In Eastern Afghanistan, a group of transgender women recently formed a new organisation, Khazina, which means ‘transgender’ in Pashto.
But in Afghanistan’s deeply conservative society, their lives depend on keeping their gender identity, and their new group, a secret.
Asia Calling’s Mudassar Shah has this story from Nangahar province.
Jeli is 22. For the last 12 years, she has worked from dawn to dusk, seven days a week in this tiny tailors shop in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan.
Working here allows Jeli to live the double life she craves – wearing women’s clothes in secret.
“Being a tailor, I get the chance to wear women’s dresses every day. I pretend that I am checking the dresses and their length. But wearing women clothes is a kind of a catharsis for me in this strict, male-dominated society.”
Jeli is a transgender woman.
Since she was a small child she never felt like one of the boys, preferring instead to play alongside the girls.
But outside of her family, only a few friends know her real identity as a trans woman.
Every fortnight about five of her friends – other transgender women – visit Jeli.
They sit together on a soft red Afghani carpet as Jeli serves green tea in a small room at the back of the tailors shop.
One of Jeli’s friends, Asad, turns on the music and starts dancing.
But, Jeli says they have to be careful to keep their meetings a secret.
“We live in a conformist society. People expect everyone to be the same. Those who do not follow and don’t conform to existing values are bound to live secret lives, otherwise they would be killed by their own relatives.”
Jeli went on, “we keep everything a secret, even our names and identities as transgender women till our last breath.”
Strict gender roles and conservative sexual mores govern life in Afghanistan. Homosexuality and cross dressing are considered indecent, and taboo.
After the Taliban took control in 1990, those laws were strictly enforced.
Public executions were carried out as a punishment for fornication and adultery.
And yet, it’s common for women and transgender people to experience harassment, groping and physical abuse. While their perpetrators enjoy impunity.
When I asked Nangarhar police spokesperson Hazrat Hussain Mashraqiwal about the issues affecting the transgender community here, he was reluctant to answer, or even discuss the issue at all.
“Honestly, I don’t have any information regarding transgender presence in Jalalabad city since nobody has asked for any information regarding the trans community,” Mashraqiwal told me.
Mahfooz Kakar is journalist in Nangarhar province. He says transgender issues are not reported in Afghanistan media.
In fact, they remain so unknown that most journalists would need training on how to approach the issues.
“I am sure that most people don’t even consider trans people human beings like other men and women. I can ensure you that most journalists would make fun of me if I’d ask them to report on issues concerning the transgender community.”
Twenty-year-old Asad, a friend of Jeli’s, is often close by the tailor shop. She sells lipstick, nail polish and other cosmetics out a small basket, items she says that give her some comfort.
Being part of this small transgender community, she says, is the first step in creating a safe space for trans people.
“It will take time to be in a position where we can demand our rights. It helps us to share our issues and problems and gather in one place,” Asad said.
“Getting together helps to overcome psychological trauma, especially when someone in our community experiences sexual harassment or rape.”
Afghanistan’s transgender community live in constant fear – of people finding out their real identity, and of the attacks that could follow.
The road will be long, but Jeli, Asad, and their friends say they have to start somewhere.