The plight of Afghanistan’s dancing boys

Afghanistan’s recent conflict-ridden history has made the country increasingly dangerous for its population. Among the most vulnerable groups are young Afghan boys who face particular challenges that often leave deep and enduring impacts on their lives and on their social standing in society. But the reason why this is the case may be surprising.

Pederasty in a homophobic country

Although homosexuality is illegal in Afghanistan and the gay community is constantly under the threat of imprisonment, there is a homoerotic tradition of Persian origin in Afghan history. The relationships between young boys and adult men (known as pederasty) are not regarded as homosexual, though they have led to the practice of bacha bazi (literally, play with boys). Bacha bazi is gravely frowned upon by many Afghans and its prohibition is one of the few remnants from the Taliban era, during which bacha bazi was viewed as abhorrent.

Today, bacha bazi seems to be revived around the country. Despite its long historical roots, human rights organizations consider it an abusive practice designed to take advantage of poor Afghan boys and teenagers and sell them to entertain warlords and others at private parties. Recruiting [the boys] for servitude is considered a symbol of power. Dressed up as females in a country where crossdressing is prohibited, and forced to dance provocatively, bacha bazi boys embody the eroticism that females are prohibited from exhibiting. As such, bacha bazi transforms the young boys into objects of lust.

Far from being a tacit acceptance of homosexuality, bacha bazi is no more than glorified pedophilia rooted in human trafficking and exploitation. A RT documentary follows the lives of those involved in the practice, and the dangers of doing so, especially for the young boys who come of age and are no longer eligible for bacha bazi. Destitute, these boys return to living in the streets and must be extra careful about their past. By the time they grow a beard, many of these boys become undesirable. When some become their own leaders, they take young male teenagers as their own lovers, thus perpetuating the cycle of abuse. This is one of the reasons why bacha bazi is so difficult to eradicate.

A publicly known yet ignored issue

Despite Afghanistan’s infamous mistreatment of women, it seems young boys are even more at risk of becoming victims of trafficking than girls as a result of bacha bazi. The passion and money that many powerful men are willing to invest to keep the boys under their wings elicit silence, and sometimes even complicity, from the Western-backed Afghan forces; meanwhile, U.S. soldiers were advised to disregard the abuse and maintain peace with allies on the ground.

At a time when so many Afghans are seeking refuge in Europe, most of whom are young adult males, it is important to assess whether these types of practices may be reasons why some of these individuals chose to leave Afghanistan.

So far, international human rights organizations have been weary about raising the issue even in Afghanistan. From Barat Ali Batoor’s photography project “Dancing Boys” to VICE’s documentary “This is What Winning Looks Like”, the practice of bacha bazi and its nefarious effects are well-documented. But as the overall climate of conflict and violence in Afghanistan escalates, it appears that there are very few who consider fighting and eliminating bacha bazi a priority.