Ghosts among Afghan “dancing boys” (updated)

Pardon me for taking a long-needed trip into my GetReligion folder of guilt to deal with a riveting Washington Post story. Several readers sent me notes about and I promised I would get to it sooner or later. This is later and I know that.

I am referring to the recent news feature about the return of the “bacha bazi,” or “boy for pleasure,” networks in the post-Taliban (sort of) Afghanistan. This sexual abuse of male children and teens is not exactly a bright spot in this era of American influence in that complex culture. Here are the summary paragraphs that frame this story:

A growing number of Afghan children are being coerced into a life of sexual abuse. The practice of wealthy or prominent Afghans exploiting underage boys as sexual partners who are often dressed up as women to dance at gatherings is on the rise in post-Taliban Afghanistan, according to Afghan human rights researchers, Western officials and men who participate in the abuse.

“Like it or not, there was better rule of law under the Taliban,” said Dee Brillenburg Wurth, a child-protection expert at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, who has sought to persuade the government to address the problem. “They saw it as a sin, and they stopped a lot of it.”

Over the past decade, the phenomenon has flourished in Pashtun areas in the south, in several northern provinces and even in the capital, according to Afghans who engage in the practice or have studied it. Although issues such as women’s rights and moral crimes have attracted a flood of donor aid and activism in recent years, bacha bazi remains poorly understood.

The main strength of this story is that members of the Post team were able to talk, face to face and on the record, with Afghan men who freely discussed this dangerous and taboo topic — including their own virtual ownership of young males.

This is the strength of the article and, in a strange way, it’s main weakness. There were hard questions that needed to be asked, primarily about how these practices were reconciled with Islamic teachings on gender and homosexuality. However, I find it hard to fault reporters who — far from the relative safety of this troubled nation’s cities — needed to push those particular buttons when interviewing circles of men with rifles.

The story does, however, raise one interesting issue that I wish to point out, an issue linked to GetReligion’s ongoing discussions of the vague and undefined labels that reporters often use when writing about Islam. Note the language in this passage, for example, which features information drawn from Hayatullah Jawad of the Afghan Human Rights Research and Advocacy Organization:

Boys who become bachas are seen as property, said Jawad, the human rights researcher. Those who are perceived as being particularly beautiful can be sold for tens of thousands of dollars. The men who control them sometimes rent them out as dancers at male-only parties, and some are prostituted.

“This is abuse,” Jawad said. “Most of these children are not willing to do this. They do this for money. Their families are very poor.”

Although the practice is thought to be more widespread in conservative rural areas, it has become common in Kabul.

A few paragraphs later, however, readers learn that:

Afghan men have exploited boys as sexual partners for generations, people who have studied the issue say. The practice became rampant during the 1980s, when mujaheddin commanders fighting Soviet forces became notorious for recruiting young boys while passing through villages. In Kandahar during the mid-1990s, the Taliban was born in part out of public anger that local commanders had married bachas and were engaging in other morally licentious behavior.

Afghanistan’s legal codes are based mainly on sharia, or Islamic law, which strictly prohibits sodomy. The law also bars sex before marriage. Under Afghan law, men must be at least 18 years old and women 16 to marry.

During the Taliban era, men suspected of having sex with men or boys were executed. In the late 1990s, amid the group’s repressive reign, the practice of bacha bazi went underground. The fall of the Taliban government in late 2001 and the flood of donor money that poured into Afghanistan revived the phenomenon.

So this practice is associated with more “conservative” parts of the nation, yet it was specifically opposed by the Taliban. Last time I heard, the Taliban era was generally known as a time when Afghanistan was controlled by a very, very conservative approach to Islam.

Once again, readers are told that the radical, conservative Taliban whipped out this practice in “conservative” parts of the nation, until the bacha bazi then reemerged in the era linked to the arrival of U.S. and Western forces?

I am not sure that the word “conservative” has much meaning when used in this manner. So Islamic conservatives (or is that culturally conservative Afghan Muslims) were in favor of the prostitution of young males? I want to hear that explained in greater depth, somehow. Like I said earlier, I realize that this would have been a dangerous line of questioning.

This is an amazing story. If anything, however, it needed more information linked to how Islamic teachings have been reconciled with this hellish reality in the past and in the present. Without making sense of that equation, I am not sure readers can understand what is going on.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the first-person “behind the story” online feature by reporter Ernesto Londoño. It offers more details on the origins of this story and the people involved.

And then there is this fascinating ending:

Other men in the room started playing dancing boy videos on their cell phones so I could see what their gatherings were like. There was no apparent shame to what they were showing me. I asked if they felt the practice was exploitative. They said it wasn’t, because boys 10 years and older understood what they were getting into and reaped benefits from the relationship. I asked whether what they were doing went against Islam. They said the mullahs, or religious leaders, condemned it, but that they didn’t see anything morally wrong with it.

After an hour or so, my Afghan colleague said we should probably go. The village was not entirely safe, and he was afraid word might have spread that there was a foreigner in town. As I got up to leave, Mirzahan and Assadula said they had one question for me.

“Are you Muslim?” one asked. I told them I am not. They asked me to convert then and there.

Baffled, I told them I would think about it, and walked out.

VIDEO: From the award-winning Frontline documentary on this same topic.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ben

    From what I could understand during my time in Afghanistan, it’s a traditional cultural practice stretching back centuries. The Post would have been better to say “traditional rural areas” but conservative works in the sense of culturally conservative. Where it gets confusing is some religiously “conservative” strains of Islam have been more critical of the practice.

    When Arab fighters came to Afghanistan during the 1980s jihad, they were critical of some of these traditional Afghan cultural practices. The wahabbis, in particular, found Afghan versions of Islam too accommodating of practices like Bacha Bazi. The Taliban internalized some of those conservative Arab religious ideas, and they also saw attacking Bacha Bazi as a convenient way to channel popular outrage around Kandahar against the warlords into a righteous struggle.

    When thinking about Afghanistan, it’s important to remember that sometimes traditional Afghan culture is older and more regressive than Islam, and so Islamic forces are sometimes more progressive and reform oriented.

  • Dave

    Terry, you’re being whipsawed between two concepts generally contained in conservatism, “traditional” and “lawful.” In this case “lawful” refers to Sharia and “traditional” refers to long-standing sexual practices, and they are in conflict. So two areas that could bear the label “conservative” are in opposition. It may not be a good term to apply so far overseas from the Western political milieu from which it emerged.

  • Maureen

    I hate to explain this….

    Actually, there are hadiths (or ahadith, to use the Arabic plural) which say that, while it’s not okay for men to have sex with men, it’s totally okay for men to have sex with “natural eunuchs” or “effeminate men” who lack desire for women. The reasoning is that, if they don’t want women and hence lack the “defining skill” of men, they obviously ARE women, and can be used like women (ie, as the passive one).

    Boys also lack the “defining skill”, and hence are fair game until they hit puberty, under this interpretation. This is why Islamic heaven (in the Quran) includes boys who never grow up as a reward for men, just like it includes the whole virgins who always grow back their virginity thing.

    So in this case, the Taliban is actually being progressive, going against Islamic tradition.