Kandahar Comes Out of the Closet
Our Correspondent Sees the Gay Capital of South Asia Throw
Off Strictures of the Taleban
The Times of
London, 12th January, 2002
PO Box 496, London E1 9XN, United Kingdom
Fax +44( 0 )171-782 5988
From Tim Reid in Kandahar
Now that Taleban rule is over in Mullah Omar’s former southern
stronghold, it is not only televisions, kites and razors which have begun to
emerge. Visible again, too, are men with their ‘ashna’, or beloveds: young
boys they have groomed for sex. Kandahar’s Pashtuns have been notorious for
their homosexuality for centuries, particularly their fondness for naive young
boys. Before the Taleban arrived in 1994, the streets were filled with
teenagers and their sugar daddies, flaunting their relationship. It is called
the homosexual capital of south Asia. Such is the Pashtun obsession with
sodomy—locals tell you that birds fly over the city using only one wing, the
other covering their posterior—that the rape of young boys by warlords was
one of the key factors in Mullah Omar mobilising the Taleban.
In the summer of 1994, a few months before the Taleban took control of the
city, two commanders confronted each other over a young boy whom they both
wanted to sodomise. In the ensuing fight civilians were killed.
Omar’s group freed the boy and appeals began flooding in for Omar to help
in other disputes. By November, Omar and his Taleban were Kandahar’s new
rulers. Despite the Taleban disdain for women, and the bizarre penchant of
many for eyeliner, Omar immediately suppressed homosexuality.
Men accused of sodomy faced the punishment of having a wall toppled on to
them, usually resulting in death. In February 1998 three men sentenced to
death for sodomy in Kandahar were taken to the base of a huge mud and brick
wall, which was pushed over by tank. Two of them died, but one managed to
survive. "In the days of the Mujahidin, there were men with their ‘ashna’
everywhere, at every corner, in shops, on the streets, in hotels: it was
completely open, a part of life," said Torjan, 38, one of the soldiers
loyal to Kandahar’s new governor, Gul Agha Sherzai.
"But in the later Mujahidin years, more and more soldiers would take
boys by force, and keep them for as long as they wished.
But when the Taleban came, they were very strict about the ban.
Of course, it still happened—the Taleban could not enter every house—but
one could not see it." But for the first time since the Taleban fled, in
the past three days, one can see the pairs returning: usually a heavily
bearded man, seated next to, or walking with, a clean-shaven, fresh faced
youth. There appears to be no shame or furtiveness about them, although when
approached, they refuse to talk to a western journalist.
"They are just emerging again," Torjan said. "The fighters
too now have the boys in their barracks. This was brought to the attention of
Gul Agha, who ordered the boys to be expelled, but it continues. The boys live
with the fighters very openly. In a short time, and certainly within a year,
it will be like pre-Taleban: they will be everywhere."
This Pashtun tradition is even reflected in Pashtun poetry, odes written to
the beauty and complexion of an ‘ashna’, but it is usually a terrible fate
for the boys concerned. It is practised at all levels of Pashtun society, but
for the poorer men, having an ‘ashna’ can raise his status.
"When a man sees a boy he likes—the age they like is 15 or 16—they
will approach him in the street and start talking to him, offering him
tea," said Muhammad Shah, a shop owner. "Sometimes they go looking
in the football stadium, or in the cinema (which has yet to reopen).
"He then starts to give him presents, hashish, or a watch, a ring, or
even a motorbike. One of the most valued presents is a fighting pigeon, which
can be worth up to $400 (£277). These boys are nearly always innocent, but
such is the poverty here, they cannot refuse."
Once the boy falls into the man’s clutches—nearly always men with a
wife and family—he is marked for life, although the Kandaharis accept these
relationships as part of their culture. When driven around, ‘ashna’ sit in
the front passenger seat. The back seat is simply for his friends.
Even the parents of the boys know in their hearts the nature of the
relationship, but will tell people that their son is working for the man.
They, like everyone else, will know this is a lie. "They say birds
flew with both wings with the Taleban," Muhammad said. "But not any
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