Afghanistan’s dirty little secret

San Francisco Chronicle
August 29, 2010 04:00 AM
San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved. This material may not be
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Joel Brinkley – Sunday, August 29, 2010

Yuri Cortez / AFP/Getty Images

can you fall in love if you can’t see her face," 29-year-old Mohammed
Daud told reporters. "We can see the boys, so we can tell which are

Western forces fighting in southern Afghanistan
had a problem. Too often, soldiers on patrol passed an older man
walking hand-in-hand with a pretty young boy. Their behavior suggested
he was not the boy’s father. Then, British soldiers found that young
Afghan men were actually trying to "touch and fondle them," military
investigator AnnaMaria Cardinalli told me. "The soldiers didn’t

All of this was so disconcerting that the Defense Department hired Cardinalli, a social scientist, to examine this mystery. Her report, "Pashtun Sexuality," startled not even one Afghan. But Western forces were shocked – and repulsed.

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. Literally it means "boy player." The men like to boast about it.

"Having a boy has become a custom for us," Enayatullah, a
42-year-old in Baghlan province, told a Reuters reporter. "Whoever
wants to show off should have a boy."

Baghlan province is in the northeast, but Afghans say pedophilia is
most prevalent among Pashtun men in the south. The Pashtun are
Afghanistan’s most important tribe. For centuries, the nation’s leaders
have been Pashtun.

President Hamid Karzai
is Pashtun, from a village near Kandahar, and he has six brothers. So
the natural question arises: Has anyone in the Karzai family been bacha baz?
Two Afghans with close connections to the Karzai family told me they
know that at least one family member and perhaps two were bacha baz. Afraid of retribution, both declined to be identified and would not be more specific for publication.

As for Karzai, an American who worked in and around his palace in an
official capacity for many months told me that homosexual behavior "was
rampant" among "soldiers and guys on the security detail. They talked
about boys all the time."

He added, "I didn’t see Karzai with anyone. He was in his palace most of the time." He, too, declined to be identified.

In Kandahar, population about 500,000, and other towns, 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-aged men who throw money at them and then take them
home. A recent State Department report called "dancing boys" a
"widespread, culturally sanctioned form of male rape."

So, why are American and NATO forces fighting and dying to defend
tens of thousands of proud pedophiles, certainly more per capita than
any other place on Earth? And how did Afghanistan become the pedophilia
capital of Asia?

Sociologists and anthropologists say the problem results from perverse interpretation of Islamic law.
Women are simply unapproachable. Afghan men cannot talk to an unrelated
woman until after proposing marriage. Before then, they can’t even look
at a woman, except perhaps her feet. Otherwise she is covered, head to

"How can you fall in love if you can’t see her face," 29-year-old
Mohammed Daud told reporters. "We can see the boys, so we can tell
which are beautiful."

Even after marriage, many men keep their boys, suggesting a loveless
life at home. A favored Afghan expression goes: "Women are for
children, boys are for pleasure." Fundamentalist imams, exaggerating a
biblical passage on menstruation, teach that women are "unclean" and
therefore distasteful. One married man even asked Cardinalli’s team
"how his wife could become pregnant," her report said. When that was
explained, he "reacted with disgust" and asked, "How could one feel
desire to be with a woman, who God has made unclean?"

That helps explain why women are hidden away – and stoned to death
if they are perceived to have misbehaved. Islamic law also forbids
homosexuality. But the pedophiles explain that away. It’s not
homosexuality, they aver, because they aren’t in love with their boys.

Addressing the loathsome mistreatment of Afghan women remains a primary goal for coalition governments, as it should be.

But what about the boys, thousands upon thousands of little boys who
are victims of serial rape over many years, destroying their lives –
and Afghan society.

"There’s no issue more horrifying and more deserving of our
attention than this," Cardinalli said. "I’m continually haunted by what
I saw."

As one boy, in tow of a man he called "my lord," told the Reuters
reporter: "Once I grow up, I will be an owner, and I will have my own

© 2010 Joel Brinkley

Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at
Stanford University and is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign
correspondent for the New York Times. Contact The Chronicle via our
online form:

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