The Intersection of Sex and Power in Afghanistan

The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan is a documentary by Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi about the tradition of bacha bazi in Afghanistan. Bacha bazi, which means, “playing with boys” in Persian, is a long-standing tradition of child prostitution and sexual slavery in Afghanistan. Many times, these boys have to dress in women’s clothing, dancing and sing at parties for men, and then are sold to the highest bidder for the night. These are young boys no older than 15 years old (usually poor and/or orphans) that are sold to rich and influential men who keep them for prestige and as status symbols. The practice is illegal under Afghan law. However, the corrupt law enforcement does not implement it, and many times they do it themselves. In this documentary, Najibullah Quraishi researches bacha bazi first-hand by talking with the boys and their owners. At the same time, Quraishi is detailing and recording how authorities in Afghanistan are accountable for preventing these crimes, but are occasionally culpable in the practice. This documentary was created because he practice of bacha bazi is largely overlooked in the West. This short film is a way to shed light on a horrible and ancient tradition and to expose it to the West.

This documentary not only sheds the light on the boys who are prostituted, it also exposes the men who participate in it and the culture surrounding the practice. In the first few scenes of the documentary, Quraishi meets Dastager, a prominent leader in the bacha bazi business in the Takhar province of Afghanistan. Dastager introduces Quraishi to “one of his favorite dancing boys,” 15-year old Imam. Dastager continues on to dress Imam himself and say, “You’ll really make me want to lose control.” After Imam dances and sings for the other men, Quraishi sits down and talks with Dastager. With no shame, Dastager admits that he has had 2,000-3,000 boys work with him over the years. Quraishi precedes to ask Dastager if he has ever had sex with this boys; Dastager answers by saying no but immediately smiles afterward, indicating that he actually does. This scene shows how this practice is somewhat of an open secret in Afghanistan. Even when this practice is denied, everyone knows it is happening, but it is ignored. In many situations, people will not look at Dastager and think that he is doing something wrong. Instead, they would look at the boys he has raped, and say that they are the lowly and powerful ones. These boys are then looked down on and ostracized by their communities. This attitude in Afghanistan shows why the practice of bacha bazi has persisted for this long. People look down on these young boys (because they are looked at as poor and dishonored because they let the rape happen), and the men are not punished for their abuse, so they know they can continue doing it. These little boys are victim shamed and the blame is put on them.

Furthermore, a common thread throughout this documentary is class. Many of the boys who are sold into this sexual slavery are poor and/or orphans. About 13 minutes into the documentary, Dastagar tells Quraishi the kinds of boys he is looking for. Dastagar explains that he wants an attractive boy that is around 12 or 13 years old who is poor and has nothing. The practice of bacha bazi is perpetuated by poor families who sell their sons and by men who exploit the weaknesses of the poor in their communities. Many of the young boys who enter this world do not know anything about it, and the men who buy them take advantage of that.

Additionally, about halfway through the documentary, Quraishi interviews a police chief in Takhar province. The chief precedes to say that anyone who is caught practicing bacha bazi is prosecuted no matter what class they are because it is illegal in Afghanistan. However, in the next scene, Quraishi’s cameras catch two high-ranking police officials in an illegal bacha bazi party. They were simply watching and chatting with their friends at the party. The corruption of the police is an enormous issue in the preventing of bacha bazi because these are the people that are supposed to be stopping it. Instead, many of them not only look the other way when they know bacha bazi is happening, they also participate in it and consciously commit sexual abuse.

The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan not only sheds light on what is happening to many young boys in Afghanistan, but it also portrays why this ancient practice has persisted for so long. Simply informing the West of what is happening is not going to change this practice. In Afghanistan, the society condones this form of sexual abuse and slavery of young boys. Not only do people turn a blind eye to this horrendous practice, but they also blame the boy who is being sexually abused. They look down on the abused and then praise and admire the abuser. Also, the men who own these businesses exploit poor families and orphaned children who feel like they have no other choice, and prostitute the young boys. This perpetuates the bacha bazi practice because in a way, the boys are “willingly” selling themselves. Moreover, there is no one to enforce anti-bacha bazi laws because the police themselves are overlooking it and even practicing bacha bazi themselves.

Getting rid of the tradition of bacha bazi is not going to be easy. There are certain societal changes that need to happen, like no more victim blaming, giving more choices and freedoms to the poor in the country, and changing the culture and attitude of the police. This is not something that can be done over night. It will take a lot of money, time, and progression. Bacha bazi is banned in Afghanistan; however, this step is not the only one that needed to happen. The first step is that the men who are committing these crimes need to be held accountable and most are never punished for what they do. I think that if they are, it will show other Afghans that this practice is not okay and it will start to be stigmatized (for the better).

Also, I think there needs to be a huge shift of attitude towards feminism, sex, power, and sexuality. In many situations in Afghanistan, sex is looked as another form of attaining power. This is why many women are abused, sheltered by their husbands, and raped (marital rape too), and why these young boys are raped. Women have another set of societal standards that they have to meet. However, we never talk about the set of standards that men have to meet in Afghan society, which I think contributes in large part to the vicious cycle of abuse. If a man is not married and does not have kids by a certain age, he is looked at as impotent and powerless. If he does not beat his wife when she talks back or does not do what he says, he is looked at as weak. These practices go back to the idea that women are lesser and inferior to men and that men always need to have the most power. If you look at bacha bazi, it makes sense then. These little boys are not seen as men yet, they are just another way for “actual men” to prove their power and superiority. These boys are almost seen as women: weak and inferior.