The filthy culture of bacha bazi in Afghanistan
The Afghans call this revolting act bacha bazi, and it is exactly what it sounds like. Young boys usually ostracised from villages by their families because they were attacked by a paedophile, wearing flowing colourful outfits clad in bells, dancing in seedy places for older turban wearing bearded Afghan men, only to be sexually assaulted after the contemptible night takes a drug and alcohol fuelled turn.
The Guardian stated,
“Dressed in a flowing shirt and long, red skirt, with sherwal pants beneath and small silver bells fastened to hands and feet, the dancer stepped across the floor, face hidden behind a red scarf. The bells chimed with the movement, the skirt brushing past the watching men who stretched out their hands to touch it. The sitar player sang loudly, a love song about betrayal. The dancer twisted and sang hoarsely with him, arms thrown high above a lean, muscular body, moving faster and faster until finally the scarf dropped, revealing a handsome young man’s face with traces of a moustache and beard. One of the men quickly grabbed the scarf and started sniffing it.
In an adjacent room, 16-year-old Mustafa was preparing to dance next. His owner opened a small bundle of clothes and produced a long, blue skirt, crimson shirt, leather straps and bells. Mustafa stood on a table and nervously smoked a cigarette. Holding his thin arms over his head, he allowed two bearded, turbaned men, giggling and laughing, to dress him like a doll. One combed his long hair, and invited the other to have the “honour” of wrapping the straps around his hands and feet.”
Bacha bazi is an old central Asian tradition, with roots buried deep in local culture. It has been documented in the award winning film The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan featuring journalist Najibullah Quraishi. The film shares accounts of Afghani boys who have been subjected to sexual slavery.
Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stated,
“I go to every province to have happiness and pleasure with boys, says an Afghan man known as ‘The German,’ who acts as a bacha bazi pimp, supplying boys to the men. Some boys are not good for dancing, and they will be used for other purposes. … I mean for sodomy and other sexual activities.”
It was also depicted in Khaled Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner, where a boy is sold as a sexual slave to a member of the Taliban. But Khaled Hosseini had it wrong. Heinous as the Taliban’s cruel government had been, they actually abhorred child sex abuse. The militant group despised the act of bacha bazi, executing any Afghan found to have abused young boys.
The Washington Post stated,
“Like it or not, there was better rule of law under the Taliban, said Dee Brillenburg Wurth, a child-protection expert at the UN mission in Afghanistan, who has sought to persuade the government to address the problem. They saw it as a sin, and they stopped a lot of it.”
Now, with the Taliban gone, bacha bazi is once again flourishing in Afghanistan, from remote villages to teeming cities such as Kabul.
“Under Taliban rule, it was banned, but it has crept back and is now widespread, flourishing also in the cities, including the capital, Kabul, and a common feature of weddings, especially in the north. The bacha dancers are often abused children whose families have rejected them. Their ‘owners’ or ‘masters’ can be single or married men, who keep them in a form of sexual slavery, as concubines.”
For some, owning a bacha as a sex slave is a status symbol. Those who can’t afford it, buy CDs and DVDs of bacha bazi from the market. Others in the Kabul chai (tea) houses watch videos of dancing bachas.
The BBC explains how the bachas are powerless to save themselves.
“I started dancing at wedding parties when I was 10, when my father died,” says Omid.
We were hungry, I had no choice. Sometimes we go to bed on empty stomachs. When I dance at parties I earn about $2 or some pulau rice.
I ask him what happens when people take him to hotels. He bows his head and pauses for a long time before answering.
Omid says he is paid about $2 for the night. Sometimes he is gang raped.
I ask him why he doesn’t go to the police for help.
They are powerful and rich men. The police can’t do anything against them.”
Afghanistan’s allies are turning a blind eye, sweeping it under the rug in the name of cultural tradition.
In an eye opening article, The New York Times reveals how American soldiers are ordered to ignore the screaming cries of young boys being sexually abused by their Afghan allies. According to the report, they are told to turn a deaf ear to this aspect of Afghan ‘culture’.
It seems hypocritical of the United States to allow its allies to take part in crimes against humanity to maintain political stability. The stories are foul enough to churn your stomach.
“At night we can hear them screaming, but we’re not allowed to do anything about it,” one soldier told his father in a painful phone call.
Naturally, many marines were unable to contain their fury and attacked these Afghan officers. Later, they were reprimanded by their own government for intervening in local culture.
The New York Times,
“The American policy of non-intervention is intended to maintain good relations with the Afghan police and militia units the United States has trained to fight the Taliban. It also reflects a reluctance to impose cultural values in a country where pederasty is rife, particularly among powerful men, for whom being surrounded by young teenagers can be a mark of social status.
Some soldiers believed that the policy made sense; even if they were personally distressed at the sexual predation they witnessed or heard about.
‘The bigger picture was fighting the Taliban,’ a former Marine lance corporal reflected. ‘It wasn’t to stop molestation.’
Still, the former lance corporal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending fellow marines, recalled feeling sickened the day he entered a room on a base and saw three or four men lying on the floor with children between them.”
This American policy has only isolated many village elders who are frustrated by the acts of depravity. American backed Afghans in powerful military positions to this day are said to own multiple sex slaves, and have been accused of crimes of rape and worse. The solution, of course, is not to invite monsters such as Taliban back into power, but to find a way to fill this vacuum in justice.
Unfortunately, those who take part in bacha bazi see nothing wrong with it.
The New York Times,
“So Captain Quinn summoned Abdul Rahman and confronted him about what he had done. The police commander acknowledged that it was true, but brushed it off. When the American officer began to lecture about ‘how you are held to a higher standard if you are working with US forces, and people expect more of you,’ the commander began to laugh.”
“What was so unnerving about the men I had met was not just their lack of concern for the damage their abuse was doing to the boys, Quraishi says. It was also their casualness with which they operated and the pride with which they showed me their boys, their friends, their world. They clearly believed that nothing they were doing was wrong.”
“Some people like dog fighting, some practice cockfighting. Everyone has their hobby, for me, it’s bacha bazi, he says.
When we leave the party at two in the morning a teenage boy is still dancing and offering drugs to the men around him.
Zabi is not especially wealthy or powerful, yet he has three bachas. There are many people who support this tradition across Afghanistan and many of them are very influential.”
To avoid any feelings of guilt, Foreign Policy explains, the Pakhtuns have twisted religious teachings,
“The fact that bacha bazi, which has normalised sodomy and child abuse in rural Afghan society, developed within a deeply fundamentalist Islamic region of the world is mystifying. According to a 2009 Human Terrain Team study titled ‘Pashtun Sexuality,’ Pakhtun social norms dictate that bacha bazi is not un-Islamic or homosexual at all — if the man does not love the boy, the sexual act is not reprehensible, and is far more ethical than defiling a woman.
Sheltered by their pastoral setting and unable to speak Arabic — the language of all Islamic texts — many Afghans allow social customs to trump religious values, including those Quranic verses eschewing homosexuality and promiscuity. Warlords who have exploited Islam for political or personal means have also promulgated tolerance for bacha bazi. The mujahideen commanders are a perfect example of this — they fought communism in the name of jihad and mobilised thousands of men by promoting Islam, while sexually abusing boys and remaining relatively secular themselves.”
Pakistan’s Hidden Shame, a documentary directed by Mohammed Naqvi and produced by Jamie Doran, is an eye opener. The documentary is difficult to watch, even in small doses. It tells deeply distressing stories from Peshawar of vulnerable children, trying to ease the pain of their lives by using narcotics, or resorting to self-harm by cutting themselves, who either sell themselves to older men, or are raped and gang-raped.
Naeem, a 13-year-old boy, was attacked while resting on the streets,
“I was lying here sleeping and four people grabbed me and threw me into a car, he sobs. One was a bus driver, the others were heroin addicts. All four of them raped me.”
One of the most horrifying tales is of Ijaz.
The Daily Mail,
“Once, there was a boy on the bus and everyone had sex with him, confesses Ijaz who admits to raping 12 different children during his career as a bus conductor.
I did it too but what else could I do? They invited me. And he was that kind of boy anyway.”
From Afghanistan to Pakistan, the common threads in these cases are as old as the act of rape itself. Invariably, the victims are heartbreakingly vulnerable, and invariably, the attackers themselves rationalise their actions by blaming the victim, ‘he was asking for it’, ‘he secretly liked it’, or ‘he was that type of boy’.
More upsettingly, accepting it as a cultural norm allows the abusers as well as those with the power to stop it, to alleviate feelings of guilt.
Foreign Policy claims that as many as 50 per cent of men in Southern Afghanistan ‘take boy lovers’. The leaders of Afghanistan do nothing for fear of losing their hold on power, as any action could offend their voter base. Meanwhile, as far as Pakistan’s northern areas are concerned, our own leaders would rather bury their heads in the sand.
This mentality can only be tackled with a concerted effort to revise a cultural norm. Somewhere along the way these people began to assume it was okay to take advantage of a child. For such a perverse act to become acceptable in parts of Pakhtun culture must have taken deep psychological conditioning, especially considering how many victims of sexual abuse become abusers themselves. It shall take equally complex psychological conditioning to invalidate child sex abuse as an acceptable act.
We can only achieve this if our political and religious leaders, filmmakers, educators, journalists, and others use their skills of influence. Shame can be a healthy feeling, but not when it is misused to function as a wall for paedophiles and rapists to cover their wrongdoings. Shame must instead be used as a hammer to break down these walls.
Writer’s note: This article is specifically about bacha bazi.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.