By Nushin Arbabzadah
"Take off your chador," the police officer orders an Afghan cross-dresser in a video that has been shared endlessly on social networking websites.
"Take off your wig!" Beneath the shiny black locks, the head is revealed as male with receding, closely cropped hair.
He's also wearing a scarlet short-sleeved shalwar kamiz – sexy but traditional female attire. The feminine look is accentuated by large sparkling bangles and see-through embroidery.
The victim's ordeal goes on for what seems like eternity as he endures humiliating comments and laughter from the police officers.
"Please have mercy, don't make fun of me," he whispers.
"Boy! Face the camera," they shout, forcing him to remove the fake breasts from inside his top. The breasts turn out to be a pair of socks filled with dough.
"Dough to make the breasts feel softy-soft," an officer shouts amid laughter. Male cross-dressing is a familiar enough in Afghanistan for the locals to have coined a special term. The word is ezak – a vague but deeply derogatory noun referring to anything from a eunuch or a hermaphrodite to a transvestite or a male homosexual.
Following the discovery of the dough, a barrage of questions ensues in the video. "Why are you dressed like this? Where did you put the makeup on? What is all this about? What have you two been up to?"
This final question is addressed to a shy young man leaning away but standing next to the transvestite. The two were arrested together. "I was shopping for clothes," the cross-dresser whispers, taking off the bangles. He is trying to tell the officers that his dressing up is just a silly, harmless game.
"Put the bangles back on," a police officer orders. The victim reluctantly obeys, his eyes filled with tears.
"Please, officer, we haven't committed a crime," the victim's companion pleads, turning away from the camera.
Like most of the sensationalist Afghan news that is spread online, the video gives no information about the date, the source, or the victim's fate following the arrest. The clip made the rounds, creating lively debate before people tired of it.
My immediate reaction was to regard it as a clear example of ignorance breeding cruelty. From the officers' tone it was evident that they felt proud of the arrest, believing they had protected ordinary families from a couple of "dangerous perverts".
But the officers' pride was also mixed with utter bewilderment. This confusion was neatly summed up in the video's title: "A man dressed as a woman – but why?" The title cried out for explanation and the numerous comments left by viewers revealed a wide range of interpretation.
They included political paranoia, with some viewers suspecting that the cross-dresser was in reality a suicide bomber trained by the Pakistani ISI to infiltrate Kabul disguised as a woman.
There was also a more sober reaction, with commentators criticising the police for wasting their time on mundane incidents while the threat of terrorism was all too real. A few comments interpreted the cross-dressing as a sign of cultural anarchy, a symbol of Afghans straying from the path of Islam.
A couple of people demanded the cross-dresser should be executed, while others said that even though the cross-dresser was misguided they still felt sorry for him.
Amid such voices of confusion, and at times outright cruelty, it was heartening to read comments expressing anger at the police's humiliation of the victim: "The man has committed no crime. Cross-dressing is a psychological condition. What he needs is treatment rather than public humiliation."
Others recalled their own encounters with transvestites:
"During the Taliban, we had an ezak in our neighborhood. His brothers used to hit him for acting like a female and finally killed him.
"I am worried about this man's future. His family is bound to kill him because of the shame he has brought on them. To protect this unfortunate person, people should stop sharing this video."It was the presence of these voices of sanity among Afghans themselves that encouraged me to write this article. It showed that people are beginning to realise the importance of psychology in making a society more humane. This is vitally needed but much neglected in Afghanistan.
Students are often discouraged by their own families from pursuing their interest in psychology. "Do you really want to end up a doctor to the crazies?" is the usual reaction. The prejudice is widespread, even inside the medical community.
The result is a nation deeply in need of psychological treatment but left with little choice but to turn to "traditional treatments", which include chaining patients to the walls of saintly shrines or depriving them of food and drink for long periods.
Amid such dark despair, the sane voices of compassion that appeared alongside the aggressive comments offered a glimmer of hope because they showed that Afghans are beginning to understand that transvestites are not criminals.
It is true that different cultures create distinctive personality traits, but as the case of the unlucky Afghan transvestite revealed, such non-standard but deeply felt psychological needs are universal, with transvestites from the dusty roads of Kabul to the sparkling clubs of New York feeling the same urge to dress up as women with or without society's approval.