Sunday, February 7, 2010

Trouble In Afghanistan

Something only women can mend reported recently on a study prepared by researchers attached to a Marine battalion in southern Afghanistan—where many of the Pashtuns who make up 42 percent of the Afghan population are concentrated—which was designed to help Westerners gain a better understanding of Afghan society. But judging from what the account reveals about the sexual behavior of the male members of that ethnic group, a large swath of Afghani culture is likely to remain a sordid mystery to many of those with their boots on the ground, and to many of us here at home, as well. Among the study’s details:

Pashtun men commonly have sex with other men, admire other men physically, have sexual relationships with boys and shun women both socially and sexually -- yet they completely reject the label of “homosexual.”

Gonorrhea is rife; those who contract it “refuse to believe they could have gotten it sexually” and many contract it again once they’ve been treated.

Their relations with women, and their theories about them, are bizarre to the point of being horrific. The physical revulsion gay men typically feel for women, and the aversion to women characteristic of Middle Eastern men—particularly those clinging to pre-Medieval tribal practices—make for a messy combination. When an army medic “had to explain to a local man how to get his wife pregnant . . . he reacted with disgust and asked, ‘How could one feel desire to be with a woman, who God has made unclean, when one could be with a man, who is clean? Surely this must be wrong.’”

Do some of the answers to the puzzle of that woman-hatred lie in Koranic passages and sayings like these?

The Prophet said, “I looked at Paradise and found poor people forming the majority of its inhabitants; and I looked at Hell and saw that the majority of its inhabitants were women.”

O ye who believe! When ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; Rub your heads (with water); and (wash) your feet to the ankles. If ye are in a state of ceremonial impurity, bathe your whole body. But if ye are ill, or on a journey, or one of you cometh from offices of nature, or ye have been in contact with women, and ye find no water, then take for yourselves clean sand or earth, and rub therewith your faces and hands, Allah doth not wish to place you in a difficulty, but to make you clean, and to complete his favour to you, that ye may be grateful.

Once Allah’s Apostle went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) o ‘Id-al-Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, “O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).” They asked, “Why is it so, O Allah’s Apostle?” He replied, “You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” The women asked, “O Allah's Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn't it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” The women replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her religion.”

The answer is yes. But what about the other, specifically homosexual half of the equation?

We could ask our soldiers to look to ancient Greece for help in understanding the Pashtuns’ predilections, especially to the case for man-boy love made by the pederast Pausanias in Plato’s Symposium—he deemed it “celestial”—or to Plutarch’s account of the Sacred Band of Thebes—a corps comprised of 150 pairs of lovers—300 men who, it was believed by some military strategists of the day, would fight more fiercely and courageously with their boyfriends at their sides:

For men of the same tribe or family little value one another when dangers press; but a band cemented by friendship grounded upon love, is never to be broken, and invincible; since the lovers, ashamed to be base in sight of their beloved, and the beloved before their lovers, willingly rush into danger for the relief of one another. Nor can that be wondered at; since they have more regard for their absent lovers than for others present; as in the instance of the man, who, when his enemy was going to kill him, earnestly requested him to run him through the breast, that his lover might not blush to see him wounded in the back. It is a tradition likewise, that Iolaus, who assisted Hercules in his labors and fought at his side, was beloved of him; and Aristotle observes, that even in his time, lovers plighted their faith at Iolaus’s tomb. [Hmm. Gay marriage?] It is likely, therefore, that this band was called sacred on this account; as Plato calls a lover a divine friend. It is stated that it was never beaten till the battle at Chaeronea: and when Philip, after the fight, took a view of the slain, and came to the place where the three hundred that fought his phalanx lay dead together, he wondered, and understanding that it was the band of lovers, he shed tears and said, “Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything that was base.”

But those ancient elitist pedophiles and narcissists, disturbingly fascinating as they are, will seem to many in our armed forces to have been people doing and suffering things that are very “base” indeed, and in any case, their examples don’t fully explain the deep societal sickness of a Gay-Donkey-Island-With-Guns in the middle of a war-torn, primitive Islamic/Islamist state.

Contending with a culture of woman-hating men living on the down-low—or rather the up-low, as they are not at all inclined to conceal their sexual proclivities—has to complicate a military strategy that includes the effort to win hearts and minds. The American soldiers who are supposed to do that are not historically tolerant of gay sex—and repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” is unlikely to make them more so. They’ll have trouble interpreting the “practice in which older ‘men of status’ keep young boys on hand for sexual relationships” as anything other than pedophilia run rampant, and they’ll be disgusted by “One of the country's favorite sayings . . . ‘women are for children, boys are for pleasure.’”

Men cultivated in soil so saturated with misogyny that in spite of Islamic edicts preaching death for homosexuals they engage in it openly (though some pretend otherwise) may be resistant to the efforts of Westerners to penetrate their mysteries. With their ability to sympathize with and relate to the Pashtuns thus hobbled, our soldiers could face challenges during their sojourn there as obdurate as its unyielding terrain.

Yet even so, there is something they could do that would matter enormously, that would benefit the people of that country, and us in the bargain—given patience enough, and assuming our politics permits our soldiers to remain there for the long term—and that is reaching out to the women of Afghanistan. If through the good offices of our military—especially our women soldiers—we could help Afghani women unravel themselves from centuries of complicity in their own oppression and see themselves not as defiled, unclean, perpetually wanton creatures to be hidden away as if they were carriers of plague, but rather as noble members of the human race endowed with greatness and blessings: the giving of life, the tending to it mercifully and lovingly, and, most important, the imparting of lessons in real virtue—self-acceptance to their daughters and just plain acceptance to their sons—that would be gaining hearts and minds indeed.


  1. Rachel, from what I understand, some of the Pathans and Pakis prefer nanny goats to any two-legged creature.

  2. This is mind boggling in 1,000 ways.

    But your last paragraph offers unexpected hope. How wonderful if it could begin to come true. What an awakening that would be!

  3. Rachel,

    Perhaps the HTTs (Army teams of social scientists) currently operating in Afghanistan could perform the educational function you describe, but I fear that the politically correct Army and State Dept bureaucracy is too timid to actually criticize native culture, no matter how bizarre and hateful.

    I worry about asking infantry soldiers to do any sort of proselytizing, for fear it further estranges them from the male villagers they are trying to co-opt. Better to educate our soldiers to recognise and provide sanctuary to potential female victims.

    If only the young girl in Turkey had been able to seek refuge in an American military base instead of being turned away at the local police station.

  4. Does anyone have a link to the actual report?