Bacha bāzī (Dari: بچه بازی, lit. "boy play"; from بچه bacheh, "boy", and بازی play, "game") is a slang term in Afghanistan for a wide variety of activities involving sexual relations between older men and younger adolescent men, or boys. The practitioner is commonly called bacha baz (meaning "boy play" in Dari) or simply bach. It may include to some extent sexual slavery and child prostitution. Bacha Bazi is currently reported in various parts of Afghanistan. Force and coercion are common, and security officials state they are unable to end such practices because many of the men involved in bacha bazi-related activities are powerful and well-armed warlords.
During the Afghan Civil War (1996–2001), bacha bazi carried the death penalty under Taliban law. The practice of dancing boys is illegal under Afghan law, but the laws are seldom enforced against powerful offenders and police have reportedly been complicit in related crimes.
A controversy arose after allegations surfaced that U.S. government forces in Afghanistan after the invasion of the country deliberately ignored bacha bazi. The U.S. military justified this by claiming the abuse was largely the responsibility of the "local Afghan government."
A number of Western travellers through Central Asia have reported on the phenomenon of the bacchá. Visiting Turkestan in 1872 to 1873, Eugene Schuyler observed that, "here boys and youths specially trained take the place of the dancing-girls of other countries. The moral tone of the society of Central Asia is scarcely improved by the change". His opinion was that the dances "were by no means indecent, though they were often very lascivious." At this date there were already signs of official disapproval of the practice. Wrote Schuyler:
These "batchas", or dancing-boys, are a recognised institution throughout the whole of the settled portions of Central Asia, though they are most in vogue in Bukhara and the neighbouring Samarkand. In the khanate of Khokand public dances have for some years been forbidden—the formerly licentious Khan having of late put on a semblance of morality and severity.... In Tashkent batchas flourished until 1872, when a severe epidemic of cholera influenced the Mullahs to declare that dancing was against the precepts of the Koran, and at the request of the leaders of the native population, the Russian authorities forbade public dances during that summer.
Schuyler remarked that the ban had barely lasted a year, so enthusiastic were the Sarts for a bazem "dance". He further describes the respect and affection the dancers often received:
These batchas are as much respected as the greatest singers and artistes are with us. Every movement they make is followed and applauded, and I have never seen such breathless interest as they excite, for the whole crowd seems to devour them with their eyes, while their hands beat time to every step. If a batcha condescends to offer a man a bowl of tea, the recipient rises to take it with a profound obeisance, and returns the empty bowl in the same way, addressing him only as Taxir, 'your Majesty', or Kulluk 'I am your slave'. Even when a batcha passes through the bazaar all who know him rise to salute him with hands upon their hearts, and the exclamation of Kulluk! and should he deign to stop and rest in any shop, it is thought a great honour.
He also reports that a rich patron would often help establish a favourite dancer in business after he had grown too old to carry on his profession.
Cushions and rugs were fetched, on which we gratefully reclined, great carpets were spread over the court, the natives puffed at their narghiles, politely offering them to us, and the famous Khivan bachehs made their entrance. Backstage, an orchestra mainly composed of twin flutes, kettle drums, and half a dozen man-sized silver trumpets took up its stand. Opposite us a door left slightly ajar led to the harem quarters. We caught a glimpse of flashing eyes as the inmates thronged to the door to have a good look at us and watch the performance.
The orchestra started up with a curious, plaintive melody, the rhythm being taken up and stressed by the kettle drums, and four bachehs took up their positions on the carpet.
The bachehs are young men specially trained to perform a particular set of dances. Barefoot, and dressed like women in long, brightly coloured silk smocks reaching below their knees and narrow trousers fastened tightly round their ankles, their arms and hands sparkle with rings and bracelets. They wear their hair long, reaching below the shoulders, though the front part of the head is clean shaven. The nails of the hands and feet are painted red, the eyebrows are jet black and meet over the bridge of the nose. The dances consist of sensuous contortions of the body and a rhythmical pacing to and fro, with the hands and arms raised in a trembling movement. As the ballet proceeded the number of dancers increased, the circle grew in size, the music waxed shriller and shriller and the eyes of the native onlookers shone with admiration, while the bachehs intoned a piercing melody in time with the ever-growing tempo of the music. The Heir explained that they were chanting of love and the beauty of women. Swifter and swifter moved the dancers till they finally sank to the floor, seemingly exhausted and enchanted by love. They were followed by others, but the general theme was usually the same.
In 1909, two bacchá performed among the entertainers at the Central Asian Agricultural, Industrial and Scientific Exposition in Tashkent. Noting the public's constant interest in and laughter at the performance, several locally based researchers recorded the lyrics of the songs performed by the two boys (16-year-old Hadji-bacchá and 10-year-old Sayid-bacchá, both from the then Margilan uyezd). The songs were then published in the original "Sart language" (Uzbek) with a Russian translation. It waned in the big cities after World War I, for reasons that dance historian Anthony Shay describes as "Victorian era prudery and [the] severe disapproval of colonial powers such as the Russians, British, and French, and the post-colonial elites who had absorbed those Western colonial values."
Under the Taliban, bacha bazi was declared homosexual in nature, and therefore banned. The Taliban's opposition to bacha bazi was that they considered it incompatible with Sharia Law, and outlawed the practice after coming to power in 1996. As with other homosexual activities, the charge carried the death penalty.
In the 2003 fictional novel The Kite Runner, by Afghani-American author Khaled Hosseini, and in the 2007 movie of the same name, the practice of bacha bazi is depicted. In the plot, the protagonist Amir's half-nephew is forced to become a dancing boy and sexual slave to a high-ranking official of the Taliban government. The same official had, years earlier, raped the boy's father when he was a pre-teen and the official was a teenager, but Amir manages to free the boy and takes him away from Afghanistan to start a new life in the United States.
Clover Films and Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi made a documentary film titled The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan about the practice, which was shown in the UK in March 2010 and aired in the U.S. the following month. Journalist Nicholas Graham of The Huffington Post lauded the documentary as "both fascinating and horrifying." The film won the 2011 Documentary award in the Amnesty International UK Media Awards. The film was broadcast on Channel 4's More4 service.
The issue has been covered by RAWA, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. The practice of bacha bazi prompted the United States Department of Defense to hire social scientist AnnaMaria Cardinalli to investigate the problem, as ISAF soldiers on patrol often passed older men walking hand-in-hand with young boys. British soldiers found that young Afghan men were actually trying to "touch and fondle them," which the soldiers didn't understand.
In December 2010, a cable made public by WikiLeaks revealed that foreign contractors from DynCorp had spent money on bacha bazi in northern Afghanistan. Afghan Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar requested that the U.S. military assume control over DynCorp training centers in response, but the U.S. embassy claimed that this was not "legally possible under the DynCorp contract".
In March 2011, The Documentary series on the BBC World Service addressed the concerns over the increased incidence of Dancing Boys and how this was at odds with the image which many wish to project about the post-Taliban future.
In December 2012, a young man in an "improper relationship" with a commander of the Afghan Border Police killed eight guards. He had made a drugged meal for the guards and then, with the help of two friends, attacked them, after which they fled to neighboring Pakistan.
In a 2013 Vice Media, Inc. documentary titled "This Is What Winning Looks Like", British independent film-maker Ben Anderson describes the systematic kidnapping, sexual enslavement and murder of young men and boys by local security forces in the Afghan city of Sangin. The film depicts several scenes of Anderson along with American military personnel describing how difficult it is to work with the Afghan police considering the blatant molestation and rape of local youth. The documentary also contains footage of an American military advisor confronting the then-acting Police Chief on the abuse after a young boy is shot in the leg after trying to escape a police barrack. When the Marine suggests that the barracks be searched for children, and that any policeman found to be engaged in pedophilia be arrested and jailed, the high-ranking officer insists what occurs between the security forces and the boys is consensual, saying "[the boys] like being there and giving their asses at night." He went on to claim that this practice was historic and necessary. "If [my commanders] don't fuck the asses of those boys, what should they fuck? The pussies of their own Grandmothers?"
In 2011, an Afghan mother in the Konduz province reported that her 12-year-old son had been chained to a bed and raped for two weeks by an Afghan Local Police (ALP) commander Abdul Rahman. When confronted, Rahman laughed and confessed. He was subsequently severely beaten by two U.S. Special Forces soldiers and physically thrown off the base. The soldiers were involuntarily separated from the military, but later reinstated after a lengthy legal case. As a direct result of this incident, legislation was created called the "Mandating America's Responsibility to Limit Abuse, Negligence and Depravity", or "Martland Act" named after Special Forces Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland.
In 2015, The New York Times reported that U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan were instructed by their commanders to ignore child sexual abuse being carried out by Afghan security forces, except "when rape is being used as a weapon of war." American soldiers have been instructed not to intervene—in some cases, not even when their Afghan allies have abused boys on military bases, according to interviews and court records. But the U.S. soldiers have been increasingly troubled that instead of weeding out pedophiles, the U.S. military was arming them against the Taliban and placing them as the police commanders of villages—and doing little when they began abusing children.
According to a report published in June 2017 by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the US military reported 5753 cases of "gross human rights abuses" by Afghan forces, many of which relating to sexual abuse. According to The New York Times, discussing that report, American law required military aid to be cut off to the offending unit, but that never happened. An American Special Forces officer, Capt. Dan Quinn, was relieved of his command and pulled from Afghanistan after fighting with an Afghan militia commander for keeping a boy as a sex slave.
The media coverage of this phenomenon is stable and there were reports about bacha bazi during 2016 and 2017.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bacha bazi.|
- Joseph Goldstein, U.S. Soldiers Told to Ignore Afghan Allies' Abuse of Boys, The New York Times (September 2015)
- Confessions of an Afghan Boy Sex Slave, Newsweek (May 2015)
- Forgotten No More: Male Child Trafficking in Afghanistan, Hagar International (April 2014)
- Kandahar Journal; Shh, It's an Open Secret: Warlords and Pedophilia, The New York Times (February 2002)
- Transition Home for Orphan Boys in Afghanistan
- This is What Winning Looks Like
- 'They don't just dance': the Afghan tradition of recruiting young boys for sex (Television production). Afghanistan: Russia Today. 2016.