POLITICIZING ABUSE AIDED ASCENT OF THE TALIBAN
Boys born into poverty bought and sold among Afghan elite, Peter McKnight says.
Peter McKnight, Vancouver Sun, Oct. 7, 2022
Perhaps the most visible evidence of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan is something you can’t see: women and girls.
Since the withdrawal of U.S. troops last August, women and girls have largely disappeared from public life, from the streets, the markets, the workplaces and the schools of the Islamic republic. Despite assurances to the contrary, the Taliban have reinstituted their wholesale assault on women’s rights, and mothers and daughters are now once again out of sight — but not out of mind.
Leaders around the world have condemned the violations of human rights, most recently at this week’s meeting of the United Nations. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly, for one, forcefully condemned the Taliban’s treatment of half of the country’s population.
So while we might not see women and girls in Afghanistan, we at least hear about them. But there’s something we neither see nor hear, something that played a critical role in the Taliban’s abuse of women and, as detailed in a report from the Newlines Institute, in the ascendancy of the Taliban itself: the sexual abuse and enslavement of boys.
It’s called bacha bazi — “boy play” in several local languages. Boys, typically between 10 and 18, are dressed in makeup and feminine clothing and forced to dance for men at social functions. They become the “dancing boys” of Afghanistan, as they’re often called — but this innocuous moniker merely hides the dark reality of bacha bazi.
The dancing is often little more than a cover for what bacha bazi is really about — the boys are bought and sold, thereby becoming property, and are subject to repeated sexual abuse. Bacha bazi is not dancing; it’s a nefarious cornucopia of human rights violations — the forcible confinement of children, the trafficking of children, and the keeping of children in a state of child sexual slavery.
Among other things, socioeconomic inequality underlies the abuse. Many of the men who engage in bacha bazi hold powerful positions in Afghan society, and participants include warlords, police commanders, and members of the Afghan National Security Forces. The popularity of bacha bazi among these men is summed up by the odious idiom: “Women are for children, boys are for pleasure.”
But not only for pleasure. In an effort to survive, many poor families knowingly or unknowingly sell their boys into bacha bazi, as it provides much-needed funds as well as contact with powerful men. Underaged and underprivileged boys are therefore used and reused, cycled and recycled through the whorl of abuse — for sex, for money, for status.
In fact, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, “boys are more vulnerable than girls to be victims of trafficking, especially in bacha bazi.” And the boys who escape their enslavement aren’t necessarily the lucky ones: “Some boys who reported sexual abuse and sex trafficking to police reported police officers then raped them.”
Of course all boys who survive the abuse eventually “escape.” Once they start to grow beards, they’re no longer wanted, tossed aside like so much flotsam, with no marketable skills and lifelong histories of trauma. Boys born into poverty are therefore doomed to remain there, with some becoming prostitutes, while others seek solace in substance abuse.
The damage doesn’t end there. Although many powerful Afghan men willingly participate in bacha bazi — and some even use it as a means of improving their social standing — most Afghan people deplore the abuse. And it is for that reason that bacha bazi played a critical role in the Taliban’s eventual triumph in Afghanistan.
In contrast to the attitude of many powerful Afghan men, the Taliban have always maintained that bacha bazi is a violation of Islamic law. Taliban founder Mullah Muhammad Omar and his small cadre of supporters began rescuing the boys and exacting summary justice on those who engaged in bacha bazi.
Omar and the Taliban quickly garnered significant support for their actions, and they racked up numerous military victories on their way to taking Kandahar province in 1994. Upon assuming power, the Taliban quickly outlawed bacha bazi, making it an offence punishable by death.
This did not altogether end the abuse, as those who engaged in it went underground. That makes it difficult to determine the prevalence of bacha bazi, though there is some evidence that it became more widespread after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
And while the Taliban might have succeeded in rising to power irrespective of bacha bazi, there’s no question their hostility to the practice aided in their popularity. Consequently, had the world taken the abuse of boys seriously, the Taliban might never have had the opportunity to abuse girls and women.
And now, they’re doing it all over again. Ever mindful of the lessons of the past, the Taliban are seeking to curry favour with the Afghan people by touting their vaunted reputations as upholders of the faith and defenders of abused boys.
We, too, need to remember a lesson from the past and it is this: You can’t protect girls if you close your eyes to the abuse of boys. And vice versa. Indeed, the Afghan experience demonstrates that sexual abuse isn’t a women’s problem or a men’s problem but is, rather, a human problem. And the only way to protect anyone is to see, and hear, everyone.