Posted on January 29, 2015
Christian Stephen wrote an in-depth article on Ryot about the systemic rape of Afghanistan’s boys.
I first wrote about the dancing boys (“bacha bazi”) in 2007. Over the last eight years I continued to write about the situation as news about them appeared, yet to my knowledge no one has taken any action to address this problem. The most I saw anyone do was Care2 starting a petition to get then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to do something. Nothing occurred.
The Canadian government knew about the problem back in 2007, yet initially ignored reports. Even when they acknowledged what happened, the government did nothing to address it beyond trying to silence the soldiers who spoke out about the abuse.
In March of 2014, the U.S. State Department acknowledged the centuries-old practice had become a problem, yet that followed the Obama administration issuing a new Army manual telling troops not to judge Afghan social customs, such as the practice of bacha bazi.
Stephen’s article covers much of the same information the other articles presented. He gives a closer look at the situations Coalition troops found themselves:
The Washington Examiner reported on the invading troops struggle with the constant displays of affection towards young boys as well as glaring evidence of underage homosexual activity.“I know Marines and soldiers who have refused to work with Afghan military or police,” said one U.S. military official, who spoke to The Examiner anonymously. “It’s not about homosexuality as much as it is about the young boys. Some of them like to show pictures on their cell phone — that should be illegal. Some of the Afghans have their own young boys they use for sexual purposes and we can’t do anything about it.”
The situation is particularly troublesome because the people committing the abuse are the people working with Coalition forces. In other words, these are the people the Coalition funds. We in the West are working with people who rape children in order to throw out the people who prevented this practice:
During Taliban rule of the region from 1996 to late 2001, under Mullah Omar, bacha bazi was driven from the social norm and outlawed as a transgression against humanity and Allah. […] A zero-tolerance ban on sodomy and all forms of homosexuality, bacha bazi chief among these, was enforced throughout the region with martial, capital and lethal strength. The Taliban’s parameters drew from a pre Islamic Pashtun code as well as a rigid strain of Wahabi doctrines. This new governance brought with it an emphasis on eliminating “immoral vices.”
Any trace of sexual tendencies or relations between males was met with a swift death sentence varying from stoning to being hung from makeshift gallows constructed on the rear of cargo trucks. Although extreme and desperately intolerant towards homosexuality, these executions appeared to curb the seemingly unstoppable epidemic of child abuse and rape ravaging the country. However harsh, the iron rule of the Taliban did little to extinguish the desire for male and boy companionship. The practice continued under cover of darkness and in secret until the Taliban’s grip on the region was lifted due to the Coalition invasion.
Yet following the overthrow of the Taliban, the practice immediately began again. That leads to the rather sad irony that the very war being fought to liberate Afghans from abuse under the Taliban fueled the abuse of Afghan boys:
With the coalition invasion in full swing by 2002, the volume of newly orphaned and displaced boys rose, as did the prevalence and frequency of juvenile prostitution. Many actively looked for older male companions in order to escape squalor and the danger of homelessness. Those who weren’t “fortunate” enough to attract a patriarchal benefactor looked to the Kandahar tea rooms, banquet halls and military bases for the opportunity of gaining an elder companion.
Stephen notes that this practice, largely committed by the Pashtun tribe, has some relation to the lack of women’s rights in that region. However, he draws a particular conclusion:
This distance between genders twinned with the perceived “uncleanliness” of the female body, as dictated by many fundamentalist Imams due to the menstrual cycle, has plagued Afghanistan’s women for centuries. Shamefully degraded and dishonoured, the women of Afghanistan’s major tribe is still, to this day, under a doctrinal oppression that assumes the role of chain, muzzle and whip. The position of women in Pashtun culture is now hurtling towards a utilitarian vocation with the ability to give birth remaining the only value recognised.
The fear of interaction and lack of understanding where women are concerned has bred resentment not only towards the unattainable candidates for marriage, but also those at home. Referring to Pashtun mothers, Cardinalli’s report states, “… regular round-table discussions with local women found that boys, even when raised in the home, are separated from their mothers‘ care around the age of 7 and are considered the charge of their fathers.”
As young boys are removed, women are increasingly stripped of value and worth within the familial structure, depriving the children of a healthy female image, respect for a future partner, and a strong sense of identity. Instead, Afghan boys are raised to observe women as weak, submissive and disposable tools rather than meaningful, lifelong relationships consisting of mutual respect and trust. This divide has also negated women as potential candidates for consistent Afghan companionship, a role now filled both by and for males.
While such practices do lead to problems (such as one husband failing to understand why his wife could not become pregnant from anal sex), the notion that bacha bazi comes from misogyny is simplistic. If Afghan women are as disempowered as Stephen claims, then there is little reason for men interested in having sex with them not to do it. What possible risk could these women pose if the men have all the power?
Stephen answers with:
Again, according to many fundamentalist Imams, women are unclean, therefore the desire to be with a woman for any other reason than to procreate is foreign. Sexual desire, guided by religious disapproval, has been redirected away from Pashtun women and towards the thousands of young boys who have even less understanding of Islamic law than the men raping them.
Yet that too makes little sense as the same fundamentalist Imams consider any homosexual activity, which would include bacha bazi, equally unclean. It appears Pashtun men simply ignore the Imams or find loopholes to get around them. So why will they not do this with women, particularly when all of this would occur out of sight?
I think the misogyny is simply a by-product of the practice. We have seen the same level of “women are unclean” arguments in the West, yet they did not lead to a social practice of child rape.
In Afghanistan, there is nothing actually stopping men from having sex with women if they choose. It would appear that some men simply prefer to have sex with boys. I think this shows that the problem is specifically related to how males, not females, are treated. Indeed, that would explain why the boys are made to dress as girls. What reason would men have to force boys to dress as females if the notion of having sex or even contact with a female is anathema?
I suspect that practice occurs because the men are trying to normalize their behavior by stripping away the boys’ masculinity. The boys at that point are no longer male, which in some culture way excuses the behavior.
I also think that the pervasiveness of the practice leads to its continuation. When so many boys are abused at such a young age and only engage in sexual activity with other males, it is likely they will continue to do so as adults.
What makes this situation so drastic is the level of violence involved. Again, no amount of misogyny explains this. This behavior only occurs as a system of control, particularly by the warlords using the practice to show off their power and wealth. No amount of helping women will stop this. For example:
In 2009, Afghanistan implemented the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women, which introduced the term “rape” as a criminal offence under Afghan law. The 2009 law, however, refers only to the rape of women or girls, as important as this milestone is, there is no mention concerning the rape of men and boys.
Focusing on women does not help men. Ironically, at the bottom of the article is a link to another story titled In Afghanistan, Girls… Will Be Boys. Author Rebecca Luxton states in her piece:
In Afghanistan, it’s totally normal for little girls to spend their entire childhoods disguised as boys.
Bacha posh — translation: a female cross-dresser — is the term for these girls-masked-as-boys. And they’re more common than you’d think. “Every single Afghan I have spoken to… they will know of someone,” says Jenny Nordberg, who documented these girls’ lives in her newly released book “The Underground Girls of Kabul.” She’s taken on the task of bringing the world’s attention to the phenomenon, and the sobering reasons they and their families feel it’s the only way for girls to enjoy basic freedoms.
If female children assume male identities, they’re safer almost everywhere.
Everywhere except where it matters.
The issues men face must be addressed directly and based on their own merit, not the defense or liberation of women. We should work to prevent bacha bazi because boys are being systematically raped and tortured, forced to behave like females as children, then expected to embrace masculinity as adults only to find they have no idea how to do that, nor will their society offer them any assistance. Worse, even boys not used as bacha bazi but raped by random men will find themselves socially ostracized if they come forward:
One village boy was raped repeatedly by a local mechanic, so much so that his pelvis was violently displaced. Upon hearing the ordeal the boy had been enduring, his family turned him away in shame. The boy now lives with the mechanic, a gesture deemed proper by his family in response to the disgrace brought upon the household by the boy’s apparent transgression. It is likely the family sold the boy to the man due to their desperate living situation, a common story marking the genesis of a boy becoming a dancer or live-in concubine.
The fact that the boy brought the mechanic’s abuse forward as not only a negative act, but also an unwelcome experience, triggered an unbalance in the culturally accepted perception of bacha bazi as morally permissible. In opposing the man’s continuous rape attempts and successes, the boy was not only accusing the man of sodomy, but also forced homosexuality.
Addressing issues like biases against homosexuality may help, yet the culture itself needs to evolve past its old ways. Again, that cannot happen by only looking at the plight of one group.
Yet what is most egregious is that Coalition governments know this is occurring and do nothing to stop it. As Stephen notes:
Coalition leaderships’ failure to hold their Afghan allies to task concerning corruption, as well as a refusal to seek legal action against serial rapists, has directly resulted in a humanitarian and judicial abortion that withholds retribution from abusers, as well as justice from the abused, and denies Afghanistan a grasp at the last dwindling threads of an increasingly wraithlike future.
There is simply no excuse for people fighting to free that part of the world from abusive cultural practices to allow something like culturally sanctioned child rape to continue. There is no amount of preventing misogyny that justifies ignoring the rape of boys.