Powerful Afghan Men & Their Dancing Boys

Back when I was in college I did my honors thesis on homosexuality in the Middle East. After a fair amount of research I found there are homosexual traditions in the Middle East that are accepted despite the fact that homosexuality is punishable by death under Islamic law. Modern, Western gay relationships are out, but what you find are one of two things – 1) cross dressing, and 2) pedophilia. Think of Middle Eastern cross dressers as pre-op transexuals who live their lives as women. Despite the segregation of men and women, the cross-dressed men are allowed to spend private time with women outside their family (which is unheard of). The pedophilia was well structured and took the form of young “apprentices” to older “masters”. The older men didn’t consider themselves gay because they would have wives and families. The boy was just something on the side.

The other night Frontline had a program the other day on “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan”. Afghanistan has a tradition that’s called “bacha bazi” (بچه بازی) which literally translates to “baby play”. Poor young boys are recruited by an older wealthy men, their families paid pretty well for the boys, and they’re “trained” to entertain men. Not stated in the documentary, but pretty clear from watching which boys are recruited, is the fact that they’re trying to find and recruit kids who are probably gay. It probably also explains why the families are willing to  sell the boys – I doubt they’d sell their butch, rugged son, but it’s not such a big deal to sell the kids who they suspect to be gay.

The entertainment consists of dressing them as women and having them dance for a group of men. Curiously, the dancing part is quite modest – like women dancers, hardly any skin shows.

The issue is that after the performance their “master” (owner) may lend the boy to another man for the evening and sex is expected. From a western perspective this is literally sexual slavery of minors. The other big problem is that while some of the boys manage to fit in (the femmy gay ones), ones who resist and cause problems are often killed.

What’s interesting is that it’s all practiced pretty openly. Frontline even showed one case where bacha bazi was the entertainment for men attending a wedding. And most of the men who involved are powerful, with standing in the community – military commanders, police chiefs, businessmen, etc.

When I was in college studying sociology and Middle Eastern studies one of the big challenges was to try to look at cultures from their own eyes – cultural relativism. The Afghans who are outraged about bacha bazi are typically western educated, English speakers, or strict Muslims (the Taliban banned bacha bazi). I think part of their outrage comes from that fact that rich, powerful “straight” men with families might actually be gay or bisexual. Yes, there are serious exploitation issues with bacha bazi, but I think homophobia is a big part of the opposition to it. If the boys were older and things were more consensual (like western drag queen) many of the opponents would probably still be opposed to it.

However, the traditional Afghan seems to pretty much accept bacha bazi, and in a culture that isn’t all that fond of educating women and makes women wear burqas, it’s really not that surprising. Human life just isn’t intrinsically valued in Afghanistan like it is in the west. All men are not created equal. In Afghanistan if you’re male and wealthy you get to do pretty much what you want. And if you’re poor or female your life will be dictated by others with more power. Women literally can’t show their faces in public and some poor boys are required to have sex with older wealthy men.

So ultimately this is less about a sex crime and more about principles of basic equality. You can pass all the laws you want outlawing bacha bazi (as the Taiban did), but it will have little effect if you don’t instill in people that everyone is inherently equal and that there are certain human right everyone just gets without earning them.

If you’re sitting there thinking the Afghans are so horrible for accepting bacha bazi, think again. Many in the “Tea Party” movement seem to have big problems with the fact that the country is being led by a black man and say pretty horrible things about him based solely on his skin color. Others spend millions of dollars fighting civil rights for gay people. Others don’t like to ride in airplanes with Muslims. Then there are the thousands of hate crimes that are reported every year with some people getting killed simply because of the color of their skin, or their religion or their sexual orientation. We’re really not in a position to throw stones at the Afghans.

11 thoughts on “Powerful Afghan Men & Their Dancing Boys

  1. An interesting point of view but a few comments.

    1) Afghanistan is not in the Middle East – it’s a personal pet peeve that the West constantly says it is part of the middle east.

    2) You make quite a few generalizations though I agree with a great deal of what you said. For example, not all women are forced to be completely covered in public. Without a doubt there are massive injustices in the country, and I still think being an afghan women (in certain families) is a horrible fate. However the country and all of its tribes are much more complicated than what you’ve described. There was a time when Kabul was extremely liberal, women wore skirts and men and women bathed in the outdoor poor at the Intercontinental Hotel.

    I do applaud your comments about American. It has its share of racist and ignorant people.

  2. @Susan – Afghanistan is in the Middle East. The only other term I’ve heard for the area is the Near East. It is true that like Iran, they’re not Arabs, but that doesn’t mean they’re not Middle Eastern. If that’s not the case, then why does every university have Iranian and Afghan studies assigned to their Department of Middle Eastern Studies?

    Afghanistan is grouped with the Middle East for a pretty simple reason – language and culture. Iran is Middle Eastern, and Pashto is a very close linguistic sibling of Persian. Now, Iran is considered Middle Eastern because of geography (on the Gulf) and because they were ruled for a time by Arabs (who changed their written language to use Arabic script).

  3. I would like to mention that it is wrong to say the Taliban “Banned” the Bachi Bazi. I’m sure for most of the tribal chiefs, elders, warlords, and other powerful figures had it taken away from them under threat of murder. However, the taliban was well known for snatching boys for their own use.

    Some of the older kids can tell you a time when Taliban trucks would drive through their neighborhoods and they would have to go running, otherwise risk getting snatched by a a group of them for sexual favors. This was also documented by many journalists as well.

    The taliban were an outside political force, unlike the tribal/warlord power structure that draws from the local communities. Largely comprised of students from the madrasas in Pakistan as a result of the afghan refugees and millions of fatherless children. Who knows what types of sexual exploitation went on in these madrasas but it’s easy to see how the Taliban students would grow older with a completely warped view of sexuality completely separated from females. I’ve also heard reports in both the 1980s Russian occupation and post 2001 US occupation that rebel fighters often recruit young boys from madrasas ostensibly for jihad only to have them serve sexual favors for commanders and tribal leaders.

    Kuni Bachi Baz is a well known epithet for young kids and this is something that permeates Afghan culture, regardless of how “Islamic” one is. For a society that shuns visual images of females it is not surprising.

    To Susan, virtually all females except for children and elderly are covered. Only a few times will you see uncovered females. Possibly in Kabul, or separated areas such as universities. It is very rare to see uncovered females in the streets and outside of a few cities (where it is still rare) it is virtually impossible for a woman to be uncovered.

  4. Too bad you went all pc at the end.

    Up to then you were really thinking, then you got all weak and scared to really have an opinion and yanked out the “America is bad” card and waved it around to show everyone that you really think that enslaving boys and women systematically, forcing people to hide themselves in public, cutting off hands and feet, whipping women for wearing trousers, and so forth is somehow the equivalent of what is going on here in the U.S.

    May I address one point — you claim that many in the Tea Party dislike Obama because he’s black. Prove it with more than a few photos. Explain why blacks voted for Obama overwhelmingly and still support him nearly to a person. Isn’t that racism, too?

    The history of America is one of an imperfect nation that has struggled to work toward its ideals. It isn’t perfect yet, but it certainly does not deserve to be compared to a “religion” that is actually a systematic political system of oppression.

  5. You are incorrect to think that blacks in America are not racists. Many are. Like the rest of the world, the people of the US are separated into two groups. Nice, decent people and ignorant, violent people. It has nothing to do with the color of your skin. Nice people of all races do not want to reside with ignorant, violent people of any race. You need to keep in mind that without white votes, Obama would not be president. I find this man arrogant and racist even though he’s president. The tea party does not have a problem with Obama being black. They have a problem with his being a socialist and not experienced enough to be the president.

  6. @Abigail – Medicare is a form of socialism. Unemployment benefits are a form of socialism. Homeless shelters are a form of socialism. Food stamps are a form of a socialism. Even Social Security is socialist since what you pay into it isn’t necessarily what you get out of it.

    You have to be cold and heartless to have a problem with socialism. The fact that you see it as a dirty word says volumes about how much weight people should put in your opinion.

    And yes, racists come in many colors. But Obama is hardly a racist. Very slightly heterosexist, perhaps, but I’ve never seen him be racist.

  7. Why are we debating cultural norms in America? Obama being black and the tea parties racism don’t even come to mind when I read about young boys being raped and robbed of their self worth. Who cares that republicans are hypocritical idiots! That argument pales in comparison to the molestation and perversion of a culture that accepts dancing chi boys. The ancient emporers and other royalty often used young boys for sexual gratification because there was no birth control in ancient times and other reasons I can’t explain. Modern people have no excuse for raping boys. I would like to think that the world has learned from the past but the middle east just keeps its savagery and ignores the rights of mankind. What nasty ass pieces of Shiite. And what a waste of life for all the souls they ruin. I have read that these boys usually end up prostituting, using drugs and living the rest of their lives as criminals in a society that chooses to look the other way. It’s a real shame.

  8. You equate homosexuality with pedophilia.


    The issue is the sexual exploitation of children. You didn’t even address the fact that across the Middle East and North Africa, only the passive partner is considered “gay”…the top is not. So your assessment isn’t remotely accurate regarding the politics of gay being socially accepted or objectionable.

    Boys dressed as girls are used because of gender segregation across Islamic society. The bizarre side effect has been the normalization of homosexual behaviors (which are considered immoral) and cross dressing.

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