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Stepping out with pride

Nemat Sadat, Afghanistan's first openly gay activist, tells Shobhana Sachidanand that it's tough to live with an oxymoron of being a gay Afghan Muslim
Last Updated : 04 September 2021, 19:30 IST
Last Updated : 04 September 2021, 19:30 IST

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Much like the protagonist of his debut novel The Carpet Weaver, published in 2019, Nemat Sadat, Afghanistan's first openly gay activist, may still be trying to find his place in the face of vicious persecution, but this time, he has chosen to be the voice and vessel for millions of people trapped deep in the closet in the turbulent province of Afghanistan. After the Taliban invasion, Sadat has been trying to evacuate those who are stranded in Afghanistan and his phone hasn't stopped ringing ever since.

Born in Afghanistan in 1979, the same year the Soviets invaded the country, Sadat left the country as an infant to Germany where his father worked as the Ambassador of Afghanistan. In 1984 when his father returned to Kabul to work at the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, his mother refused to raise her children in an Afghanistan of war and communism. "She "kidnapped" my two siblings and me and brought us over to the US. We resettled in Southern California where I grew up. After completing graduate school and working as a journalist on the East Coast, I returned to my birthplace in 2012, after 32 years in exile, and worked as a professor of political science at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF). I was persecuted soon after I arrived for being a lapsed Muslim and for practicing homosexuality," he narrates.

"I realised I had two choices: surrender or fight back against the forces that wished to silence and suppress me. I decided to speak up against LGBTQ rights both for myself and the repression that I saw. I was deemed a national security threat for subverting Islam in Afghanistan, and this came from the pro-western ruling elite. I was forced out of the country and made persona non grata. AUAF fired me for my conscientious irreverence in promoting LGBTQ rights and in retaliation, I came out to the world on August 22, 2013," says Sadat.

Over the years, he has come to be identified as the trailblazer for the LGBTQ community in Afghanistan. But how difficult was it for him to come out of the closet and then sustain a concerted effort towards being the voice of the community and fight for their cause? "I was the first well-known Afghan to have publicly come gay and declare myself as an LGBTQ activist. It felt like I was climbing a steep uphill battle as I received thousands of curses and threats and even a fatwa by the mullahs of Afghanistan. The Taliban even wrote a manifesto saying that the American University of Afghanistan should be attacked and abolished because Michael Smith, the President of the university at the time was promoting evangelical Christianity and Nemat Sadat was promoting the homosexual agenda. I was accused of making Afghan men passive and making women no longer desire men as they opted for the same sex," he laments.

He adds that the most difficult of all was being disowned by his father and brother. "Even non-Afghan and non-Muslim American friends severed ties with me because I had become too controversial. It didn’t matter I knew that I was fighting for a bigger cause and a brighter future. A day when full LGBTQ equality and gay marriage would reign over Afghanistan and throughout the world," he says.

Sadat states that there has never been legal recognition of LGBTQ rights before the Taliban. "My debut novel, The Carpet Weaver, which is set during Afghanistan’s golden age of the 1970s and into the war-stricken years of the early 1980s, is a microcosm of what life was like for LGBTQ people. In most recent years, there was significant progress as Afghan society, especially in Kabul, and also in major cities like Herat and Jalalabad, started tolerating LGBTQ people. So many young gay men who live in Kabul were in committed long-term relationships with their partners, some even living in the same house as them. Transgender women became really visible as they worked as exotic dancers at weddings and make-up artists for many of the most popular TV shows. This was unspeakable nearly a decade ago when I had first come out,” he elaborates.

He strongly believes that the people of Afghanistan got a raw deal from the US. "The US sold out the Afghans to the Taliban from across the border and
surrendered to Pakistan’s blackmail. It is also complicit in the hostile takeover of Afghanistan’s democratic government. Whether they were corrupt or not, the elected Afghan officials represented the aspirations of 40 million people, nearly everyone was allowed to actively participate except for apostates and LGBTQ people who were criminalised for who they are and what they believe and the Taliban since they were the enemy who had harboured Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Unfortunately, the US is repeating the same mistakes the Soviets did. Sure, the US may have been defeated in Afghanistan. But by leaving in such a reckless way, they are setting up the conditions for a genocide to happen as the Taliban seal the borders and are expected to isolate the country from the rest of the world by shutting off the Internet and mobile communications. The fight in Afghanistan is not just the Afghan people’s fight. It is an ideological war between — democratic values and secular liberalism and Islam and Sharia law. Deep down, the American ruling elite knows this but they expected the Afghan National Army to defend and fight alone the terrorists that emanate from Pakistan. After 43 years of being engulfed in war, the Afghans were tired of fighting and were not willing to fight the Taliban on their own. I mean, if the US can’t even criticise, let alone stand up to Pakistan, how can you expect war-torn Afghanistan to challenge a nuclear power?

His recent tweet: “It’s not hyperbole to say that the #Taliban will do what Nazis did to homosexuals: weed them out and exterminate them from Afghan society" has
started a conversation across the world. But how difficult has been his journey of being an Afghan, a Muslim, and gay, we ask. "It's an oxymoron to be a gay Afghan Muslim. Islamic Sharia law treats LGBTQ people as enemy combatants, the worst creatures of all for committing the three cardinal sins: apostasy, homosexuality, and sodomy. This is why the Taliban Judge Mullah Gul Rahim has vowed to pass laws that would crush gay people by stoning or toppling walls. But this is nothing unique to the Taliban. If you look at Muslim-majority countries, you will find that it coincides with the same place where LGBTQ rights are unacceptable. That’s why I evolved and became an ex-Muslim after realising that the religion conflicted with my humanistic orientation," he replies.

Sadat has been trying to help evacuate those stranded in Afghanistan. "I’m trying to evacuate 315 LGBTQ people out of Afghanistan. It’s a cumbersome process. The approval for my list came really late from the State Department and about half of my applicants faced resistance after the Taliban refused to let them pass through because they were Afghans. After I received intelligence from a reliable source that an ISIS attack was imminent on Kabul Airport, I emailed all the LGBTQ Afghans to go home. But even if they had passed through, they would have to be at the mercy of the US Marines calling their name, which is nearly impossible," he adds.

And how does he perceive the near future for those still stranded in Afghanistan? "The Taliban will make the Afghans become their prisoners and slaves. They will barely keep them alive or torture them to death. There is no future for Afghans until the situation gets so bad that the international community decides to return back to Afghanistan. There’s really one way to end the war in Afghanistan and bring lasting peace to South Asia: Sanction Pakistan and topple the Taliban. Only then will LGBTQ people in Afghanistan and the entire region be free," he avers. He adds that it’s very sad that LGBTQ people were denied at the Bonn Accords in 2002 when Afghans from around the world met and established a nation that represented a patchwork of all of Afghanistan.

His greatest fear he states is that the US withdrawal will now result in millions of Afghan women and girls becoming sex slaves. "Forced to marry the Taliban or shot dead. Men and boys will be indoctrinated to continue the oppression of sharia law and if they resist, they, too, shall be taken out. Apostates and LGBTQIA Afghans who had no legal status for the last 20 years will now be purged entirely from society. Afghanistan is on the verge of genocide all because of a rushed exit strategy and a US foreign policy that is completely in disarray. Soviet withdrawal out of Afghanistan in 1989 ushered the Islamic extremist takeover (first the Mujahideen and then Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the 1990s) and now US withdrawal out of Afghanistan is causing a power vacuum that’s being filled by Pakistan vis-à-vis the Taliban. Meanwhile, Iran, India, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are doing military exercises and ready to go into Afghanistan to fill the vacuum left by the US and Pakistan is not only using the Taliban but now deceiving China into the hornet’s nest. This makes the situation ripe for a global war to ignite from Afghanistan, which will force the US & NATO to come back in a more dangerous scenario than ever before. My biggest hope is that Afghanistan will be reborn once again and in the future, the people will elect a government that is free from corruption, liberated from Pakistan, and embraces same-sex marriage. I will be so happy if I live to see this day," he says.

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Published 04 September 2021, 19:27 IST

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