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.

Playground for the World’s Sexual Fantasies

Kamala Kempadoo begins her monograph, Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race, and Sexual Labor, with the following quote: “Territories that once served as ex-havens for the colonial elite are today frequented by sex tourists, and several of the island economies now depend upon the region’s racialized, sexualized image” (1). This statement sets the tone for the rest of her book as she analyzes the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race with economics in the Caribbean. Kempadoo argues that there is an engrained “heteropatriarchy” seen through Caribbean societies, which draw from colonial theory to continue oppressive practices to further economic advances in the islands (9). Sexing the Caribbean strives to provide its audience with a dynamic, non-Western ethnocentric understanding of the history and role of prostitution and sex labor in the Caribbean today.

Sexing the Caribbean begins with the historical background of colonial involvement in the islands, like Jamaica, Trinidad, and Curacao, and how race came to be sexualized. Kempadoo retells the history of different areas in the Caribbean being settled by colonial powers, which imposed new social hierarchal frameworks that were mostly based on race (5). Even after emancipation from these white men, white bias still defined sexual relations as local men began to prefer one skin color of women to another. Here the introduction of the “SanDom,” or “a migrant woman of lightly brown skin tone with a slender though shapely body and loosely curling hair,” became a common reference in society (144). Kempadoo continues to explain the impact of migrants to the countries located in the Caribbean, not only racially but also economically. Through her retelling of women’s internalization of gender roles and their role in society as sex workers, she highlights the intersection of race and economics. The intersectionality of race and economics was explored by Kempadoo in her analysis of sex laborers and the job opportunities available to them based on race. It was intriguing to read about how women in the Caribbean took pride in the fact that—for the majority of sex laborers—they envisioned themselves as their own boss, creating their own hours; it was a form of women empowerment in a paternalistic society. Sex became a source of power for women as they “capitalized upon white men’s sexual desire for women of color” (54). Women in this environment established their dominance and power by setting boundaries with clients—such as certain body parts like lips and breast were off limits—and defined the notion of romance and love for their community. Through this loophole of empowerment, women of the Caribbean found a way to be economically sufficient and gain power in society. Although Kempadoo champions the strength of these women of color, she also recognizes that not every woman was so lucky to gain a hold in society. For example, she touches on stories of women acting as “pimps” of other women, and men controlling the income and working hours of a prostitute. Just as women affected each other, men visiting the Caribbean also played a role in determining the economics of prostitution. As tourism plays a huge part in the economics of the Caribbean, Kempadoo also interviewed many male tourists looking for female company. She states that, “The woman are not, in the imaginations of the men, prostitutes who are having sex for money, but are perceived as poor women who genuinely enjoy the sex” (123). This particular framing shows the different global perspectives of prostitution and how the local interpretation based on colonial history and job opportunities greatly differ.

Kamala Kempadoo says that her work draws on the foundations of Third World feminism, which is based on gender relations and “material-feminist traditions” (11). As written about in her work, she relies on a bottom up approach to her qualitative research through interviews, recording personal stories, and local opinions and myths (11, 65). Kempadoo shares little research has been done on this region of the world in regards to the “historical racialization of social relations” (55, 64). Therefore, the basis of her data collection—before she could conduct any interviews—relied on the works of scholars, historians, and anthropologists (17). Synthesizing the information of other scholars is how Kamala Kempadoo situates herself in conversation with other authors. By learning the structure of society and the influence of cultural in specific areas, Kempadoo could contextualize the impact that colonial history had on defining race and sexuality in the Caribbean. Important structural factors Kempadoo had to analyze ware the legal codes written about prostitution. I found this aspect of her work to be a strength of her argument as it gave the readers a better understanding of the time and history of how government played a part in regulating prostitution (89). As well as relational structures, the author continually references to the importance of needing to know the local slang, like SanDom, to comprehend the complexity of the history and role sex laborers play in everyday society.

While reading Sexing the Caribbean, Kamala Kempadoo did a brilliant job of both intriguing and greatly disturbing her readers. As a political science major, I find one of the most intriguing features of sex work in the Caribbean to be the role of the government institutionalizing legal regulations for prostitution by women, but also, on the flip side, criminalizing the economic transactions of sex by homosexual or bisexual men. This in depth analysis of the intersectionality of politics and sexuality was very interesting to me. One story she including about “The Happy Camp in Curacao” was particularly disturbing and illustrative of the oppressive situation surrounding sex (90). Kempadoo did a wonderful job of drawing her readers in through similar stories of how men referred to workingwomen. One quote that stood out to me was a man referring to a woman as “butt ugly” (124). The way Kempadoo reflects the cultural interpretation of “hegemonic constructs of sexuality” served her purpose as hooking the audience into the conversation about sexuality and politics in the Caribbean (2).

Another area I thought Kempadoo did justice in explaining was the role of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean. Kempadoo acknowledges that “AIDS is now established as the leading cause of death in the Caribbean” and the “initial problem of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean is traced to gay sex tourism” (167). She traces the history of the epidemic as well as explains the role this disease has in the local communities regarding gender roles, sexuality, and economic consequences. One question I had for the author was how the organizations targeting vulnerable populations, such as female sex laborers, and the government interacted since the government regulated these “vectors of disease” in the first place and criminalized homosexual acts (169, 170). Another question I had for Kempadoo is why she did not focus on organizations—if any—trying to reach homosexual sex laborers as she previously states the illness was introduced via “gay sex tourism” (167). Also I have questions about how the these organizations were continuing to operate within a society that regulates and perpetuates a stigma of discrimination against sex workers. Many scholars forget to include the vulnerable populations, such as sex workers, migrants, and adolescents, but Kamala Kempadoo successfully created a mental picture of the complexity of the HIV/AIDS issue at hand in the Caribbean. As someone who has an interest in medical humanities, her inclusion of medical violence as a disturbing aspect of daily life was very effective. She discusses how although “the government tolerates all activities in the name of servicing male sexual desires” many at risk groups for contracting HIV are denied healthcare and treatment (102).

Kamala Kempadoo effectively outlines the influence of colonial history on the racial and economic boundaries seen today in the Caribbean, especially when discussing women in sex work. She also includes a political aspect to her analysis, which adds another dimension to her argument that gender roles were established by colonial powers and instilled in local culture. Kempadoo demonstrates strength as an author by equally intriguing and disturbing her audience as well as providing an informative historical and legal context. Sexing the Caribbean should definitely be read by students participating in a Gender and Sexuality Studies course, if they have an interest in human rights and prostitution, or would simply like to be well aware of the impact of colonialism has today on social structures and sex work.

Kempadoo, Kamala. Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race, and Sexual Labor. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.