Dancing boys of Afghanistan

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: The U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 ousted the Taliban from official power there. Right now, the Taliban are once again in control of large parts of the county. Still, a number of practices once banned by the Taliban have re-emerged since 2001. One of them is a disturbing 5,000-year-old practice called bacha bazi. Loosely translated it means "boy for play." It involves young male dancers, often runaways, who are kept and hired out by older Afghan men for parties and weddings. Ghaith Abdul Ahad is based in Beirut for The Guardian Newspaper in London. He's written about the so-called dancing boys, and Ghaith, first of all, describe the scene for us at one of these parties.

GHAITH ABDUL AHAD: Well, it's a bunch of men, Afghan men, bearded sitting cross-legged in the middle of a room. After dinner, there will be a dancer. Usually, the dancer conceals his face, of course, but they pretend they're woman. So they dress like woman, they have lots of bells around their ankles and feet and arms and they dance in a very specific way like in a sort of stomping the feet and shaking the bells and they sing also. And, of course, they are boys.

WERMAN: And if they pretend they're women, why aren't women dancing?

GHAITH: I think it's the 5,000-years-old question, but I ask this question, "Why don't you bring woman?" They say woman are not allowed to dance in front of men, even if they were prostitutes or belly dances." So the society is so � I don't know what words to use, but the society is so weird, it's so difficult, it's so strange that a woman cannot dance in public but a boy can dance in public.

WERMAN: A boy can dance in public dressed up as a woman?

GHAITH: Dressed as a woman and abused. Of course, they are not just dancing boys, they're abused boys. They're like sort of concubines, but they're boys.

WERMAN: And as you say, the bacha dancers are often abused children whose families have abandoned them, and then they end up by getting virtually owned by their master. That sounds like sexual slavery.

GHAITH: Well, it's a mixture between sexual slavery, between abuse, between pedophilia and between dancing. So sometimes they are kind of abused children abandoned by their families. Sometimes they're kidnapped children. Sometimes they are poor children sold by their families for such a job.

WERMAN: Now, you spoke to several of these boys, two in particular, Mustapha and Habib, and they seemed to have different views on the practice. What did they tell you?

GHAITH: Most of it is this dancer in some tiny little village. He's abused. He's young. He hates what he's doing. He's forced to do what he's doing, and he has no choice. Habib, on the other side, he sees himself as a dancer. He loves doing what he's doing. He is apparently a very famous dancer. So these are the two different characters.

WERMAN: Habib told you that people accuse him of being gay but he says he's not. What about the men, though, who keep these boys and are entertained by them. Are they gay?

GHAITH: This is the weirdest thing in the world. In Afghanistan, in the Afghan context, no they are not gay. They have sexual relationships with men, but then if you ask them if they are gays, they say no. Most of the time even when they keep a dancing boy or a bacha bazi or they have sexual relationship with another man, they have a wife, they have a family, they have children, and then they keep this other relationship. This is Afghanistan.

WERMAN: How widespread is this practice, Ghaith, and how accepted is it?

GHAITH: It's very widespread. Of course, in some areas more than other area, but in this belt around Kabul north of Kabul and a bit south of Kabul, you rarely go to a wedding in countryside unless it is like a very conservative Islamic wedding. If you go to like a tribal wedding, you must probably see one, two, three, five bacha bazi boys dancing in the wedding.

WERMAN: Does the Afghan government frown upon this?

GHAITH: It's banned by the Afghan government. It's banned by the police. It's banned by the Afghan government, but because Afghanistan is such a lowest place at the moment, I think the list of priorities of the Afghan government, bacha boys comes like towards the end of the list.

WERMAN: And what happens, Ghaith, to these boys once they've grown up? Because 19 is kind of the cut-off age for being a bacha bazi.

GHAITH: Once the bacha bazi reaches the age when they become men, they get out. They leave it. They leave this thing and then the become men and they marry wives and they have children and they have families.

WERMAN: And are they ever ostracized by society once they get older because people find out they used to be dancing boys?

GHAITH: A man who used to be a dancing boy would, of course, be ostracized but, yeah, they become men.

WERMAN: Ghaith Abdul Ahad has written about the practice of bacha bazi or dancing boys for The Guardian Newspaper. He's been speaking to us from his base in Beirut. Ghaith, thanks very much.

GHAITH: Thank you.