all complaints, regardless of whether they come from Afghans or locals.”
Khan mentioned that the Peshawar police have conducted a series of meetings with the transgender community to address their problems based on their priorities. He added that the department is utilizing all available resources to protect the rights of transgender individuals.