Man-Love Thursday (MLT) is a phrase and a weekly joking tradition of English-speaking military forces stationed in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It comes from the perception that Afghan men customarily seek sex from other men on Thursday so that they can be free from lust on Friday — a day of prayer and devotion for Muslims.
The notion of Man-Love Thursday emerged from the close cooperative interaction between Allied military personnel and Afghan soldiers. It is connected to perceived cultural differences concerning homoeroticism, homophobia, misogyny, pedophilia, and religion, and often used in a humorous fashion between men. MLT in Gay folk speech may be humorous, but also evokes concern for what Gay activists see as an emergent, yet contorted and vulnerable, Gay-related community in Afghanistan.
Background: 9/11 and the Invasion of Afghanistan
On September 11, 2001, members of the Muslim extremist group Al Qaeda attacked the United States by crashing hijacked commercial airplanes into New York City’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. At that time, Al Qaeda was headquartered in Afghanistan and sheltered by the ruling Taliban theocracy.
When the Taliban refused to turn over the people responsible for the attacks, the USA and coalition partners invaded Afghanistan. Soon afterwards, reports came from British, Canadian, and American military personnel about erotic behavior between local males. Coalition troops described being propositioned for sex, and spoke of local customs in which young men and boys were partnered with older men in erotic-romantic relationships. Along with these stories, rumors of “Man-Love Thursday” arose and spread from Afghanistan to the Allied forces in Iraq and other Muslim countries.
Purdah and Tolerance
Allied soldiers reported that homoerotic behavior is considered officially wrong, but privately celebrated. The extreme form of purdah (seclusion of women) practiced in Afghanistan allows young men virtually no opportunity to form friendships or romantic relationships with young women, and these men often meet their wives for the first time on the day of their marriage. Afghan homoerotic practices and attitudes may have less to do with participants’ sexual orientations, and more to do with the lack of alternatives. Non-Afghan soldiers’ perception of Central Asian same-sex practices can to be understood, in part, as a projection of Western constructs of what homosexuality means onto a very different situation.
At the same time, LGBTQ activists view such practices in a strongly homosocial (separation of women and men from each other) environment as providing potentially tolerant spaces in which those males with same-sex orientation and gender variation enjoy a measure of self-expression, thus forming the basis for what could eventually become Afghanistan’s LGBTQ community if it is allowed to exist openly.
Afghan Men’s Folkways and Kandahar
Outsiders may not easily ascertain what is homoerotic from what is not because Afghan men’s folkways include displays of public affection, such as holding hands and exchanging flowers, which some Straight American soldiers participate in with Afghan National Army friends. Avowedly heterosexual Afghan men may also beautify themselves with dark eyeliner and henna. Afghan folk music includes songs with lyrics that praise the beauty of young men, and local custom naturalizes homoerotic-romantic relationships between mature men with wealth and impoverished teenage boys (and discreetly between peers) as somehow not homosexual.
In addition, many Afghan men are careful not to ascribe Man-Love Thursday to their own locale. Instead, they may claim it is commonplace elsewhere in Afghanistan. For example, Kandahar has a reputation for being especially enthusiastic about male same-sex love and pedophilia. An Afghan saying about Kandahar goes, “Birds fly over the city with one wing covering their butts.” That Kandahar also has the reputation as the country’s most religiously conservative city underscores the complexity of same-sex dynamics in Afghanistan.
From Military Folk Speech and Tradition to Gay Folk Speech
The term “Man-Love Thursday” as humorous military folk speech concerning local men in Muslim countries has led to a weekly tradition among deployed soldiers. On Thursdays, they often joke around about each other’s orientation and respond to inadvertent eyebrow raising situations — such as two men accidentally bumping into each other in the chow line (cafeteria line) or a friendly wrestling match with a comment like, “That’s okay. It’s Man-Love Thursday.”
This tradition may be seen within the larger context of international military homophobic folk speech that ascribes homosexuality among men to a group other than one’s own, yet it also demonstrates an incorporation of perceived native homosociality into one’s own practice, even if only in jest. Although potentially homophobic in tone, it is not necessarily Gay-hate speech as it can be used as a veiled way of reaffirming the strong camaraderie soldiers often feel for each other.
MLT is evidence of what Gay scholars suspect is officially condemned but privately thriving underground Gay-related folklife in Afghanistan. In addition, LGBTQ activists express anxiety and concern for the blatant abuse of power and economic hardship that can force teenage boys and girls into sexual relationships, an issue that also troubles military personnel who have been deployed there.
Dinneen, Timothy Will. An American Island: A Paratrooper’s Deployment to Afghanistan. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2009.
Murray, Stephen O. Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature.New York: New York University, 1997.
Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University, 2007.