The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan: A Cry for Help

by Nazanine Anwar

“His body is so soft. His lips are so tender. He’s touching the boy with his cotton clothes. Where do you live, so I can get to know your dad. Oh boy, you’ve set your lover on fire.” What may read like an ordinary love-song at first glance is in fact the difficult reflection of reality for many boys in Afghanistan. Fifteen-year-old Imam sings this song and dances for a male audience to traditional Afghan music. Imam is wearing traditional Afghan clothes for women and dances in a very effeminate way, while old men devour him with their eyes. He has been dancing for four years already. One of the spectators, Gholom, approaches the boy singing to him: “Oh the one with the golden tooth, where are you? It’s no good standing outside the door, while you’re inside, I want to put my head on your tender breast.” Once the entertainment is over, there is an argument over who is to take the boy home for the night. Finally, it is Dastager, his owner, who leaves with him.

This scene is an extract from the documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan by Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi. He is one of the few who have dared to infiltrate this secret, yet well-known practice, known in Dari as Bacha bazi, which translates literally to “boy play.” Little boys from the age of six to approximately eighteen are sold by poor families or abducted by the Bacha baaz, or “pedophile,” referring to the procurer. Procurers single boys out on the streets according to their physical appearance. An Afghan explains that when he was in Afghanistan, every child knew the procurer: “[E]very time he came to our neighborhood, we were all running and hiding somewhere. When we came out of our ambush, some of our friends, who couldn’t hide, simply disappeared.”

Enduring Freedom
©Spc. Jason Nolte/Wikimedia Commons

The selected boys, referred to as Bacha bereesh, or “beardless boys,” are given dancing and singing lessons to perform at weddings or private gatherings. Afterwards, the boys are sold or rented by men for their sexual pleasure. From this point on, they are trapped in a cycle of sexual slavery until they grow up. If they try to escape from this fate, they are killed. Hafiz, who was only fifteen years old, no longer wished to dance and be sold for sex. His owner Ahmadullah, an Afghan policeman, killed him shortly after his refusal to cooperate. His owner was imprisoned but was released only a few months later.

In another scene from The Dancing Boys, Dastager, owner and procurer, narrates an encounter with a thirteen-year-old boy while laughing: “Everyone was drinking and anyone who felt like it would go inside the car, and he just laid there, not even moving.” Someone asks him, “The boy was attractive wasn’t he?” “Mind-blowing,” Dastager replies.


Dance od a bacha (dancing boy), Samarkand, ca 1905-1915, Sergei Mihailovich Prokudin-Gorskii/ Wikimedia Commons

Bacha bazi has been practiced for centuries, but became prevalent during the 1980’s amongst the Mujahideen. When the Taliban took power in 1996, Bacha bazi was prohibited, and perpetrators were sentenced to death. Since the fall of the Taliban, influential and wealthy men have revived this practice. Some of them are warlords and police officers, others are military commanders and powerful men with important positions in the government. In his documentary, Quraishi interviews Mastari, a former commander of the Northern Alliance, who fought alongside NATO against the Taliban. Mastari, now married and the father of two children, explains, “I had a boy, but I couldn’t keep him for very long…it’s a tradition and there’s competition amongst the commanders. If they were willing to have sex, I would. If not, I wouldn’t…but a lot of them want it. Many boys want sex.”
President Ashraf Ghani has promised to take action and to bring the criminals to justice. The legal recognition of a crime plays a key role in defining the criminal behavior of the subject. Afghan criminal law made rape a criminal offense for the first time following the enactment of the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women in 2009. This law is not, however, applicable to the Bacha bazi cases. Young boys are not protected under Afghan legislation, and according to Human Rights Watch, there is no age of consent for sexual relations. If a boy is abused, he is more likely to be sentenced for “pederasty” than considered a victim of rape.

The New York Times recently reported the sexual abuse of little boys by United States Army officers fighting alongside Afghan police officers. One of them reportedly chained a boy to his bed and abused him nightly. Another officer, Dan Quinn, was ordered by his superiors to turn a blind eye to such cases after attempting to draw attention to these practices. Causing a scandal, he was told, could undermine the authority of the local government. He explains: “The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights.” NATO’s primary goal is to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a safe haven for terrorists. Winning a war, however, does not mean winning peace. A military intervention and the training of security forces will not prevent the deterioration of a country’s situation. This is especially the case when those who are trained to provide security are responsible for insecurity amongst the Afghan population, in particular amongst children, those who will shape the future of Afghanistan.

Screenshot from “the Dancing Boys of Afhanistan” by Najibullah Quraishi

Even today, the Afghan government, foreign troops and international organizations pay lip service to the atrocities of Bacha bazi, and yet they fail to take action. The reason behind this is simple. Bacha bazi is dismissed by many as a cultural tradition and is therefore implicitly accepted. The problem is that of a double-standard. On the one hand, the government wishes to improve Afghanistan’s situation, but on the other, it is still considered acceptable for children to dance in front of dozens of men for their sexual enjoyment. While contemporary criminal practices such as genital mutilation or child marriage have attracted a great deal of attention globally and enjoyed significant activism, the tragic phenomenon of Afghanistan’s dancing boys remains largely overlooked and the urgency of their plight suppressed.

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