On the eve of Obama's speech on the Iraq transition, the last thing anyone needs is another reason to have misgivings about the situation in Afghanistan - but that's certainly what a piece from this weekend's San Francisco Chronicle provides. Among the Pashtun, Afghanistan's major ethnic group, sexual relationships between grown men and boys as young as nine are common, according to Joel Brinkley, a journalism professor at Stanford.
Dancing Boys of Afghanistan (Watch Video)
The term for these men is "bacha baz," which translates to "boy player" (although, as Tracy Clark-Flory observes at Broadsheet, could also translate well as "pedophile"). According to Brinkley, the "bacha baz" boast about their boy lovers, seeing them as a status symbol. At dances, the boys will dress up as women and dance for their middle-aged male paramours; the men will throw money at the boys and eventually take them home.
A recent State Department report assessed the situation bluntly, saying that it amounts to a "widespread, culturally sanctioned form of male rape."
The irony is that the "bacha baz" seem to have arisen because of deeply ingrained sexism within Afghan culture. For men, women are completely unapproachable. Brinkley explains,
"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 ankle."
And women are not just out of men's grasp - they're culturally coded to be downright unpleasant. Women, according to Brinkley, are seen as "unclean" and "distasteful." Menstruation disgusts their male partners, and women are seen as bearers of children, rather than sexually desirable potential partners. In this environment, "women are for children, boys are for pleasure." And of course, the middle-aged men control the women and the boys.
The most disturbing part was the extent to which this pattern seems to be written into the culture - Brinkley quoted a boy who, speaking to a Reuters reporter, said, "Once I grow up, I will be an owner, and I will have my own boys." How do you break this kind of cycle? One thing is for sure - although the boys may eventually gain positions of power, as children, they are as helpless and objectified as the women.