One of the rarely remarked upon consequences of Taliban rule in Afghanistan was its treatment of gays. Though their official policy—execution—wasn’t that out of the ordinary compared to Iran (or many other Muslim countries), their method, pushing a wall over, using a tank, and seeing how long the victim would survive, was especially brutal.
But what of gays in Afghanistan now? Traditionally, Islam hasn’t been especially hostile to homosexuality—well regarded classical Islamic poets have written lengthy love sonnets to the young boys they chased after, and were celebrated for it (while in the West we classify ephebophilia as a criminal sickness indistinguishable from pederasty, the line is much more distinct in other societies, including pre-modern Islam). Even in neighboring Pakistan, in Pashtun-majority areas no less, so-called male brides—in which a teenage boy is married off to an older man—happens today. And in Saudi Arabia, discrete homosexuality is virtually encouraged (or at least assented to) by the harsh religious police, which criminalize male-female relations but ignore same-sex relations.
Even the Taliban’s brutal repression of gays can’t be seen as simple hatred. A recent set of rules for Taliban fighters included prohibitions against taking boys into their tents alone, among other bizarre rules on sexuality (such as the power of the woman’s ankle). The excellent, if depressing film Osama includes a scene in which a Taliban elder instructs a room full of boys, at length, in how to properly wash their genitals. And Kandahar, the stronghold of the Taliban in the 90′s, was once known as the gay capital of South Asia.
All of this amounts to a truly complex, and not at all clear, picture of how Afghans view sexuality. While there isn’t any clear-cut religious or socio-ethnic bias against same-sex relationships in Afghan society, the previous decades of regression and repression have had an impact on mores and attitudes: that’s why you see so many women in burqas still, even though very few wore them before 1979. So the actual level of acceptance or tolerance of homosexuality in Afghanistan can’t simply be inferred by history, given all the recent reversals.
Enter David Axe, reporting from Afghanistan for the next few weeks. He reports that in the rural areas, openly gay relationships are so common even marriage ceremonies have been found. Indeed, many western travelers (and a few surprised soldiers) have expressed deep confusion and surprise when some Afghan men have flirted with them, or even made outright sexual advances.
Why, according to Axe, are gays so seemingly accepted, in a country otherwise known for its conservative, and repressive, religious views?
Many Afghans disapprove, but according to custom, boys gain their independence in their teenage years … and what they do after that is up to them, even if it flies in the face of traditional Islam’s enthusiastic advocacy of the breeding family. So Afghans just shrug and move on to more important issues, such as the latest tactics for oppressing their daughters. Six years after the Taliban’s fall, most Afghan women still wear their burqas when they’re out in public and many decline to appear in public at all. Cultural mores proved stronger than law as far as the treatment of Afghan women goes, but with Afghan men, the lifting of legal restrictions on gay sex resulted in a flourishing gay community. Go figure.
Go figure, indeed. This can surely be called one of the great unintended consequences of the invasion. Though the Taliban was primarily reviled for its horrendous treatment of women, that treatment hasn’t necessarily improved with their removal (though rampant executions are far more rare, which is a remarkable improvement). The life of gays in Afghanistan, though, has unquestionably improved.