The Convenience Marriage of Fundamentalism and Perversion
In a 2003 essay for Daedalus, Christopher Hitchens wrote that, “religious absolutism makes a good match with tribal feelings and with sexual repression—two of the base ingredients of the fascistic style.”
There’s no doubt that repressed sexuality is a feature of most religions, and the cause of many an unhappy union made under god’s banner. But less often discussed is religion’s facilitative role to sexual perversions. The more fundamentalist the dogma, the sicker the stuff taking place in between the sheets.
Take the bacha baz of Afghanistan for instance. The bacha baz are men who take boys as lovers, or more accurately, as repeated rape victims. Over the years I’ve worked in Afghanistan, there has always been hushed gossip in dark corners about prominent, powerful men who keep boys, whom they literally own, as their personal sex slaves, some as young as nine years old. Or there are the late-night dancing parties where boys dressed as girls, smeared with make-up and bells jangling from their ankles, perform before their male-only audience before then being raped by one or more of the adults. The dancing boys of Afghanistan were the subject of a recent PBS documentary, which marks one of the first and only times the practice has been exposed candidly, or internationally.
Older men sleeping with younger boys is not an isolated occurrence, but an epidemic stretching so far back in time that it’s considered a widely accepted cultural practice. Joel Brinkley of The San Francisco Chronicle, in asking, “how did Afghanistan become the pedophilia capital of Asia?” reported recently that, “some research suggests that half the Pashtun tribal members in Kandahar and other southern towns are bacha baz”.
It is not a coincidence that the systemic sexual abuse of boys is most widespread in Afghanistan’s most religiously conservative areas, where contact between unrelated men and women is extremely restricted. Brinkley notes, “sociologists and anthropologists say the problem results from perverse interpretation of Islamic law.”
Women and girls are put strictly off limits to unrelated men until they are good and married- usually when they are still technically children (the average marriage age for girls in Afghanistan is 15 years), while the men are usually well into adulthood. In this waiting period, sexual activity nonetheless inevitably occurs among the bachelors, including sex with other men, incest, rape and abuse, visits to prostitutes and according to popular anecdote, bestiality.
An interpreter of mine once laughingly told me about his bed-ridden friend who was kicked in the shins by an annoyed donkey while in mid-zoophile coitus. He told the women of his family he had been in a car accident, but admitted to his close friends, unembarrassed, what had really happened. They all had a good laugh over it.
Let me pre-empt those who will accuse me of making Afghans out to be primitive and backward. This doesn’t only happen in Afghanistan, though it is happening there and let’s face that instead of being polite about it. Of course, not all or even most Afghans partake in such behaviour, nor sanction it. In any culture or place where you have excessive and bizarre rules dictating the kinds of relationships that humans can have with each other, you will find perversions beneath the thin front of sexual purity. You will find people acting out sexually in the cramped, seedy spaces left to them by the excessive rules of their culture.
The defenders of such systems will say that their society is organized in such a way as to protect women, to keep the society “pure”; or to stop the spread of sinful behaviour, defined as sexual relations outside of marriage.
This is nonsense. The systems exist for the sexual gratification of the abuser. The statutory rape of under-age girls in ‘celestial’ marriages in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for instance, allows aging men to do as they please to their child victims. Their church sanctions their behaviour, which would otherwise be considered abusive and abnormal. The Catholic Church, for all its blind obsession with sin and sexuality, gave clerics utter impunity for centuries to molest and rape children. And in many of Pakistan’s madrassahs, religious seminary boarding schools which served as dumping grounds for children from hungry, poverty-stricken families, boys were kept deprived of any female contact while they memorized a religious text in a language they didn’t understand, learned how to use small arms and rockets, and were routinely raped. All of this amounts to a very effective machine for churning out violent, unstable young killers. Cheryl Benard, in her 2001 book Veiled Courage, wrote of the devastating impact on these young rape victims whose untreated trauma and rage was easily channeled into the violence they were then sent out to commit as jihadists.
An environment overrun by religious extremism helps sanctions forms of sexual abuse like bacha baz. Sex is taboo, so victims find nowhere to turn after their traumatic experience. The dictates of the religious establishment keep the adherents strictly divided into grossly unequal categories of the hunter and the prey. Sexual violence spreads from generation to generation, as a whole society becomes complicit in the rot, by the silence that surrounds, and ultimately endorses it. It all amounts to a dynasty created and managed by perverts, whereby they’ve ingeniously preserved the unchallenged right to act out their every wacko fantasy on the otherwise unwilling, all under the guise of something sanctioned by god. Decrepit, horny men need not earn the attraction of their object of desire; they can simply take it.
Religious fundamentalists are not god-fearing, devoted or sacrosanct. They’re just perverts.
About the Author
Lauryn Oates is a Canadian human rights activist, gender and education specialist. She is currently Projects Director for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, and a doctoral student in literacy education at the University of British Columbia.