AFGHANISTAN // COMMENTARY – The Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan means changes in many of the parameters of everyday life in the conflict-torn country. Whether it will lead to an improvement for children’s conditions, however, is highly doubtful. A report from Save the Children on Afghanistan estimates that 91 percent of the country’s children have been subjected to abuse of various kinds, including physical, sexual or mental. Particularly pronounced is the sexual abuse of underage boys, the so-called basha bazi phenomenon. So far no one has been able to solve this problem. To accept an abuse as culturally entrenched is to fail the children of the country; a failure that the world community passively and tacitly accepts with reference to culture.
When the Taliban last came to power 20 years ago, their official announcement was that they would stop the widespread abuse of underage boys. And although at the time they carried out punishments and executions of a number of men who committed sexual assaults on underage boys, the Taliban themselves were at the same time contributing to the same crime. The question is whether they will do something similar this time. They probably will not. The phenomenon is as prevalent in Taliban-dominated areas as in northern Afghanistan under the Northern Alliance.
The ancient Greeks and young men
The phenomenon dates back to ancient times, and was well known among the ancient Greeks. Plato talked about the love of young men. The Greeks had a wide variety of rules for this, including the cardinal principle that the younger party should not be forced into it. Obvious pedophile relationships were strongly condemned.
Conversely, young boys / men were not allowed to openly offer themselves either. The decisive factor was therefore the question of whether the juvenile had so-called ownership of its own share in the relationship. That is, whether he was forced into it or voluntarily entered into the relationship. This made age a focal point, because there is a big difference between whether the minor was just 12 years old or 17 years old. For the same reason, there were rules that men over 40 were not allowed to be present at athletics venues when younger boys were there to train.
In other words, the ancient Greeks were quite conscious of setting up a series of measures to protect the younger boys to some extent, just as there was an awareness of voluntariness in the relationship. There was also some social control over the phenomenon and with overt condemnation in the case of pure pedophilia and overt abuse of boys.
Basha bazi in Afghanistan, formerly banned under the Taliban
This is not exactly the case in today’s Afghanistan. On the contrary. Unlike Greece, this particular phenomenon has survived in Afghanistan, although at times it has been banned. And in today’s Afghanistan, volunteering in such a relationship is not taken into account. On the contrary, many of the youngest boys are kidnapped, just as poor, desperate families in the countryside are said to be sold to their minor sons to powerful tribal leaders. Having basha bazi boys emphasizes the powerful position and status of the tribal leader.
It was banned under the Taliban when the movement was last in power between 1996 and 2001. And while it naturally sounds like a sympathetic move that the movement would thus protect underage boys from sexual abuse, one should just be aware that the phenomenon is particularly prevalent in Pashtun areas, ie the strongholds of the Taliban. Thus, one should in no way be blinded by the fact that the Taliban previously banned it and allegedly cracked down hard on it. Again in 2017, the then Afghan government announced that it would criminalize the phenomenon.
When 12-year-old children are kidnapped in open street or sold by their parents in desperation to elderly and wealthy tribal masters, this is simply human trafficking, which can in no way be justified under any misunderstood cultural context
And although it has since been banned, it has not stopped. On the contrary, there has been an increase in recent years. Both in northern Afghanistan, under the Northern Alliance and the heartland of the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan.
Gender and identity are in many ways a challenged concept in Afghan society. Because the female sex is considered unclean, many local and uneducated mullahs consider it purer for men to have a sexual relationship with underage boys. Homosexuality is forbidden according to Islam, but sexual intercourse with underage boys is not considered to be homosexual, but rather just a physical arrangement to cover physical needs that the man can not get covered by a woman.
Toothless European call
Last December, the European Parliament called on the Afghan authorities to set up national support centers and guides to provide support to children who have been abused. Such a call seems somewhat toothless considering the fact that the phenomenon is so overtly rooted and culturally conditioned in Afghan society that it is not even attempted to be kept hidden.
On the contrary, it is considered a proof of the position and power of a tribal lord if he can showcase his basha bazi boys. It underlines his powerful position and high social status. The phenomenon was so widespread and was openly in front of the eyes of American troops in the country, who ordered a report on the matter, to understand the phenomenon and to get some guidelines on how to deal with it.
Gender and identity are in many ways a challenged concept in Afghan society
But simply referring to the fact that it is culturally determined is a blatant violation of very basic human rights. The Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly protects children from sexual abuse. That it takes place openly as a socially and culturally accepted thing in Afghan society testifies to a fear of being touched by the phenomenon.
Article 34 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child deals with the protection of children from sexual abuse:
States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. To this end, States Parties shall in particular take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent children from being forced to engage in any form of unlawful sexual activity.
Basha bazi as a romantic musical
Almost as an emphasis on the tragedy of the West’s approach to the phenomenon, a musical about the phenomenon was staged in the United States in 2017. ‘The Boy Who Danced on Air’ referred to two basha bazi boys. The musical even received an extremely positive reception from the reviewers, who called the performance not only brave but also beautiful.
Only when the performance in 2020 was broadcast online during the pandemic, did the musical’s message reach a larger audience – including the Afghan diaspora around the world. It provoked an outcry and criticism for romanticizing sexual abuse and rape of children.
Perhaps with Western glasses, they have tried to wrap pedophilia as a kind of Afghan queerness thing. But kidnapping 12-year-olds in open daylight or deperate parents selling their minor children to elderly and wealthy tribal masters, is simply human trafficking that can in no way be justified under a misunderstood cultural context. It is child abuse and a violation of children’s human rights. Which no one intervenes against.
Basha posh – girls dressed as boys
Because the female gender in many ways is regarded as unclean and inferior, families with daughters only face a number of cultural and economic challenges. Such families are often looked down upon by others. In part, this leads to financial challenges, as daughters in many areas are not allowed to work outside home. For this reason, some Afghan families without sons therefore choose to raise their newborn daughter as a son.
Such girls are thus cut short-haired and wearing traditional boy clothes. Admittedly, these girls are then at least neither sold nor abused as basha bazi boys. But they have to live in a different and an enforced gender until they reach puberty, where they have to start living as girls. This shift in forced gender identity and a shift between the two gender roles leaves many of these girls deeply traumatized.
This phenomenon is not confined to Afghan culture only, it exists in many places around the world. But the fact that it also exists in Afghanistan testifies to a gender dysfunction in the country’s fundamental approach to women such as the unclean, women’s gender, and the consequent sexual abuse of underage boys.
The crossroads between basic human rights, cultural intimidation and fear of interfering
This blatant abuse of children in Afghanistan hits a crossroads between universal human rights and – not just – cultural understanding, but cultural intimidation. The fact that the world’s strongest military power, the United States, was powerless in the face of the phenomenon puts exactly the matter to a head.
Despite 20 years of presence in Afghanistan, Western powers were so apprehensive about this behavior, which in every way violates fundamental human rights, that it simply failed to do anything about the abuse on the grounds that it was culturally rooted.
First and foremost, this is a matter of understanding the mechanisms behind a cultural pattern, including what is superstition and lack of knowledge
Perhaps it is the fear of being accused of being a cultural imperialist that deters the international community from doing anything about the phenomenon. But this hesitation is a failure on the part of the country’s minors, who need the protection. The latest UNICEF report on Afghanistan highlights how both underage boys and girls are exposed to sexual abuse, domestic violence, and physical and mental abuse.
Witch children in Nigeria – taking up the fight against superstition
This fear or hesitance of interfering with a culturally rooted abuse of minors can never be justified. A similar example of violent abuse against children is the so-called witch children in Nigeria. UNICEF has estimated that approx. 10,000 children are tortured, abused and ostracized by their families annually because they are accused of being witch children.
The Danish founder of the aid organization Land of Hope, Anja Ringgren Lovén, has since 2008 worked tiredlessly to save these children. They are often accused by their own family of being witches and thus being responsible for the poor harvest of the family, or the poor health of a family member. Such a child will be tortured and subsequently expelled from the family.
I have previously interviewed Anja Ringgren Lovén about how outsiders can take up the fight against such massive human rights violations of minor children.
When children are abused, be it witch children in Nigeria or sexually abused boys in Afghanistan, it is rooted in ignorance, superstition and, above all, an incentive for those in power to perpetuate such a situation.
First and foremost, the fight against this abuse begins in understanding the mechanisms behind a cultural pattern, including superstition and lack of knowledge. Anja Ringgren Lovén in Nigeria points to the role and interest of the church in keeping people in ignorance because there is money in paying the church to have the curses over the witch children lifted. The very same mechanisms can be seen in Afghanistan.
Ignorance and keeping the civilian population in a desperate situation provides access to underage basha bazi boys. Because when children are abused, be it witch children in Nigeria or sexually abused boys in Afghanistan, it is rooted in ignorance, superstition and, above all, an incentive for those in power to perpetuate such a situation.
This is not a question of cultural bashing of Afghanistan or its civilian population. It is a question of whether the world community should take up that fight for the country’s minor citizens. Their situation and living conditions are tragic in many ways. It is even more tragic that no one is doing anything about it.