I hold a face which could represent a number of different nationalities, and have most often been mistaken for being Arab, Turkish and Iranian. When my origin is mistaken, I smile (out of flattery) but am quick to correct the person, (out of pride) and say ‘actually, I am originally from Afghanistan’. The response is usually ‘really?’ or ‘oh!’
People don’t usually know what to say or ask about Afghanistan- rightly so, given that it has been plagued with endless war through the decades. But one question does crop up from time to time: ‘so, what’s it really like there?’ At one point in my life, I was quick to say how beautiful the country is, how welcoming and inviting the people are, how vibrant the culture is, how amazing the food is, and how beautiful the traditional clothing is. But now, I find myself hesitating before answering the question. Whilst my previous conceptions of the country have not changed, with age, my eyes have opened to more issues that continue to ravage the country.
On the surface of Afghan society, we see poverty, insecurity, corruption and weak institutions. But there is one thing that lurks underneath in which most of us are unaware of: Bacha bazi
Bacha bazi, or ‘boy play’ is an ancient tradition practiced in Afghanistan. Boys, often those from extremely poor backgrounds are abducted, sold as sex slaves and forced to dance for men in women’s clothing. (Boys are favoured because of a prohibition of girls dancing publicly in Afghanistan.) Poverty is one of the biggest contributing factors to the practice. Often, parents find themselves having no choice but to sell their sons to warlords for a (small) sum of money. These boys are sometimes as young as just six years old. Once sold, the children become the property of their owners and have limited, to no, freedom. The boys who try to run away might even face consequences as extreme as death.
The fact is that these young boys are taken, used, abused, violated, raped and even murdered. As soon as they are aged (meaning as soon as they show signs of puberty), they are thrown back into society. As the prospects of returning to their families are highly unlikely, these boys become stigmatised and alone.
Lives stolen; freedom stolen; childhood stolen.
Those maintaining the practice are the wealthy warlords in mainly the northern regions of Afghanistan. They compete against one another to own the most good looking boy they can find, in attempts to use the boy as a symbol for their wealth and power. So, is the government doing anything about this? No. Whilst Afghanistan is party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, bacha bazi is not mentioned even once in its state report. The growing problem of insurgent groups, along with the ever increasing problem of poverty has further weakened the justice system and left many thousands of children vulnerable on the streets just waiting to be taken away.
The problem with this is the issue of criminalisation. Warlords have been steering from the justice system due not only to their power in the system, (as there are many warlords in the government itself), but also because of all the problems Afghanistan is facing at once: insecurity, corruption, weak governance and so on. Perpetrators are essentially ‘getting away’ with their crimes, whilst their victims are left abused and powerless.
Another problem is that society is unwilling to speak of the practice publicly as it is seen as a ‘taboo’ to talk about sex.
I believe, however, that language is a tool for empowerment. One simple word can change everything. Essentially, whilst the practice comes down to being classified as paedophilia, the word itself does not have meaning for the warlords who see the boys as nothing more than a commodity. Does this mean that by introducing this word and its associated meanings to Afghan society, bacha bazi will end? Probably not. What will be achieved however is understanding and awareness. Once this is achieved, pressure on the government to condemn such acts can begin. At the moment, there is no such pressure because there is no open awareness of the issue in the international arena.
Finally, at the end of this article, we return to the title: ‘The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan’, which was taken from Najibullah Quraishi’s documentary on the practice of bacha bazi. In a country where so many human rights abuses are undocumented, Quraishi’s piece is possibly the only time my words can come alive.
By: Rohma Ullah