Bacha Bazi: A Brief Overview in Preparation for Diversionary Theatre’s Production of The Boy Who Danced on Air
By Anthony Methvin
As we prepare for Diversionary Theatre’s Spring 2016 World Premiere production of The Boy Who Danced on Air by Tim Rosser and Charlie Sohne, we wanted to provide a concise overview of the subject of the show so you have a solid foundation of information to build thoughtful conversations from. It is very important to be able to discuss the issues, culture, and politics this show addresses in a clear, informed, and respectful way. If you’re inclined to explore the subject further, a selection of links to a few of the many sources available to help you to learn more is also included.
Bacha bazi (bah-cha BAH-zee), which translates to “boy play”, is a cultural practice in Afghanistan, reaching back centuries, in which older men engage boys as young as 9, until they are aged out by the time they become adults at 18, as dancers, singers, sexual objects, and their property. Reports of rape, sexual abuse, kidnappings, and murder stemming from this practice are commonplace.
The men, known as bacha baz, often provide the fathers of the families that the boys belong to (the mothers and boys themselves have no say in the matter) with monetary compensation in exchange for being able to take the boys, train them, and keep them. There are also men who have stables of young boys that can be loaned or rented out to parties of men, depending on the willingness and status of the men involved.
The boys wear women’s clothing, however they are seen and referred to as boys. There is no pretense that they are women, transgender, or even gay. If asked why women are not used as dancers, the answer is usually that it isn’t culturally acceptable for women to perform in this way. Sexual aspects of the practice often remain unspoken or denied, while the “mentorship” is highlighted.
During the Taliban’s rule (1994-2001), the practice was punishable by death. After the Taliban’s fall, it remained illegal, but to this day the government turns a blind eye. They feel that in their current political climate they have more pressing issues. Even as recently as 2015 there have been allegations that US soldiers were instructed to ignore child sexual abuse being carried out by Afghan security forces unless rape was being used as a weapon of war.
PBS’s Frontline made a powerful 1-hour documentary called The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan in 2010 that helped bring this subject into the spotlight and also inspired the writers of the musical. It’s available to watch online for free at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/dancingboys/. The website has a good deal of contextual and follow up material as well. Below are links for additional reading.
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