There are no children in Afghanistan
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.