Back when I was in college I did my honors thesis on homosexuality in the Middle East. After a fair amount of research I found there are homosexual traditions in the Middle East that are accepted despite the fact that homosexuality is punishable by death under Islamic law. Modern, Western gay relationships are out, but what you find are one of two things – 1) cross dressing, and 2) pedophilia. Think of Middle Eastern cross dressers as pre-op transexuals who live their lives as women. Despite the segregation of men and women, the cross-dressed men are allowed to spend private time with women outside their family (which is unheard of). The pedophilia was well structured and took the form of young “apprentices” to older “masters”. The older men didn’t consider themselves gay because they would have wives and families. The boy was just something on the side.
The other night Frontline had a program the other day on “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan”. Afghanistan has a tradition that’s called “bacha bazi” (بچه بازی) which literally translates to “baby play”. Poor young boys are recruited by an older wealthy men, their families paid pretty well for the boys, and they’re “trained” to entertain men. Not stated in the documentary, but pretty clear from watching which boys are recruited, is the fact that they’re trying to find and recruit kids who are probably gay. It probably also explains why the families are willing to sell the boys – I doubt they’d sell their butch, rugged son, but it’s not such a big deal to sell the kids who they suspect to be gay.
The entertainment consists of dressing them as women and having them dance for a group of men. Curiously, the dancing part is quite modest – like women dancers, hardly any skin shows.
The issue is that after the performance their “master” (owner) may lend the boy to another man for the evening and sex is expected. From a western perspective this is literally sexual slavery of minors. The other big problem is that while some of the boys manage to fit in (the femmy gay ones), ones who resist and cause problems are often killed.
What’s interesting is that it’s all practiced pretty openly. Frontline even showed one case where bacha bazi was the entertainment for men attending a wedding. And most of the men who involved are powerful, with standing in the community – military commanders, police chiefs, businessmen, etc.
When I was in college studying sociology and Middle Eastern studies one of the big challenges was to try to look at cultures from their own eyes – cultural relativism. The Afghans who are outraged about bacha bazi are typically western educated, English speakers, or strict Muslims (the Taliban banned bacha bazi). I think part of their outrage comes from that fact that rich, powerful “straight” men with families might actually be gay or bisexual. Yes, there are serious exploitation issues with bacha bazi, but I think homophobia is a big part of the opposition to it. If the boys were older and things were more consensual (like western drag queen) many of the opponents would probably still be opposed to it.
However, the traditional Afghan seems to pretty much accept bacha bazi, and in a culture that isn’t all that fond of educating women and makes women wear burqas, it’s really not that surprising. Human life just isn’t intrinsically valued in Afghanistan like it is in the west. All men are not created equal. In Afghanistan if you’re male and wealthy you get to do pretty much what you want. And if you’re poor or female your life will be dictated by others with more power. Women literally can’t show their faces in public and some poor boys are required to have sex with older wealthy men.
So ultimately this is less about a sex crime and more about principles of basic equality. You can pass all the laws you want outlawing bacha bazi (as the Taiban did), but it will have little effect if you don’t instill in people that everyone is inherently equal and that there are certain human right everyone just gets without earning them.
If you’re sitting there thinking the Afghans are so horrible for accepting bacha bazi, think again. Many in the “Tea Party” movement seem to have big problems with the fact that the country is being led by a black man and say pretty horrible things about him based solely on his skin color. Others spend millions of dollars fighting civil rights for gay people. Others don’t like to ride in airplanes with Muslims. Then there are the thousands of hate crimes that are reported every year with some people getting killed simply because of the color of their skin, or their religion or their sexual orientation. We’re really not in a position to throw stones at the Afghans.