The Thin Red Line

by Joshua Foust on 11/22/2007 · 4 comments

In June, I made note of the surprising improvement in gay rights in Afghanistan, calling it “one of the great unintended consequences of the invasion.” Nestled within the (extremely brief) discussion of how pre-modern Islam used to treat homosexuality, and what the West would call ephebophilia (a love of teenage boys), was the revelation that so-called “boy marriages” still take place today… Meaning, older men will marry, for lack of a better term, their teenage boy-lovers.

Via Atash Parcha, I found this UNAMA report on the increasing prevalence of “bacha bazi”—translated literally, “boy play.”

Wealthy former warlords in Baghlan, a northern province of Afghanistan, recruit adolescent boys for sex and entertainment, while local authorities remain powerless in stopping the practice.

A ‘bacha bereesh’ is a boy without a beard, and in several circles a beardless boy is most desired by rich, powerful male patrons. Grown men become involved in ‘bacha bazi’— which literally translates into ‘boy-play’. This is a time-honored tradition, condemned by human rights activists and Muslim clerics, but it is seeing a revival in the north province of Afghanistan. It is by no means restricted to the north of Afghanistan only, but has virtually faded in the south, where the Taliban’s strict moral code act as a deterrent…

Large halls provide the venues for the weekly parties where the boys’ owners, invite their friends to watch them dancing. Several different types of dances are popular, Daad says, and if the boy refuses to dance or performs badly, his master beats him with a long stick.

“We have to do that,” explains Daad. “We spend money on these boys, so they have to dance.”

Later into the night, once the dancing is over, the boys are frequently shared with close friends, for sexual favors. And by the end of the evening it is not at all uncommon for the boy to have a new owner, as the parties often provide the opportunity for buying and selling.

An enlightened sense of multicultural tolerance surely draws the line here. It is not controversial to call this sex slavery—the worst sort, involving children. In stark contrast to the West, where there is a very real dichotomy between what we consider to be homosexuality and what we consider to be pederasty, in Baghlan it seems the distinction is meaningless, partially born of an unfulfilled and not-so-latent same-sex attraction:

“We know it is immoral and unIslamic, but how can we quit?” asks 35 year-old Chaman Gul. “We do not like women, we just want boys.”

Perhaps gay rights haven’t had the near-miraculous breakthrough I thought. There is probably a fascinating thesis in there somewhere, uncovering the social origins of sexual attraction, and what constitutes legitimate sexual desire versus mental illness. In this case, however, seeing these boys treated literally like property, bought and sold and “shared” like empty lifeless dolls… that is so far beyond the pale, I can’t fathom anyone leaping to its defense.

Update: Péter Marton relates the following documentary of the Dutch forces in Uruzgan (of course), that mentions the problem of “lover boys” in the corrupt police:

Another commenter notes anecdotes of how rampant pederasty may have led to the rise of the Taliban in Kandahar. Recall Kandahar was known in the 70s as the “Gay Capital of South Asia.” That was destroyed before the Taliban moved in, but capturing boys as a sign of power is not the mark of a healthy society. I’m deeply worried.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Forrest November 23, 2007 at 4:09 pm

Ingeborg Baldorf wrote a very good book on this institution a few years ago among the Uzbeks of Northern Afthanistan.

See: Baldauf, Ingeborg (1988) Die Knabenliebe in Mittelasien: Bačabozlik. Berlin: Das Arabische Buch.

Péter November 24, 2007 at 1:14 pm

Apparently this thing is present in the south, too. See here:
If you follow the link, starting at 2’55” you can see for yourself. Stunningly, having a boy companion is turning into a status symbol for police commanders in some places.

Gene Daniels November 24, 2007 at 11:03 pm

I am not an Afghan expert, but I seem to remember reading about this practice playing a role in the rise of the Taliban. That there was a local, spontaneous reaction against the abuse of little boys gelling into a religious reaction against the system it was a part of.

Therefore, I would say that this latest return of pedophilia could portend a upsurge in the Taliban. And to be honest, if I was a local Afghan and watched the police commanders doing this sick stuff, I might take-up my AK-47 with them.

It is sad.

Michael Hancock November 28, 2007 at 9:19 pm

What are the chances that the Taliban THEMSELVES also engage in this pedophilia? Just because some is religiously devout does not mean that they live lives of chastity. I’m not referring to Catholic priests or anything of that nature. But don’t forget the novel Kiterunner, [which should be releasing soon as a Feature Film. A work of fiction, but still illustrating that the men of the Taliban aren’t necessarily altruistic religionists reacting to the treatment of little boys.

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