Bacha Bazis: The Dancing Boys Of Afghanistan

In a country where women are often hidden behind their burkas and excluded from most aspects of public life, young boys take their place, dancing for men as female substitutes.

‘Bacha bazi’ literally translates to ‘play with kids’ in Iranian Persian, and to ‘play with boys’ in Afghan Persian. Most popular in the northern part of Afghanistan but also taking place in the capital and the country’s southern region, this type of sexual slavery takes the form of prostitution of pre-pubscent boys. Bachas are to serve as dancers during shows offered to the public, or to dance at marriage ceremonies (where men and women are always strictly separated from each other in different rooms). But bacha bazi isn’t just a bizarre form of entertainment – the boys are owned, often entrapped in a cycle of sexual slavery, and some are even murdered.  Sold to rich and powerful men, most owners (referred to as ‘lord’ or ‘master’ by their boys) are married and have kids of their own. Bachas are also forced to satisfy their master’s perverted sexual desires. The practice is illegal under Afghan law, being ‘both against shariah and the civil code’ but laws are rarely enforced against powerful offenders.

Najibullah Quraishi’s documentary infiltrates this secretive culture by following Dastager, a key figure of bacha bazi. We meet Imam. Aged 15, Imam has been a ‘dancing boy’ for four years. Tonight, as every other night, he dresses in special women’s clothing, with bells tied to his feet, and dances the night away. Gathered around him, twenty men aged 35 to 60. Their crooked smiles reveal the pleasure  they take in their macabre tradition. Their eyes are vicious. When asked if Imam will be going back home with him tonight, Dastager nods: ‘yes, of course’. He claims to have had about 2000 to 3000 boys stay with him: ‘they come and go’, he laughs. The next day, the journalist meets another man whose blond moustache has earned him the nickname ‘the German’ amongst his harem of prepubescent boys. ‘I go to every province to have happiness and pleasure with boys. I like watching them. Some boys are no good for dancing, but they can be used for other purposes. For other bacha bazi activities’. The reporter questions him about the nature of these ‘other activities’. Without a hint of remorse or shame, the German replies: ‘I mean sodomy and other sexual activities’. 

Kite running is a tradition almost as old as Afghanistan itself. Throughout the country, young boys battle each other for supremacy in the sky. In the northern city of Takha, Dastager owns a kite store. Bacha bazi, owning boys for dancing and sex is also an ancient tradition that had been condemned by the Islamic law in force under the Taliban regime. But since the fall of the latter and the country’s widespread political instability, the practice has once again proliferated. For the men involved, there is no stigma or shame. Owning a ‘dancing boy’ has become a badge of honour in a society where access to women is severely restricted, but where young boys are easily accessible. Wandering among the boys and their kites, the innocence of childhood is something these men have long forgotten. Most of them are former warlords, former senior commandos with the Northern Alliance that have once fought alongside NATO forces during the war versus the Taliban, or powerful businessmen. But what has drawn these supposed ‘heroes’ to indulge in this morbid culture? Dastager explains that the practice emerged during the war, ‘when no one had anything to do’. From then onwards, desire and subsequent demand kept growing. The general idea among this population has been that women are to be reduced to procreation, and young beardless boys are for play and play only : ‘this is my boy toy! ’, says one of Dastager’s friends, with a smirk. The journalist asked him whether it was common for owners’ wives to grant permission for children to be kept within the family home. He responded by saying that husbands do not usually listen to their wives in Afghanistan, but that ‘cultured men’ tend to discuss such matters with their wives. 

Many of the dancing boys are entrapped by false promises of jobs made by professionals pimps. Dastager lured an 11-year old boy into his car at a local market. He said he knew the the boy would be good for dancing, the second he laid eyes on him that, given his slim morph: ‘professionals can recognise which boys to choose’. The journalist sat down with the child’s family. ‘Do you know what they are doing to your son?’, he asked. They replied, ‘Whatever it is they do, he is a boy, so whatever happens, he will get over it…of course we miss him but times are hard.’ When asked if his wife agreed to sending his child to Dastager, the man replied: ‘His mother has no choice, she must accept what I say.’ This 11 year-old will undertake a six month training in traditional musical instruments, singing, and dancing lessons. If his dancing is poor, he will get beaten up. Pimps seem to be well-aware of the un-Islamic and immoral nature of their actions, but yet go on to live life to the fullest, whether it be as Muslims fulfilling their Friday duty, as husbands, and as fathers. 

Omnipotent, these men scare both local authorities and non-governmental organisations. Nazir Alimy works with UNICEF. He agrees that the practice has now become endemic in the country but, he claims that he too is afraid and loves his life too much to reveal any names. In addition, Alimy expressed his fear that any attempt to extirpate them from this hell would provoke the wrath of the police, who would risk leaving their posts and thus opening the way for the Taliban. The point is that sometimes the only solution for young victims is to reach an agreement with the Islamic group. Disturbingly, not only is the Afghan government known to prosecute boy victims of bacha bazi, rather than the adult male victimizers, but state officials tend to take part in the practice themselves. Some Afghan provincial governors are known to openly keep bacha bazi harems. The documentary followed the chief of youth crime department, in charge of taking street children to shelter. Yet that very same night he was seen amongst the audience to a bacha’s performance. If the hypocrisy and fear of Aghanistan’s public officials has reduced prospects for peace and security, it has prompted serious questions as to whether the international community should have an obligation to intervene on behalf of the victims under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. 

As a member state of the United Nations, the Afghan government is obligated to respect international human rights (Vincent Jones, 2015). The U.N. Charter bars member states from intervening in the internal affairs of another member state, unless in self-defence. Despite the purportedly non-derogable, jus cogens status of international prohibitions against slavery and rape, the U.N. has not adopted a legal framework by which member states can appropriately intervene in distressed nations, such as Afghanistan, to prevent systemic child sex trafficking.  When the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS)  considered whether member states should have a  right to intervene, it proposed that the well established principle of non-intervention should yield to the international responsibility to protect endangered populations in ‘situations of compelling human need,’ via ‘sanctions,’ ‘prosecution,’ and ‘in extreme cases, military intervention.’  ICISS developed the Responsibility to Protect doctrine based on its recognition that member states have an obligation to protect their citizens from ‘mass murder’, ‘rape,’ and ‘starvation’. When member states are ‘unwilling or unable’ to meet these commitments, ‘that responsibility must be borne by the broader community of states’. In an apparent effort to exclude child sex slavery practices, like bacha bazi, ICISS proposed that intervention would only be justified in circumstances where the rape committed involved ‘systematic rape for political purposes of women of a particular group either as another form of terrorism, or as a means of  changing the ethnic composition of that group.’ ICISS emphasized that its goal was ‘to focus on protecting communities from mass killing,’ and ‘women’ rather than boys ‘from systematic rape’, and ‘children from starvation.’ ICISS made no attempt to acknowledge sexual violence against children, choosing instead to suggest that rape affects only women. In cases where mass sexual violence endangers a population and its government is either unwilling or unable to stop it, the U.N. suggested that intervention under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine would be appropriate only under the criteria specifically enunciated in Security Council Resolution. The resolution excluded child sexual exploitation and trafficking, such as bacha bazi, from triggering international intervention (Vincent Jones, 2015).

The lack of humanitarian intervention suggests that there is no genuine demand that the Afghan government install an effective judiciary, justice system and police force, to protect its population of boys from sexual exploitation and trafficking, prosecute offenders, and prevent bacha bazi. Without a credible legal demand or threat of coercive action, there is virtually no incentive for the Afghan government to limit its actions or curtail the range of atrocities currently being inflicted upon the powerless and hopeless boys of Afghanistan. The U.N.’s unwillingness to adopt a framework that triggers a right to intervene in response to the Afghan government’s obvious complicity in bacha bazi, makes the U.N. an ideological accomplice to its practice, which, unequivocally, now represents a clear threat to international peace and security in the region. 

Imam told the journalist that his wish was ‘to study in school, and learn English’. He wants to become a doctor in the future, and wants to be able to ‘help other boys improve their future’. But for many bachas, the moment they are lured in, they are in it forever. Another boy that was interviewed explained that ‘most of [us] are useless once we start growing a beard. We are no longer attractive to our owners. And without education, we have no choice but start our own dancing boy business as well. We follow our masters’ footsteps’. These young, unaccompanied minors are particularly at risk of psychiatric disorders. Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, addictions are common in this vulnerable population (Derluyn, Mels, 2009).

Anne-Sophie Neyra