Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Afghanistan-- Our Presence There Is Like Poking A Beehive With A Stick, A Beehive From Another Time Dimension Or Planet


Yesterday I got all nostalgic about the time I spent in Afghanistan in the late '60s and early '70s so I wrote another post about my travels there at my other blog. The disturbing video from FrontLine about Afghanistan's Bacha Bazi culture was at the heart of my post, which talks about how traditional Afghan culture deals with the complete absence of women from society. As I tried to make clear, you almost never see any women out and about in public. "Respectable" women don't even go out in public in a burqa. The inexorable pressure from Afghanistan's feudal patriarchy is that women are basically property meant for his use and they are meant to stay home.

A friend from college, Siouxsie, as part of her duties as a Peace Corps volunteer, was teaching Afghan women their own language. The vocabularies of these women was so modest that they didn't go beyond what was needed for her wifely duties. You get the picture? Women aren't part of the public discourse on any level at all. Bacha Bazi, literally, "playing with boys," addresses one aspect of that incredible void.
When I first got to Afghanistan in 1969, having driven in my VW van from London, my strongest immediate thought-- other than how unbelievably strong the hash is-- was that no matter how far I had traveled in space I had traveled much further in time-- straight backward. I was thousands of miles from my parents' home in Brooklyn... and what felt like as many thousands of years back in time. I remember writing to a friend that I was feeling like I was living in the Bible (Old Testament).

Things have changed a little since then. I lived in a "village" (two family compounds off a barely demarcated dirt track) for a winter up in the Hindu Kush where no one had ever heard of the United States (and no one had ever experienced electricity). I'm not sure if they've experienced electricity some 4 decades later but I'd bet you they've heard of the United States.

When you travel to, let's say "exotic" places like Afghanistan, you're better off leaving your cultural judgments in check. There's no way to reasonably compare our cultural standards to the ones that govern their lives. I got used to the concept, for example, of two good cleanings a year-- one in the spring and one in the fall, something very different from the swim, jacuzzi, steam bath and shower I do in some combination everyday here in L.A. Better to just roll with the punches. However, there was something I experienced a couple times in Afghanistan that I just couldn't swing with. It was pretty horrifying. They call it Bacha Bazi and my experience of it came at two weddings, one in Ghazni southwest of Kabul, which I believe was the 4th biggest town in the country, and one up in the Hindu Kush, the land time forgot. Bachas are young dancing boys. We'll come back to this cultural artifact in a moment, but this is what Wikipedia says about it.

You don't ever see the womenfolk in Afghanistan. My closest friend got married while I was there and I lived in his house and spent virtually all of my time with him for several months. Everyone used to joke that we were brothers. I never saw the girl he married, not once. In the same house! Nor was she-- or his mother or sisters-- at the wedding. Well, that isn't exactly accurate. They had their own party in the women's part of the house. But it wasn't exactly separate-but-equal; just separate.

Big steaming platters of rice with meat and vegetables were brought out by male servants-- actually slaves but no one called them that-- and everyone dug in with their fingers, food rolling down everyone's beards back onto the platters. Yum, yum. When the men were done eating, the leftovers were fed to the servants and dogs, although I don't remember in what order, and then what was left from that was sent to the women. Meanwhile we had song and dance-- the young boys. There was a troupe of them from somewhere who are hired to entertain at parties. They looked like they were between 12 and 16 and they were wearing women's dancing clothes, more or less; they all had big heavy farmer boots on. And they all had their eyes smeared with kohl and some kind of rouge substitute. Everyone was hootin' and hollerin' when they were dancing, kind of alluringly, truth be told. No one was drunk but everyone-- every single person-- was high on hash. At one point the groom's grandfather suddenly jumped up-- apparently unable to restrain himself for another second-- grabbed the youngest, smallest bacha and dragged him behind a building and raped him.

It was gruesome to hear... but it didn't seem to put any kind of a damper on the party at all. The rest of the troupe kept dancing and everyone else just ignored the commotion and just enjoyed the festivities. It's part of their culture. Ten minutes later grandpa and the 12 year old came back from around the building, straightening their clothes. The bacha seemed to have felt his dignity was affronted but he jumped right back into the line and danced away the rest of the evening as though nothing had happened. I'm not sure what happened afterwards but from what I heard, all the boys were raped (more or less).

And although these people definitely have heard of America now, they still enjoy a little bacha bazi as part of their cultural heritage, especially the wealthy men, although wealth is a relative thing and whomever is exercising power gets himself a young bacha or two (or a half dozen) to keep as sex slaves. Frontline did a special on the phenomena by journalist Najibullah Qurasishi. You may find it difficult to watch but it will certainly give you an idea about a not uncommon aspect of Afghanistan, a country the U.S. military is occupying for no apparent purpose and with no apparent positive effect.

The radical fundamentalists in Afghanistan-- we generally refer to them as The Taliban these days-- have no intention of changing their society to meet despised Western mores. I've argued with many women allies, particularly Donna Edwards and Darcy Burner, about what the U.S. can and cannot accomplish in Afghanistan. Each of them is adamant that a legitimate goal of U.S. policy towards that country should be the emancipation of women. Maybe it should, but it's not going to happen. Today I woke up and the first thing I saw on my TV screen was a story about how some Talibs have burned down a girls' school. They don't want their girls educated. They want them barefoot and pregnant (but not really barefoot because seeing their naked skin would be a satanic temptation and they might have to stone the woman to death for such an infraction).
Armed men burned down a girls' primary school in eastern Afghanistan Monday night, an act that also destroyed hundreds of Qurans, a government official said Tuesday.

Ministry of Education spokesman Asif Nang tells CNN that the Sangar girls' primary school, located in the Alengar district of Laghman province, was destroyed.

...Nangyalai Seddiqi, the district governor, told CNN that the school was built by an American provincial reconstruction team.

Taliban militants have attacked girls' schools in the past, but Seddiqui said that the fire was apparently set by "addicts and thieves" in a failed robbery attempt.

The provincial governor's spokesman, Gul Rahman Hamdard, confirmed the burning of the school and the Qurans. He told CNN an investigation is ongoing.

Women were oppressed during the Taliban's rule, from 1996-2001, and many Afghan girls were not allowed to attend school during that time.

Girls' schools began reopening after the Islamist regime was toppled. The United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, estimates this year that 2 million Afghan girls are attending school.

However, the hostility hasn't ended. Earlier this year, there was a rash of poisonings involving schoolgirls.

As the insurgency has strengthened and spread from Taliban strongholds in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, female educational facilities, students and teachers have come under vicious attack.

A report compiled last year by the humanitarian agency CARE documented 670 education-related attacks in 2008, including murder and arson.

The same kind of attack on a girl's school happened last week in tribal Northwest Pakistan, the part the fundamentalists control. Girls in school is subversive to what they see as their way of life. Well-meaning Americans want to change that. Yesterday Stars And Stripes, in a report from Afghanistan, claimed the country is "working toward some semblance of gender equality."
In this remote Afghan village, the distance between the school and the compound of its most powerful resident is 100 yards, and thousands of years.

At the school, about 15 girls attend classes alongside dozens of boys thanks to the relative security of the area, which means the Taliban cannot act on its opposition to the education of females, a conviction that has led to the burning or bombing of hundreds of schools in recent years.

Down the road, at the home of the affable Sahib Jan-- the local Afghan Highway Police commander and most respected village elder-- the local women are kept out of sight of visiting U.S. soldiers, preparing a meal for men with whom they are not allowed to eat. Female soldiers are not even welcome to sit in on a meeting of the military contingent, Jan and his subordinates.

“To me, the girls and the boys are the same,” Jan said through an interpreter during the meeting. “We would like to provide an education for both of them,” although Jan would prefer that happen in separate schools, or separate classrooms. “They can become whatever they want to when they grow up.”

That said, when boys are born, “there is celebration,” he said. “When a daughter is born, we are not that happy.”

While Jan says the genders are equal, his views on what equal means are quite different from the Western way: “In our culture, men and women are not supposed to be together.”

That is just one example of the religious, moral and cultural differences that U.S. and coalition officials must accept as they continue their mission in Afghanistan-- that no matter how much Western-style government, political and military influence they wield here, anything approaching equality for women is still generations away-- if it happens at all.

All that said, this certainly wasn't welcome news this morning, even if it doesn't come as a surprise. A weak, inexperienced, vacillating president just got rolled over by the Pentagon again and is likely to just keep the occupation of Afghanistan going indefinitely. This is one way Obama can hasten the ruin of the country and guarantee that he will go down in history not just as a one-term president but as the president who could actually be compared to George Bush in terms of incompetence and craven behavior in office.
The Obama administration has decided to begin publicly walking away from what it once touted as key deadlines in the war in Afghanistan in an effort to de-emphasize President Barack Obama's pledge that he'd begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011, administration and military officials have told McClatchy.

The new policy will be on display next week during a conference of NATO countries in Lisbon, Portugal, where the administration hopes to introduce a timeline that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2014, the year when Afghan President Hamid Karzai once said Afghan troops could provide their own security, three senior officials told McClatchy, along with others speaking anonymously as a matter of policy.

The Pentagon also has decided not to announce specific dates for handing security responsibility for several Afghan provinces to local officials and instead intends to work out a more vague definition of transition when it meets with its NATO allies.

What a year ago had been touted as an extensive December review of the strategy now also will be less expansive and will offer no major changes in strategy, the officials told McClatchy. So far, the U.S. Central Command, the military division that oversees Afghanistan operations, hasn't submitted any kind of withdrawal order for forces for the July deadline, two of those officials told McClatchy.

The shift already has begun privately and came in part because U.S. officials realized that conditions in Afghanistan were unlikely to allow a speedy withdrawal.

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