Here in the West we have the fortune of being wholly oblivious to the rest of the world’s cultures. Typically, our only exposure to them is processed through entertainment or pundits. Occasionally we do get a snippet of the actual culture, but even that gets filtered through political lenses and morphed into an extension of an agenda. But every now and then, we get to see an aspect of a foreign culture that is unlike anything we are familiar with.
Since 2001, we have been privy to some of the practices of countries in the Middle East. As previously stated, much of this gets turned into political ammunition for various political groups. However, the plight of the bacha bereesh has gone unnoticed. It is shameful considering what the “beardless boys” experience:
The boys are kept by powerful older men, made to dance at special parties, and often sexually abused afterwards. Known as “bacha bereesh” – literally, “beardless boys”, they are under 18, with 14 the preferred age.
Large halls known as “qush-khana” provide the venues for bacha baazi parties where the boys’ “owners” or “kaatah” invite their friends to watch them dancing. Late in the night, when the dancing is over, the boys are often shared with close friends, for sexual abuse.
Allah Daad explained how the boys are enticed into the arrangement. “First we select boys in the village and later on we try to trick them into coming with us,” he said. “Some of them stay with us for money; they get a monthly allowance, and in return we can have them any time we want. They don’t stay with us all the time – they can do their own jobs and then just come to parties with us.”
If a boy refuses to become a bacha bereesh, he said, there is little a man can do to make him. “We can’t force them,” he insisted. “Only the very powerful can have boys with them all the time.”
The owner will take his boy to wedding parties to show him off to other men.
“When the party starts, the boys are dressed in special clothes, called ‘jaaman’,” continued Allah Daad. “Then Mazari dancing bells are tied to their feet and they dance in time to the music.”
Several different types of dances are popular, he explained, each with its own beat. If the boy refuses to dance or performs badly, his master beats him with a long stick.
“We have to do that,” said Allah Daad. “We spend money on these boys, so they have to dance.”
The human rights groups in Afghanistan have had little success in stopping this abuse, partly because of a lack of public cooperation, partly because of the power of the people involved and partly because of a lack of cooperation between the police and the prosecutors. The practice of bacha baazi parties essentially continues to grow without much restraint, this is at least in the north. In the south, the Taliban’s strict rules ironically keep this abuse down to a minimum.
The UN has not even acknowledged this as an issue, despite it being a clear example of child trafficking and sexual exploitation. And neither have any of the advocacy groups that often discuss human rights issues in that region. Perhaps if they were female it would garner those groups’ attention.
The truly saddest part about this is not just the pervasiveness of the abuse or even its social acceptance, but that the boys are stigmatized for it:
Mohammad Zaher Zafari, head of the northern branch of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, bemoaned the government’s inability to take action.
“Unfortunately I have to say that this type of dancing, sexual abuse and even the sale of boys has been going on for years,” he said. “It is a despicable culture. The boys involved are usually poor, underage or orphans, and they are forced into it by their economic circumstances.
“It’s shocking from both a humanitarian and a legal point of view. The boys who do this have a very dark future ahead of them – they will always be ashamed and they grow into frustrated human beings, and, pose a threat to community. The government has taken no action on this issue, and child abuse is still being practiced.”