Are a Significant Number of Afghan Men Raping Young Afghan Boys?

Written by Bill Berkowitz

Numerous reports alleged that harems of young boys were cloistered for “bacha baazi” (boy-play) for sexual and social entertainment; although credible statistics were difficult to acquire, as the subject was a source of shame and “dancing boys” was a widespread culturally sanctioned form of male rape, the State Department’s ‘2009 Human Rights report: Afghanistan’ pointed out.

Over the past several years the Catholic Church, both in the U.S. and Europe, has been confronted with, and forced to respond to, allegations of sexual molestation and other inappropriate behavior towards children by Priests. The behavior of some of the Church’s Priests was horrific, and the cover-up by Catholic Church hierarchy has proven to be even more widespread than originally thought, reaching as far as the Vatican. It appears, however, that the Catholic Church has not cornered the market on pedophilia. The rape of young boys by older men appears to be an acceptable way of life in parts of Afghanistan.

Before the October 2001 U.S. bombing of Afghanistan began, most Americans probably knew very little about the country. Although we now know much more, nevertheless, a recent report from the Human Terrain Team (HTT) AF-6 about rampant pedophilia in Afghanistan caught me by surprise. The unclassified report is titled “Pashtun Sexuality”.

I first heard about this report, and the participation of AnnaMaria Cardinalli, late last month in a piece titled “Afghanistan’s dirty secret: pedophilia” by Joel Brinkley in the San Francisco Chronicle. According to Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times, “For centuries, Afghan men have taken boys, roughly 9 to 15 years old, as lovers. Some research suggests that half the Pashtun tribal members in Kandahar and other southern towns are bacha baz, the term for an older man with a ‘boy lover.'”

Enayatullah, a 42-year-old in Baghlan province — located in the northeast part of the country – told a Reuters reporter that “Having a boy has become a custom for us. Whoever wants to show off should have a boy.”

As Brinkley pointed out “Afghans say pedophilia is most prevalent among Pashtun men in the south.” According to Brinkley, in Kandahar, a city with a population of 500,000, “dance parties are a popular, often weekly, pastime. Young boys dress up as girls, wearing makeup and bells on their feet, and dance for a dozen or more leering middle-age men who throw money at them and then take them home.” Brinkley reported that “a recent State Department report called ‘dancing boys’ a widespread culturally sanctioned form of male rape.”

The Story of Omid

In early September, BBC World Service reported the story of Omid, a 15-year-old boy who has been dancing at wedding parties since he was 10. According to BBC World Service, Omid’s “father died in the fields, when he stepped on a landmine. As the eldest son, it’s his job to look after his mother – who begs on the streets – and two younger brothers.”

Omid told the BBC that his family was “hungry,” and that he “had no choice.” “Sometimes we go to bed on empty stomachs,” said Omid. “When I dance at parties I earn about $2 or some pilau rice.”

The BBC’s Rustam Qobil asked him about the situation when he’s taken to hotels. “He bows his head and pauses for a long time before answering,” Qobil reported. “Omid says he is paid about $2 for the night. Sometimes he is gang raped. I ask him why he doesn’t go to the police for help. ‘They are powerful and rich men. The police can’t do anything against them.'”

Omid’s mother, although only in “her early 30s … . looks at least 50.” She told Qobil that “she only has half a kilo of rice and a few onions for dinner. They’ve run out of cooking oil. She knows that her son dances at parties but she is more concerned about what they will eat tomorrow. The fact that her son is vulnerable to abuse is far from her mind.”

Muhammad Ibrahim, deputy Police Chief of Jowzjan province, told the BBC that “the practice” is no longer an issue. “We haven’t had any cases of bachabaze in the last four-to-five years. It doesn’t exist here any more,” he said.

But Abdulkhabir Uchqun, an MP from northern Afghanistan, vehemently disagreed. “Unfortunately it is the on the increase in almost every region of Afghanistan. I asked local authorities to act to stop this practice but they don’t do anything,” he said. “Our officials are too ashamed to admit that it even exists.”

The BBC’s Rustam Qobil spoke with a Grand Mullah at the Shrine of Ali in Mazar-e Sharif – the holiest place in Afghanistan – about his “views on bachabaze.” “Bachabaze is in no way acceptable in Islam. Actually, it’s child abuse. It’s happening because our justice system doesn’t work. This country has been lawless for many years and responsible bodies and people can’t protect children,” he explained.

How widespread the practice of dancing boys and the rapes that often go along with it is not known. However, in a critique of Joel Brinkley’s article by M. Jamil Hanifi & Maximilian C. Forte – which appeared on the website of Zero Anthropology in early-September – the authors maintained that not only is there “no ‘scoop’ in Brinkley’s article” — as the story of the dancing boys had “already [been] abundantly covered by PBS Frontline months ago” – but that AnnaMaria Cardinalli is anything but an expert on Afghanistan, and that Brinkley’s piece is a shameless attempt to demonize the Afghan people.

Hanifi and Forte wrote that “What is more distinctive about Brinkley’s piece is the level of demonizing to sell war, and the involvement of AnnaMaria Cardinalli, an employee with the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System — a basic fact which Brinkley smudges out of view for the entire article, where HTS is not mentioned even once. Thanks to Brinkley’s clumsy use of an airbrush, Cardinalli is transformed into a ‘military investigator,’ someone expressly hired by the Defense Department to investigate the ‘dancing boys’ controversy.

…. “There’s no issue more horrifying and more deserving of our attention than this,” Cardinalli tells Brinkley. “I’m continually haunted by what I saw.” Hanifi and Forte: “An American employed by the Pentagon tells an American reporter that what is continually haunting are images of dancing boys — because all the warfare is much more palatable, or so ‘normal’ for an American that it’s easy to miss the sounds of gunfire and explosions. But then that’s the point: promoting a war of occupation because of the ‘horror’ of an unstated number of dancing boys.”

Hanifi and Forte argued that the real issue “is Joel Brinkley’s violent distortion and misrepresentation of the culture and society of the noble people of Afghanistan. It is about the contamination of the minds of the good and innocent people of the United States with poisonous anecdotal and unfounded claims about a vast and diverse Muslim society in which the American military is spending hundreds of millions of our tax dollars every day in the pursuit of a culture cleansing project driven by distorted and stereotypical images of Afghan men, women, and children produced by people like Brinkley.”

According to the State Department’s “2009 Human Rights report: Afghanistan,” “Sexual abuse of children remained pervasive. NGOs noted that most child victims were abused by extended family members. A UNHCR report noted tribal leaders also abused boys. During the year the MOI recorded 17 cases of child rape; the unreported number was believed to be much higher. In January and February, the ANP arrested men in three separate cases of the rape of boys in Jowzjan province. According to the AIHRC, most child sexual abusers were not arrested. Numerous reports alleged that harems of young boys were cloistered for ‘bacha baazi’ (boy-play) for sexual and social entertainment; although credible statistics were difficult to acquire, as the subject was a source of shame and ‘dancing boys’ was a widespread culturally sanctioned form of male rape.
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About author

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.