Fear, se­crecy and dan­ger: A way of life for Afghan gays ‘A hid­den life is no life at all’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

To be ho­mo­sex­ual in Afghanistan is to live in fear. Naveed and Rameen, young gay men in the cap­i­tal Kabul have lost count of the num­ber of times they’ve been lured into dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions on what they be­lieved to be dates. Both men de­scribe be­ing robbed, beaten up and black­mailed, and re­ceiv­ing death threats. They’ve even eluded po­lice “honey traps” that could have seen them thrown in pri­son with­out charge, sim­ply on sus­pi­cion of be­ing gay.

They know they could be killed, with im­punity, if they re­veal their sex­u­al­ity. Rameen, 31, tells the story of his friend, Zabi, who was killed by his fam­ily af­ter com­ing out as gay, a so-called “honor killing” usu­ally re­served for young women. “He was sham­ing the fam­ily by be­ing open about it. They stabbed him so many times,” Rameen said. “It was a warn­ing for us, for other gays. Now we keep to our­selves; we live a hid­den life. And a hid­den life is no life at all.”

Treach­er­ous ter­rain

Both men use fake names among gay friends, and said none of their rel­a­tives or col­leagues know the truth about their sex­u­al­ity. Meet­ing other gay men is dif­fi­cult as there are no reg­u­lar gath­er­ing places, and the need to be dis­creet means de­vel­op­ing re­la­tion­ships is al­most im­pos­si­ble, they said. As a re­sult, most en­coun­ters are for ca­sual sex, which can lead to treach­er­ous ter­rain. Naveed, 24, said he re­cently turned up at one of Kabul’s ma­jor ho­tels to get to­gether with a man he’d met in a doc­tor’s wait­ing room who had asked for his phone num­ber. “He seemed nice, and he was quite hand­some, so I thought: why not?” Naveed said. “But it was a set up; he tried to kid­nap me. He drove me to a place where a gang of men were wait­ing with guns I’m sure they would have killed me, but I ran away.” In Afghanistan’s con­ser­va­tive, re­li­gious so­ci­ety, sex out­side mar­riage and same-sex sex­ual ac­tiv­ity are il­le­gal. “Ped­erasty,” which is un­der­stood to re­fer to sodomy or sex be­tween an adult man and a boy, is pun­ish­able by 5 to 20 years in pri­son, ac­cord­ing to the Jus­tice Min­istry. The death sen­tence can be ap­plied if the sub­ject dies as a re­sult of the act.

Pres­sure to con­form can cause pro­found dis­tress, and “cre­ates a lot of psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems for the per­son them­selves and their fam­i­lies,” said Khalil Rah­man Sar­wary, a psy­chol­ogy lec­turer at Kabul Univer­sity. “It is dif­fi­cult for ho­mo­sex­u­als to find part­ners, and if they do, both par­ties are afraid of be­ing found out,” Sar­wary said. “When the ex­act needs of a per­son are not be­ing ful­filled, when a ho­mo­sex­ual man is forced to marry and have chil­dren, it can lead to ter­ri­ble un­hap­pi­ness, di­vorce, even vi­o­lence within the fam­ily. I know of cases where the frus­tra­tion has built to the point where the man has even killed his wife.”

Same-sex sex­ual ac­tiv­ity is not un­usual in Afghanistan’s strictly seg­re­gated so­ci­ety. “Bacha bazi” is a cul­tur­ally-sanc­tioned form of pe­dophilia, in which pre-teen boys - many from poor fam­i­lies, of­ten sold into the prac­tice - are spon­sored by pow­er­ful and wealthy men to dress as girls and dance for par­ties of mostly mid­dle-aged men. The boys usu­ally live with their spon­sors, who also abuse them for sex un­til they are in their teens, when they are dis­carded.

Yet the “bacha baz,” as the spon­sors are known, are rarely pun­ished for the years of abuse they com­mit against the danc­ing boys, and it is not un­usual to see older men in pub­lic with their young sex slaves. The prac­tice pre­dates Is­lam, and is be­lieved to in­volve boys be­cause of the gen­eral in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity of girls. While the boys them­selves can carry the stigma of their danc­ing days through­out their lives, their spon­sors, most of them mar­ried with chil­dren, are not re­garded as ho­mo­sex­ual, and their ac­tions are of­ten jus­ti­fied with the say­ing “women are for chil­dren, boys are for fun.”

Openly pro­claim­ing to be gay in Afghanistan, how­ever, can carry se­vere con­se­quences. The few gay Afghan men who dared to speak of their sex­u­al­ity de­scribed a strug­gle of con­fu­sion and guilt as they grew up try­ing to cope with feel­ings they didn’t un­der­stand. And once they did, not only could they not share them, they had to sup­press them for their own safety. Hamid Za­her, 43, said that when he was grow­ing up in Kabul, “no­body knew what gay was and all gay peo­ple were sup­pressed. They could never ac­cept them­selves or talk to any­one about their feel­ings.” Like the other gay men who spoke to The As­so­ci­ated Press, he said that as a young man he felt that he wanted to be “nor­mal,” and con­cealed his sex­u­al­ity, un­til it just be­came too dif­fi­cult. In 2008, Za­her left the coun­try and set­tled in Toronto, Canada where he works in the con­struc­tion in­dus­try. He de­scribes the tran­si­tion as from “zero per­cent free­dom to 100 per­cent.” He wrote a book that be­came his com­ing-out man­i­festo and said “ac­cord­ingly, my fam­ily dis­owned me.”

Since the Tale­ban’s ex­trem­ist regime was over­thrown in the US in­va­sion of 2001, the flow of in­for­ma­tion into Afghanistan has helped boost aware­ness, but un­der­stand­ing and tol­er­ance of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity are still a long way off, even com­pared to re­gional neigh­bors. Rus­sia is no­to­ri­ously in­tol­er­ant to­ward ho­mo­sex­u­als, but the prac­tice it­self is le­gal. In China, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was le­gal­ized in 1997 and re­moved from the of­fi­cial list of men­tal ill­nesses in 2001.

Young gay men in Afghanistan still largely grow up with iden­tity crises, wait­ing for per­plex­ing feel­ings to sub­side and make way for “nor­mal­ity.” Rameen said that from the age of 4 he was “feel­ing very strange. I liked play­ing with girls, with girls’ toys, I liked fash­ion, and peo­ple used to make jokes about me.” When he en­rolled in univer­sity to study jour­nal­ism, he thought these “strange feel­ings” he had to­ward men would leave him “be­cause I didn’t know what gay is,” he said. — AP

KABUL: In this Mon­day, Oct 16, 2016 photo, Rameen, a young gay Afghan, poses with his back to the cam­era. — AP

Sanc­tioned form of pe­dophilia

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