There are no children in Afghanistan

“she laughed his joy she cried his grief”

A Wikileaks cable involving the U.S. contracting firm DynCorp (a company that is no stranger to scandal) has received relatively little attention so far.  DynCorp employees apparently hired bacha bazi, also called “dancing boys,” to perform at a party for Afghan police officers. While the details of the party are not yet clear, the practice of bacha bazi, which literally means “boy for play,” is a 300-year old Central Asian tradition that the State Department has called a “widespread, culturally sanctioned form of male rape.” The practice was banned under the Taliban but has re-emerged in recent years.  The dancers, who are often abused children disowned by their families, wear makeup, women’s clothing, and bells on their feet when they perform for audiences of older men. According to the New York Times, “boys as young as 9 are dressed as girls and trained to dance for male audiences, then prostituted in an auction to the highest bidder.” When bachas turn 19, they are released and allowed to “reclaim their status as ‘male,’ though the stigma of having lived as a bacha is hard to overcome.” Some social scientists posit that the popularity of bacha bazi stems from the strict gender segregation that characterizes Afghan society even after the fall of the Taliban. There are few opportunities for men to interact with women, or boys with girls. While women are no longer required to wear the burqa since the Taliban were taken out of power, many still do out of local custom or fear for their safety. As one Afghani man put it, “How can you fall in love if you can’t see her face? We can see the boys, and we can tell which are beautiful.”

A short time ago, the New York Times ran a story about girls in Afghanistan who dress as boys until they reach puberty.  The practice of bacha posh, which means “dressed as a boy,” allows families to avoid the perceived stigma of having no sons. It has the added benefit of granting girls freedom of movement and education that they would not otherwise have. A bacha posh can go to school, work outside the home, or be seen in public without a male chaperone much more easily than if she were visibly female.  The freedom is temporary, however. When the girls approach marrying age or reach puberty, they are usually forced by their families to change back. Many of these girls resist this reversion.  Sexual harassment and sexual assault of girls and women remains common in Afghanistan, and the restrictions on their movement and education make for difficult adjustments. “People use bad words for girls,” said one fifteen-year-old. “They scream at them on the streets.  When I see that, I don’t want to be a girl.  When I am a boy, they don’t speak to me like that.”  Changing back into a girl also presents other challenges; women speak of the difficulties of having to learn how to interact with other women, how to speak like a woman, and how to walk in a floor-length covering after years of wearing loose trousers.

The twinned drag practices of bacha bazi and bacha posh reveal how much the consequences of feminization differ from those of masculinization. In bacha bazi, boys are feminized and consequently experience sexual exploitation and a lowering of social status. In bacha posh, girls are masculinized and experience the benefit of increased physical security and social freedom. To be feminized is to be punished; to be masculinized is to be liberated.  It is tempting to locate the harm of these practices in the transposition: boys should not be forced to be girls, and girls should not be forced to be boys (this is how the harms of male prisoner sexual abuse is often characterized, i.e., men should not be treated as women). But to do so implies that there is some natural essence of “boyness” or “girlness” that childhood drag perverts. It would imply that the harm could be cured by simply ensuring that boys were allowed to be boys, and girls to be girls. That is, when these boys and girls reach adulthood and “switch back” (if they can do so successfully), the world is righted on its axis.  But the fact that childhood drag is possible – that boys can meaningfully be thought of as girls, and vice versa –  supports Judith Butler’s insight that drag has the potential to “enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire.” If so, it would be exactly wrong to draw from bacha bazi/bacha posh the lesson that we should not force boys and girls to be something they are not; rather, the lesson is that “girlhood” and “boyhood” can be put on or taken off.  As constructs, they can be evaluated for their relative harms or benefits, and doing so exposes a significant asymmetry. To be considered male in Afghanistan means physical security and social freedom, whereas being considered female means abuse and oppression. Perhaps what the practices of bacha bazi/bacha posh illuminate most starkly, then, is how the construct of femininity can rob both boys and girls of childhood.

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5 Responses

  1. Thanks for this interesting post and drawing our attention to the subject.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    I confess I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make by your conclusion. Is it some sort of general indictment of the “construct of femininity”? If so, isn’t that a little sweeping? Why should we not draw from this situation the lesson that there is something messed-up about Afghan society, rather than about male and female roles generally? Also, dare I ask, what connection are you trying to draw from these Afghan practices to legal issues? This angle seemed to be missing from the post.

  3. A.J., the reason I would not conclude that bacha bazi/bacha posh practices indicate that “there is something messed up about Afghan society” is that such an observation does not strike me (to put it diplomatically) as particularly meaningful or thoughtful. It sounds far too much like a knee-jerk, Western superiority response (“oh, those people over there, with their crazy oppressive practices!”) for my taste. What makes these practices so interesting and tragic is precisely that they are not, at least structurally speaking, unique. Afghanistan is certainly not the only place where gender essentialism produces negative consequences. And mistakenly identifying gender transposition as the cause of such consequences, rather than underlying gender constructions themselves, is a problem that surfaces, for example, in the response to the sexual abuse of men in prison in America (as mentioned in my original post). The larger point is that examples of extremely restrictive gender roles – e.g., in Afghanistan – highlights the artificiality of gender construction and what damage can be done by the refusal to recognize it as such.

    As for your last point, allow me to rephrase it into something helpful: “What are some of the specific ways that a discussion of gender roles in Afghanistan can or should impact law and legal theory?” Thank you for the question – I appreciate the implicit acknowledgment that theories of gender necessarily implicate law and legal practices (given that law deals with persons, and how persons act towards other persons, and so the way that persons are defined and regarded in the law is of general significance). Here are a few things that come to mind: How should Afghan law respond to the practices of bacha bazi and bacha posh, if at all? What can be done about the gap between formal promises of equality (according to its constitution, “The citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman – have equal rights and duties before the law”) and the harsh reality of the denial of basic rights and opportunities to women and girls, and the apparently widespread sexual abuse of young boys? Given that the U.S. justified its involvement with Afghanistan partly on the basis of the country’s oppression of women, what responsibility does it have for the continuing oppression of women under the regime it helped put in place?

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    Concerning my last question, thank you for “rephras[ing] it into something helpful”: and I acknowledge that your proposal to do so did not constitute “a knee-jerk, Western superiority response” (emphasis added). To clarify, though, the question was also an implicit acknowledgment that this blog relates to law. At least that was my (white, male, middle-aged, Western, active bar member-ly) construction of it after reading it daily for several years.

    As for the point about Afghan society, the purpose of the question was not to suggest that you do anything so meaningless or thoughtless as to conclude that “there is something messed-up” about it. I, for one, never had any doubt that you would abstain from drawing such a conclusion. Rather, it was to point out a rhetorical failure in your original post, viz., the failure to present a clear justification for why a reader should draw the conclusion you put forward rather than such an alternative (among other possibilities).

    If I may put forward my own, tiny claim to hetereity by association, I live in a non-Western country where gender roles are constructed very differently from those prevalent in the US, e.g. with many transvestite and transgender celebrities, cloyingly cute boy bands, etc. It also has a plummeting birthrate. It strikes me that while recognition of the artificiality of gender construction is very humane and reasonable to a degree, there may also be certain practical limits to it. Whence my concern about “sweeping[ness]” in my prior comment.

  5. Your acknowledgment is cheerfully noted. Fortunately, I am aware that this blog relates to law, as might be apparent from my invitation to be a guest blogger here. Granted, you may have specific ideas about what does and does not qualify as “law-related,” and my post may well not fit those. I am untroubled by this state of affairs.

    The fact that you were personally unable to follow my conclusion may not in itself constitute evidence that there was a “rhetorical failure” in my post (although some form of failure may indeed be at work here). Of course it is true that I did not offer a fully comprehensive analysis of Afghani drag practices – then again, this was a blog post, not a dissertation.

    I admit I find your final paragraph mystifying. How is the plummeting birthrate related to boy bands or transvestite celebrities? Is the decline in the birth rate a good or a bad thing? What would it mean to have “limits” on “recognition”? I also do not follow your qualified claim that it is “humane” or even “reasonable” to recognize the constructed nature of gender. To recognize the artificiality of gender roles is to recognize an aspect of reality; it is not, in itself, an ethical position.