The Boys that Dance: Afghanistan’s Questionable Practice of Bacha Bazi

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the attention of the world pivoted towards Afghanistan. Throughout the years that followed, a constant flow of violence and terror filled new screens around the world. When one thinks of the nearly twenty years of the US-led military presence in Afghanistan, certain phrases and words eventually seep into the language. This is no different to the Falklands War in 1982, with words like ‘Exocet’ and ‘yomp’ entering the vernacular. However, there is a certain phrase that the War on Terror in Afghanistan had brought to light, a phrase that unearths Afghanistan’s hidden shame. This is the phrase ‘bacha bazi’, or in its literal translation, ‘boy play’.

After the Soviet-Afghan War ended in 1989, Afghanistan fell back into a period of violent civil war. This eventually resulted in the Mujahideen victory in 1992 and further tribal conflict within the nation that ultimately gave rise to Taliban domination of the country. With the NATO-led coalition forces invasion in late 2001, the Taliban’s monopoly over the nation had been spread thin and vastly reduced. However, upon first realisation, the new coalition forces and newly formed Afghan Government had merely realised that old practices had begun to remerge. One of these practices included bacha bazi.

Bacha bazi, or simply ‘boy play’, refers to sexual companionships between men in positions of power and adolescent boys. Since 2001, the act of bacha bazi has become more extensive within Afghanistan. Afghani warlords that fought the Soviets in the 1980’s regularly engage in this form of paedophilia openly within their communities. After the Taliban’s seizure of power however, the act went underground. The reason for this action was due to the Taliban’s aversion towards this act with them outlawing it, as it went against the Taliban’s strict adherence towards Sharia law.

When Coalition forces in 2001 dislodged the Taliban’s dominance over the nation, the practice of bacha bazi returned openly within the country; former commanders of the Mujahideen now residing in positions of power in the new government. Examples of these are governors and police chiefs that are continuing this practice. These practices nearly always exist within the rural parts of Afghanistan. Due to it being deeply “misogynistic and male-dominated due to deeply-ingrained Islamic values, teenage boys have become the objects of lustful attraction and romance for some of the most powerful men in the Afghan countryside” (Mondloch 2013). It has been estimated that “as many as 50 percent of the men in the Pashtun tribal areas of southern Afghanistan take boy lovers” (Mondloch 2013). In addition to this “an estimated one in ten Afghan boys are victims of this cultural blight” (Gillespie, 2019). This is clear evidence that paedophilia is the most prevalent of issues within these rural communities and that Afghanistan might be the world capital for paedophilia.

It is important to examine what exactly is the practice of ‘bacha bazi’. Bacha bazi refers to act of grooming young boys, dressing them as females with makeup and forcing them to partake in dances for groups of older men. The boys that dance fulfil the traditional place of dancing women to fill the empty place of the woman, hence their feminine attire. From this, the young boys are expected to participate in sexual acts with much older men, often acting as a man’s or even a group of men’s sexual minion for an extended period. Many young boys therefore fall victim to warlords and pimps who are skilled in the selecting of potential dancing boys for the bacha bazi. These are nearly always made up of the most vulnerable young boys within their communities, where an estimated “half of victims are illiterate and 87% of victims cannot attend school, a 2014 AIHRC report found” (Gillespie 2019). When the boys reach maturity, they nearly always become undesirable for their owners, resulting in them being murdered or to merely disappear.

These dancing boys and the subculture pf paedophilia within Afghanistan could possibly constitute as “one of the most egregious ongoing violations of human rights in the world” (Mondloch 2013). It is important to understand that bacha bazi is not considered to be an act of homosexuality, but rather instead the possession of young boys presented as beautiful women who dance for groups of men. This is justified under the grounds that they act as a symbol of the boy’s owner’s power and importance within the community.

Such actions within Afghanistan has deeply taken root within the daily lives of these communities. Even for the owners of these dancing boys after marriage, many of these men keep their boys at their homes. This has led to a common phrase amongst Afghans – “women are for children, boys are for pleasure” (Brinkley 2010). With a recent US State Department report also came to the belief that “”dancing boys” is a “widespread, culturally sanctioned form of male rape.” (Brinkley 2010)

With the resurgence of bacha bazi since the Taliban’s defeat to the coalition forces in 2001, a significant proportion of government, military and police officers are suspected to engage in this practice. What this has means is that it has possibly put Western nations into a hazardous predicament. By permitting the sexual activities of these individuals, it may have merely empowered such activities to continue. This is because the actions of these paedophiles are for coalition forces the ‘lesser evil’ when fighting the Taliban. It begs the question as to what Western nations involved in Afghanistan should do in their response to such grotesque practices. As Joel Brinkley of the San Francisco Chronicle stated, “so, why are American and NATO forces fighting and dying to defend tens of thousands of proud paedophiles, certainly more per capita than any other place on Earth?” (Brinkley 2010)

It might be prudent to wonder who or even what will stop the continuation of this deep-rooted culture of bacha bazi and what might come of the boys that dance.

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