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'Dancing Boy' Scandal Taints Both Americans and Afghans

To win over Afghan locals, American contractor DynCorp bankrolled 'bacha bazi' parties -- the culturally accepted practice of pedophilia by men against boys.
 
 
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Every culture has its dark secrets, the practices that many people on the outside would frown on or shudder at. There’s Mormons and polygamy. Hindus and sati. Muslims and virgin brides. And many other cultures that have very specific practices associated with them.

The list is endless but it's also not comprehensive. Not all Mormons practice polygamy -- in fact a comparatively few percentage of them do. The same for Hindus and sati or Muslims and virgin brides. Over time, increased awareness of these issues and any problems associated with them, has led to laws that provide rights to the victims of these practices. But even more effective than laws are social changes. Society's rejection of these practices are a more powerful enforcement against them than laws can ever be, it seems. Which is why public awareness is critical to changing these practices from the ground up.

This week, the WikiLeaks cables publicized another culture's dark secret: the Pashtuns and bacha bazi, the ancient practice of pedophilia by men against boys. Not all Pashtuns practice it, but like other dark secrets in other cultures, it is an inescapable fact that it exists and is strongly associated with Pashtuns.

When the issue arises, so does the sensitivity. No one wants their culture to be known for a horrible thing. But the subject cannot and should not be avoided. Bacha bazi -- literally "playing with children" -- is practiced amongst Pashtuns in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Not all of them do it, but it is acceptable among certain sections of Pashtun culture, which is why it is openly practiced. And also why, as the WikiLeaks cables demonstrated, the American contractor DynCorp took advantage of the practice to appease local Pashtuns in an area of Afghanistan in which they needed to rein in the locals to be able to continue their work there.

It was very easy for DynCorp to bankroll bacha bazi parties for those local Pashtuns who practice it. They arranged for the boys to be purchased, for the venue, and for the guests who would attend the party. Some Pashtuns came. They saw. And they partied.

Children were abused on American military dollars. The cables are undoubtedly an embarrassment to the war effort. Whereas previously bacha bazi was used in the media to stress the necessity of the war effort – "these people need to be liberated," so the theory went – the WikiLeaks cables have completely reversed that notion. Americans are clearly not liberators if they are promoting child abuse instead of preventing and prohibiting it.

But the bigger picture remains that bacha bazi was there to be exploited.

It exists, and Pashtuns need to talk about it so they can make the changes from within. Pedophilia is not a phenomenon exclusive to one culture. It tends to thrive in any situation where males and females are segregated, whether that is a religious institution, a culture of segregated boarding schools, or a closed society. Bacha bazi is particularly troubling to many people because it is not only pedophilia but culturally accepted pedophilia – amongst those Pashtuns who accept and practice it openly. The sensitivities are even greater because of this but the fact that they exist suggests that many Pashtuns realize the practice is problematic.

The WikiLeaks cables are just as damning to the war effort as they are to the Pashtuns whose silence allows this practice to continue. Many Pashtuns are speaking up, but clearly, many more still need to.

Shirin Sadeghi is an Iranian-American writer and Middle East expert. She formerly worked as a journalist for the BBC World Service and Al Jazeera English.

 
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