Kandahar’s Lightly Veiled Homosexual Habits
In his 29 years, Mohammed Daud has seen the faces of perhaps 200 women. A few dozen were family members. The rest were glimpses stolen when he should not have been looking and the women were caught without their face-shrouding burkas.
“How can you fall in love with a girl if you can’t see her face?” he asks.
Daud is unmarried and has sex only with men and boys. But he does not consider himself homosexual, at least not in the Western sense.
“I like boys, but I like girls better,” he says. “It’s just that we can’t see the women to see if they are beautiful. But we can see the boys, and so we can tell which of them is beautiful.”
Daud, a motorbike repairman who asked that only his two first names and not his family name be used, has a youthful face, a jaunty black mustache and a post-Taliban cleanshaven chin. As he talks, his knee bounces up and down, an involuntary sign of his embarrassment.
“These are hard questions you are asking,” he says. “We don’t usually talk about such things.”
Though rarely acknowledged, the prevalence of sex between Afghan men is an open secret, one most observant visitors quickly surmise. Ironically, it is especially true here in Kandahar, which was the heartland of the puritanical Taliban movement.
It might seem odd to a Westerner that such a sexually repressive society is marked by heightened homosexual activity. But Justin Richardson, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, says such thinking is backward--it is precisely the extreme restrictions on sexual relations with women that lead to greater prevalence of the behavior.
“In some Muslim societies where the prohibition against premarital heterosexual intercourse is extremely high--higher than that against sex between men--you will find men having sex with other males not because they find them most attractive of all but because they find them most attractive of the limited options available to them,” Richardson says.
In other words, sex between men can be seen as the flip side of the segregation of women. And perhaps because the ethnic Pushtuns who dominate Kandahar are the most religiously conservative of Afghanistan’s major ethnic groups, they have, by most accounts, a higher incidence of homosexual relations.
Visitors might think they see the signs. For one thing, Afghan men tend to be more intimate with other men in public than is common in the West. They will kiss, hold hands and drape their arms around each other while drinking tea or talking.
Moreover, there is a strong streak of dandyism among Pushtun males. Many line their eyes with kohl, stain their fingernails with henna or walk about town in clumsy, high-heeled sandals.
The love by men for younger, beautiful males, who are called halekon, is even enshrined in Pushtun literature. A popular poem by Syed Abdul Khaliq Agha, who died last year, notes Kandahar’s special reputation.
“Kandahar has beautiful halekon,” the poem goes. “They have black eyes and white cheeks.”
But a visitor who comments on such things is likely to be told they are not signs of homosexuality. Hugging doesn’t mean sex, locals insist. Men who use kohl and henna are simply “uneducated.”
Regardless, when asked directly, few deny that a significant percentage of men in this region have sex with men and boys. Just ask Mullah Mohammed Ibrahim, a local cleric.
“Ninety percent of men have the desire to commit this sin,” the mullah says. “But most are right with God and exercise control. Only 20 to 50% of those who want to do this actually do it.”
Following the mullah’s math, this suggests that between 18% and 45% of men here engage in homosexual sex--significantly higher than the 3% to 7% of American men who, according to studies, identify themselves as homosexual.
That is a large number to defy the strict version of Islam practiced in these parts, which denounces sex between men as taboo. Muslims seeking council from religious elders on the topic will find them unsympathetic.
“Every person has a devil inside him,” says Ibrahim. “If a person commits this sin, it is the work of the devil.”
The Koran mandates “hard punishment” for offenders, the mullah explains. By tradition there are three penalties: being burned at the stake, pushed over the edge of a cliff or crushed by a toppled wall.
During its reign in Kandahar, the Taliban implemented the latter. In February 1998, it used a tank to push a brick wall on top of three men, two accused of sodomy and the third of homosexual rape. The first two died; the third spent a week in the hospital and, under the assumption that God had spared him, was sent to prison. He served six months and fled to Pakistan.
Apparently to discourage post-Taliban visitors, the owners of a nearby house have begun rebuilding on the site.
“A lot of foreigners came and started interviewing people,” says Abdul Baser, a 24-year-old neighbor, who points out the trench where the men were crushed. “Since then they have rebuilt the wall.”
But many accuse the Taliban of hypocrisy on the issue of homosexuality.
“The Taliban had halekon, but they kept it secret,” says one anti-Taliban commander, who is rumored to keep two halekon. “They hid their halekon in their madrasas,” or religious schools.
It’s not only religious authorities who describe homosexual sex as common among the Pushtun.
Dr. Mohammed Nasem Zafar, a professor at Kandahar Medical College, estimates that about 50% of the city’s male residents have sex with men or boys at some point in their lives. He says the prime age at which boys are attractive to men is from 12 to 16--before their beards grow in. The adolescents sometimes develop medical problems, which he sees in his practice, such as sexually transmitted diseases and sphincter incontinence. So far, the doctor said, AIDS does not seem to be a problem in Afghanistan, probably because the country is so isolated.
“Sometimes when the halekon grow up, the older men actually try to keep them in the family by marrying them off to their daughters,” the doctor says.
Zafar cites a local mullah whom he caught once using the examination table in the doctor’s one-room clinic for sex with a younger man. “If this is our mullah, what can you say for the rest?” Zafar asks.
Richardson, the psychiatry professor, says it would be wrong to call Afghan men homosexual, since their decision to have sex with men is not a reflection of what Westerners call gender identity. Instead, he compares them to prison inmates: They have sex with men primarily because they find themselves in a situation where men are more available as sex partners than are women.
“It is something they do,” he notes, “not something they are.”
Daud, the motorbike repairman, would concur that the segregation of women lies at the heart of the matter.
Daud says his first sexual experience with a man occurred when he was 20, about the time he realized that he would have difficulty marrying. In Pushtun culture, the man has to pay for his wedding and for gifts and clothes for the bride and her family. For many men, the bill tops $5,000--such an exorbitant sum in this impoverished country that some men, including Daud, are dissuaded from even trying.
“I would like to get married, but the economic situation in our country makes it hard,” Daud says.
Daud talked about his sex life only in private and after being assured that no photos would be taken.
“I have relations with different boys--some for six months, some for one month. Some are with me for six years,” he says. “The problem is also money. If you want to have a relationship with a boy, you have to buy things for him. That’s why it’s not bad for the boy. Some relationships need a lot of money, some not so much. Sometimes I fix a motorbike and give it to him as a present.”
It is not easy to conduct homosexual affairs, he admits. Home is out of the question.
“If my father were to find me, he’d kick me out of the house,” Daud says. “If you want to have sex, you have to find a secret place. Some go to the mountains or the desert.”
Opinions differ as to whether homosexual practices in Kandahar are becoming more open or more closed since the Taliban was defeated.
For instance, after anti-Taliban forces arrived in the city in early December, some Westerners reported seeing commanders going about town openly with their halekon. But that has changed in recent weeks since Kandahar’s new governor, Gul Agha Shirzai, issued an order banning boys under 18 from living with troops. Officially, the ban is aimed at ending the practice of using children as soldiers.
“It is not that way,” says one of the governor’s top aides, Engineer Yusuf Pashtun, objecting to the insinuation that the boys may have been used for sex. The governor’s order said only that “no boys should be recruited in the army before the age of 18,” he adds.
Still, the anti-Taliban commander, who is close to Shirzai, acknowledged that one goal of the order was to keep halekon out of the barracks. The move simply drove the practice underground, he says.
Zafar, the doctor, says that in the community at large the Taliban frightened many men into abstinence. “Under the Taliban, no more than 10% practiced homosexual sex,” he says. “But now the government isn’t paying attention, so it may go back up to 50%.”
But Daud thinks the opposite may happen. If coeducation returns and the dress code for women eases, men will have fewer reasons to seek solace in the beds--or fields or storage rooms--of other men.
“As for me, if I find someone and see she is beautiful, I will send my mother over to her” to ask for her hand in marriage, Daud says. “I’m just waiting to see her.”
Reynolds was recently on assignment in Kandahar.