Reported by Dr Sahar Emran, Discourse Afghanistan
‘Bacha bazi’, which translates literally as ‘boy play’, is a term used in Afghanistan to describe the sexual exploitation of adolescent boys by older male perpetrators. The phenomenon in Afghanistan dates back to a pre-Islamic time, and is considered an ancient tradition. Today it persists as one of the most deplorable violations of human rights in the country.
In a discussion attended by 13 participants, Discourse Afghanistan discussed the reasons behind this tragic practice, the societal perception of the severity of the offense, and the practical steps required to stop the wide-spread sexual abuse of boys across Afghanistan.
For centuries, Afghan men have taken boys as lovers in a type of pedophilia, or pederasty, that has become almost customary among the social elite. The sexual predators (‘bacha baz’) are usually wealthy and socially powerful men, commonly warlords or businessmen. The boys are typically adolescent in age (9-16 years old) and are often orphaned, or from extremely poor families who sell the boys to work as ‘apprentices’, knowing or unknowing of their real fates to be groomed as sexual slaves. In return the bacha baz may financially support the family for some years. The boys often live with their masters, sometimes even alongside the master’s wife and children.
One participant shared that during his adolescence in Afghanistan his own father kept two boys who lived within their family quarters. He recalled that his father treated the boys better than he treated his own children, for example gifting them with expensive gifts such as cars, and that this was a major point of contention in his family.
In 2014 the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) reported that child sexual abuse in Afghanistan was at an all-time high. It is difficult to say exactly how widespread the practice is, and estimates are anecdotal, but almost any Afghan could tell you about a bacha baz of which they know. Bacha bazi is illegal under Afghan law, but little is done to investigate allegations and enforce punishments, with claims that a significant number of the police, military and government officials are complicit in the practice.
Bacha bazi is considered a social taboo, and yet, paradoxically, bacha boys are kept (even flaunted) as symbols of status and wealth. Seeing a bacha trailing behind a powerful man is not an uncommon sight in Afghanistan, and there is usually no effort on the part of the masters to be discreet, nor is there any associated embarrassment. The boys are also commonly referred to as ‘dancing boys’ because they are dressed in women’s clothing and forced to perform as dancers at private parties attended by predominantly middle-aged men.
For those who cannot afford boys, the markets are well stocked with CDs and DVDs of dancing boys. The signs of bacha bazi are visually prevalent in everyday Afghanistan, but are rarely confronted or challenged. While witnesses may disapprove on religious, moral or ethical lines, they will often still turn a blind eye, suggesting a dampening down of society’s perception of the severity of the problem – child sexual abuse does not seem to arouse the same kind of emotional outrage as it does in western societies. How is it that such a globally abhorrent exploitation of children has become a culturally sanctioned practice?
The reasons for such comparatively casual attitudes towards such a deplorable practice are multiple and complex. Attitudes to sex and sexuality are hugely censored in Afghanistan, and as such, victims of sexual abuse are often stigmatised, leaving little scope for compassion. Victims are regarded as tainted and the family reputation is consequently dishonoured. In many cases, the victim may even be blamed for encouraging or allowing it happen.
The historical antiquity and consequent normalisation of bacha bazi in Afghanistan further protects it from condemnation. Speculating on how the perpetrators may be morally justifying their actions, it was suggested in the discussion that most of these men consider their sexual relationships with the boys as being more ethical than sullying the reputation of a woman as the alternative outlet of sexual tension. This may account for why the victims are exclusively boys and not girls, and why the boys are often made to dress up as girls, or it may be the case that young boys are simply more accessible in a society that hides away its women and girls. It still begs the question – are these men in denial of their pedophilic and/or homosexual tendencies, or is the issue really just that of female accessibility? It was pointed out that many of these men have wives, often more than one, so it is likely that the motives behind their transgressions are more complex. In fact there is a common saying among the bacha baz that “women are for children and boys are for pleasure”.
In a country that is deeply entrenched in fundamentalist Islamic values, it is somewhat surprising that bacha bazi is practiced among self-identifying Muslim men, given the necessarily homosexual nature of the practice. The men do not consider the act as a homosexual one, since the boys are pre-pubescent and therefore not perceived as an equivalent. They may also explain it away with the argument that it cannot be homosexuality because they do not love the boys.
The inaction of the government in enforcing punishments for abusers of young boys highlights the moral hypocrisy in a country where homosexuality is vehemently punished. Many social customs in the Afghan culture are at odds with Islamic values, which is perhaps not surprising given that the Quran is read in Arabic – a language not understood by the majority of Afghans, who instead depend on the community’s local mullah to rule on matters of religion.
The subculture of pedophilia in Afghanistan has not existed without detrimental consequences for the wider society. The irreparable psychological inflictions of childhood sexual abuse will surely impact the development of the victims into adulthood. When they out-grow their appeal and are dismissed of their enslavement the boys often turn to a life of prostitution. It is well known that many of the victims themselves become abusers as adults, creating a vicious perpetual chain of abuse. For those who try to pursue a normal life, they carry the stigma of having lived as a bacha.
Arguably, the other social victims of the practice of bacha bazi are women. The notion that “boys are for pleasure” reinforces the perception of women as second-class citizens who are useful only for housework and child-bearing, and are undeserving of male affection and desire. This creates major obstacles for the women’s rights movement, whose biggest challenge has been to change the social perception of women’s roles in a male-dominated patriarchy. Moreover, it was suggested in the discussion that perhaps the repression of female sexuality is a contributing factor to the perpetuation of bacha bazi culture.
Considering solutions for the abolishment of bacha bazi in Afghanistan requisites an in-depth understanding of Afghanistan’s complex cultural and social terrain. Despite the severity of the crime and the prevalence of the practice, the issue has received relatively little media attention. Given the country’s volatile political climate, it is perhaps not surprising that issues like war, poverty and women’s rights would take center stage. However, bacha bazi is a major human rights issue and deserves attention from both Afghan policy makers as well as the international community.
There must be increased pressure on the government to review its child protection laws and to enforce them in practice. Greater efforts must be made to bring to trial suspected sex offenders and to enforce punishments accordingly. This will inevitably have the effect of reinforcing the criminality of bacha bazi and hastening its stigmatization, which in turn will encourage and empower people to report cases within their communities. Importantly, governmental institutions like the police and the military must make every effort to eliminate and punish pedophiles from within their own ranks – a given prerequisite if they are to hold others to account for the same offense.
Perhaps the best strategy for tackling the problem is to educate the community in order to change cultural perceptions of the practice, which seems to drift within a grey area between taboo and tolerance. While formal education was proposed as the most effective way of changing social perceptions, it was pointed out that bacha bazi is not a practice exclusive to the illiterate – indeed, many child abusers are educated to high levels. The strategy must include both formal and cultural education, and the latter may be best achieved by engaging influential community leaders, such as mullahs and tribal elders, as well as teachers, to actively and vocally condemn the practice. While the international community can and should do its part to raise awareness and take measures to intervene, ultimately it is the responsibility of the Afghan people to acknowledge the severity of the problem and to actively resist and reverse the normalisation of this tragic practice.