We can say with confidence that social media has changed the world. The expansion and evolution of social media platforms have allowed for written and oral communications and news to spread quickly. Regimes can no longer control the spread of news and information through physical borders separating countries. For this reason, non-democratic regimes seek to place restrictions on the internet.
The internet is a powerful tool for marginalised groups to use to raise their voices and to bring about change in their respective societies. The internet is even more powerful in non-democratic societies, like Afghanistan, where governments seek to control and censor free media.
Internet and the empowerment of LGBTQI+ in Afghanistan
The LGBTQI+ community in Afghanistan has been subject to crackdowns and censorship for years. Their presence has been restricted in both political and social spheres of life. Afghanistan is an Islamic country, and homosexuality or association with the LGBTQI+ community is considered taboo and can lead to deadly consequences due to its criminalisation. This criminalisation is also the reason why there is a lack of accurate or any information or news disseminated by media outlets about this community. Moreso, gender studies are not taught in schools and universities, creating a gap in understanding among young people about gender and sexuality, or even rights of gender and sexual minorities in the country.
Same sex relationships have been condemned numerous times on Afghan media outlets and is considered a sin based on Islamic principles, and a crime according to the Afghan laws. This systemic censorship and lack of education around sexual orientation and gender identity lead to a situation where members of the LGBTQI+ communities face an identity crisis which prolongs their journey of self-identification. For this very reason, the internet plays a vital role for members of the LGBTQI+ community in the country as it serves to both educate people and to provide an avenue to members of the community to learn more about how others around the world are coping with their identity and the issues revolving around it.
Most of the members of the LGBTQI+ community in their earlier years of life when they realise their sexual preference are fearful of others, and hide their identity. Some even think of it as a phase, because of the lack of access to information and resources to know and investigate more about their identities. This in turn leads to denial of their sexual reality, and subsequently to depression among members of the LGBTQI+ community.
I learned more about my sexual identity and orientation through the internet and realised that I am gay. For years, I asked myself, why am I like this? Why am I different from others? Why don’t I have feelings for girls? I thought I was sick and needed treatment. I tortured myself for years so that I could be like others. - Abdullah, a 22-year-old gay man
However, access to the internet has made it possible for members of this community to gain access to accurate information, and research about credible and relevant information. In addition, the internet helps them in connecting with people in similar situations from around the world, making them feel less isolated in their experience.
Abdullah, a 22-year-old member of the LGBTQI+ community in Afghanistan talks about the role the internet played in helping him discover his sexual identity. He says, “I learned more about my sexual identity and orientation through the internet and realised that I am gay. For years, I asked myself, why am I like this? Why am I different from others? Why don’t I have feelings for girls? I thought I was sick and needed treatment. I tortured myself for years so that I could be like others.” Years of suffering led Abdullah to have severe mental health issues, as he shares, “I was suffering from severe depression to the point that I contemplated committing suicide. I was scared that if I shared this secret with anyone, something might happen to me, so I kept everything to myself until I read the word ‘homosexual’ on Wikipedia and on the internet, and found out more about it.” He adds, “I read and researched more about myself and realised that I was not sick. I realised that I was also a normal human being and being homosexual was natural. The internet saved me.”
Since awareness about sexual identities and preferences exists, organisations outside Afghanistan utilise social media platforms to disseminate accurate information and increase awareness around issues of sexual preferences, identities, and in general about the LGBTQI+ community. They do so by producing and sharing helpful sources so that marginalised members of the community can better understand themselves. Organisations such as the Afghan LGBT Organization, Dojensgara, and Radio Ranginkaman are some of the most important and credible online sources that provide information on LGBTQI+ in Afghanistan's Persian/Dari language.
The expansion of the internet and social media networks have not only provided tools for the empowerment and education of the LGBTQI+ community, but also provided the community with opportunities to network and form friendships from the queer community among Afghans. Abdullah told me that he was able to find many friends through Facebook. He says, “I had a fake Facebook account with a fake picture. I used to share photos and videos related to the LGBTQI+ community, and slowly I came to realise that there were others like me. We were able to connect with each other and become friends. After a while I realised that there were many of us and were not alone. That made me very happy.”
Access to the internet in Afghanistan, and more importantly, access to accurate information is faced with challenges. For instance, the speed of the internet, financial limitations in buying the internet and lack of adequate knowledge about the internet are some of the main challenges in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Takeover by the Taliban and the rise in threats against the LGBTQI+ community
Since Afghanistan fell into the hands of the Taliban on August 15, 2021, living conditions for people, particularly those from marginalised and vulnerable communities, have deteriorated. During Taliban’s initial weeks in power, UK's ITV aired the news of the beating of a gay man at the hands of the Taliban. The man in question, who for security reasons was not named by media outlets, was lured online via Facebook and WhatsApp by a Taliban member posing as a member of the gay community. The [Taliban member] chatted with him online for three weeks before he invited him to a face-to-face meeting under the pretence of helping him escape Afghanistan. When he arrived to meet his online friend in-person, he realised that the individual was a Taliban accompanied by another man from the Taliban. Those two men proceeded to physically beat him.
We used to have LGBTQI+ groups on Facebook and Messenger, and used to communicate with one another. Now we don’t have it since the Taliban took over, and we all collectively decided to deactivate our accounts because there is the risk of a Taliban infiltrating our group online. - Samira, Afghan trans woman
Based on my conversations with several members of the LGBTQI+ community in Afghanistan, they said that they are constantly harassed and intimidated by Taliban and their sympathisers on the internet and receive threats. These threats have led to many members of the queer community deactivating their Facebook and other social media accounts. They say that they lost the limited freedom they once had and that trusting people on social media platforms like Facebook has become difficult. [Members of the Afghan LGTBQ+ community] can no longer exist on social media platforms the way they once could, and fear that they will fall into a Taliban plot and trap.
Samira, a transgender woman who lives in the capital city Kabul, says that ever since Taliban took over the country, the community has deactivated their Facebook accounts. She says, “We used to schedule times to meet each other. Facebook was the reason we were able to visit each other and not feel alone. We used to have LGBTQI+ groups on Facebook and Messenger, and used to communicate with one another. Now we don’t have it since the Taliban took over, and we all collectively decided to deactivate our accounts because there is the risk of a Taliban infiltrating our group online.”
Suhail, another gay man who lived in western Herat province at the time, says he has been threatened on social media platforms several times. He says, “Since I got to know sexual orientation, I tried to raise awareness around gay and LGBTQI+ people. I regularly posted content related to gay and LGBTQI+ people so that I could educate others on the subject. I wrote articles and posted them on Facebook, however, when the Taliban took over, I started to receive death threats. They would constantly tell me that they would find and kill me. They hated me. I really got scared and deactivated my Facebook account. I had to go into hiding until I escaped the country.”
During their first time in power from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban banned television and the internet, but in recent years their views seem to have changed. They have utilised the internet to create their presence on social media platforms, including Twitter, to disseminate their messages. Their [physical] presence has become a source of concern for LGBTQI+ people and other marginalised groups in public spaces, and their presence on the internet has restricted the online space for members of the LGBTQI+ community. Constant online threats by the Taliban on social media networks and fears among the community that they might be trapped by the Taliban has led members of the queer community to limit their presence as well as their voices on social media platforms in Afghanistan.
The Taliban filter online information before it reaches the general public in the country.
Due to the lack of economic, cultural and social developments in Afghanistan, very little has been done in the sphere of increasing awareness around digital privacy, safety, and security. Most users do not know much about their online security. Shirshah Nawabi, a former advisor with Afghanistan’s ministry of communications during the republic time, told Subhe Kabul daily newspaper in 2019 that 60 to 65 percent of internet users in Afghanistan are susceptible to security risks in the country. Given the statistics shared by Nawabi at the time, this lack of awareness can put people in Afghanistan at grave risk today, particularly those of the LGBTQI+ community given how they tread risks of being attacked under the conservative rule of the Taliban.
In addition to carrying out cyber-attacks and issuing constant threats against their opponents, the Taliban also seek to limit access to information in the free world. They filter information before it reaches the general public in the country. In August 2022, the Taliban said that they had blocked 23 million websites that were not “moral”. According to the Taliban, any content that counters their narrative of Islam is “immoral”. Since LGBTQI+ [activity] in Islam is vice and is criminalised, any content related to the community is banned under the new regime. This filtering of free and independent information at the hands of the Taliban has created a new set of challenges for people when it comes to access to information. The restriction of information has a negative impact on those individuals of the queer community who are in the phase of self-identification and are trying to come to terms with their sexual preferences and identities.
The cost, quality and lower speed of internet in Afghanistan
Another reason for the lack of access to the internet for the members of the LGBTQI+ community in Afghanistan is simply the high cost of purchasing internet packages. Even during the previous government, members of the queer community were faced with financial difficulties. Some of them because of appearance and sexual orientation were not able to find a decent job, and even when they did find employment, their salaries were lower than average. Because of this, some in the community resorted to prostitution to make a living. With the Taliban returning to power, the financial and economic situation in Afghanistan has taken a turn for the worse, the country is faced with a humanitarian crisis. People do not have enough food to eat, and the country is on the brink of an economic collapse. Because of the dire economic situation [in Afghanistan], members of the queer community are not able to purchase internet packages so they can have access to free and accurate information on the internet in the free world.
In addition to the high cost, the quality and speed of the internet is very low in Afghanistan. According to the ministry of communication of the Taliban government, 22 million people have access to 2G, and only 6 million people have access to 3G internet out of the total population of approximately 40 million people. The price of 1GB internet in the country is between 150 to 250 Afghanis (~ 2-3 USD) which is often out of the purchasing power of many people. Despite that, the quality and speed of the available connection is very low.
Abdullah, a gay man, complains about the cost and speed of the interent in Afghanistan. He says, “The Taliban claim that the cost of the internet has been lowered in the country, but they are lying. Nothing has changed. The speed of the internet is very slow, and it is very difficult to connect to the internet in the country. I used to live in a mountainous province and at times telephones would not connect to the antennas and networks, nor was the internet working."
Geographic location and systematic discrimination
In the mountainous regions of Afghanistan because of the terrain and lack of telecommunication infrastructures, most people do not have access to the internet, and if they do have some connectivity, it is of very low quality. This lack of access to the internet has led to marginalised communities, in particular the LGBTQI+ community, to be further sidelined. They have lesser access to accurate sources of information.
The geography, disproportionate economic development, distribution of wealth and resources in Afghanistan are some of the main causes of people not having access to the internet and social media networks. In addition to the geographic location, in some provinces due to systematic discrimination that has roots in ethnicity and religion, people have less access to resources. According to a 2021 report by Amnesty International, Taliban view the Hazara community as an “enemy” and they subject them to harassment and brutality. Since the Taliban returned to power, numerous forced migrations of the Hazara community have been reported in provinces like Daikundi, whereas many Hazara men have been killed as highlighted by the Amnesty investigation. This kind of discrimination has a direct impact on the conditions of queer individuals from these communities, as well as their access to the internet as they are more prone to digital threats and surveillance by the Taliban.
In Afghanistan homosexuality is a crime. Being a woman is a crime, and when you are both, you face even more difficulties and discrimination. - Basira Paigham, member of Afghan LGBTIQI+ community
Abdullah, who sees his identity as a gay man merge with his identity as a Hazara person, is particularly concerned that the Hazara community in Afghanistan is deprived of access to resources and services. He says, “When I was in Daykundi province, I did not know anything about myself [because of the lack of access to basic resources]. At one point we did not even have electricity, let alone access to the internet. Daykundi is a very deprived province in Afghanistan. It gained access to resources much later than other provinces. The reason is our Hazara ethnicity which has led to a situation where we are subjected to more persecution. When I shifted to Kabul, I started to have access to many services including the internet, and I was able to learn more about my identity. I did not have any access when I was in Daykundi.”
Mixed ethnicities in traditional and less developed countries like Afghanistan lead to a situation where members of the LGBTQI+ are subject to violence and discrimination both as a queer person and as a person from oppressed ethnicity. But these threats further amplify if the person under threat is a woman.
For example, women members of the LGBTQI+ community face more challenges when it comes to information and the internet. In the male-dominated society of Afghanistan, women in general have lesser access to education opportunities. In fact, many cannot read and write. This issue alone leads to women not having access to the free world and access to social media networks. This in itself leads to the further isolation of women in Afghan societies.
Basira Paigham, a woman member of the LGBTQI+ community from Afghanistan who current lives in Ireland, says, “In Afghanistan homosexuality is a crime. Being a woman is a crime, and when you are both, you face even more difficulties and discrimination. I know of homosexual women who are victims of forced marriages. They don’t even have access to phones, let alone access to the internet and social media networks. In our society, it is an issue of honour when a girl posts her picture on Facebook and Instagram.”
The internet in non-democratic societies is used as a tool to have access to resources and diverse information. It is used as a tool for education, consuming news, fast communication and as a means to connect with the free world. But in societies like Afghanistan, there are numerous challenges and limitations facing members of the LGBTQI+ community when it comes to access to social media networks. Even during the previous government’s regime from 2001 to 2021, they were subjected to systematic crackdowns, and now with the return of the Taliban to power, their plight has deteriorated.
Social media platforms and the internet provided a means for members of the LGBTQI+ community in Afghanistan to learn about their sexuality and preferences, and allowed access to a network of others from the queer community worldwide. As they navigate many challenges and threats under the new Taliban regime, the Afghan queer community uses these [digital] platforms to spread credible information and increase awareness about being queer in repressive regimes, and offer a sense of community to others in situations that they once faced.