Families in Afghanistan face a social pressure that is virtually unknown to most Americans: there, the imperative to have male children is so great that some families disguise their daughters as boys. This creates a fascinatingly fluid gender binary that seems, in some cases, to go both ways, with varying implications (for another angle, see my post from last month about Afghan boys who dress as girls for older male companions).
In an article for the New York Times, Jenny Nordberg details this phenomenon, which stems from a fundamental inequity: in Afghan culture, boys are valued far more highly than girls, and bring both honor and income to their families. The practice is surprisingly common, and the children are referred to as “bacha posh” – not boys or girls, but, literally, “dressed up as a boy.” It’s a strange gender-neutral descriptor, to say the least. For the girls who are asked, usually by their parents, to gender-bend, the results are mixed – although they have access to freedoms they would never have experienced otherwise, their time as a boy is short-lived. And for women who are told, after growing up as a boy, to enter an arranged marriage and be a traditional Afghan wife, life is nearly impossible.
For Azita Rafaat, a member of the Afghan Parliament, the choice to disguise her daughter as a boy was political. The mother of girls, she could only run again for Parliament with her husband’s permission, and he wanted to keep trying for a son. Rafaat’s constituents, too, seemed obsessed with her lack of a male heir, and her husband was questioned and embarrassed. So one of the girls, Manoush, was transformed into the male Mehran. Although her relatives know her real gender, it seems to be “enough to keep the family functioning – for now.”
In other circumstances, the disguise is a financial necessity. Boys can work in stores; girls can’t. But the real challenge comes when bacha posh are told to leave their male identities behind. Some bacha posh completely embrace their lives as boys. A bacha posh named Zahra explained, “People use bad words for girls,” she said. “They scream at them on the streets. When I see that, I don’t want to be a girl. When I am a boy, they don’t speak to me like that.”
But some bacha posh don’t have a choice. When they’re told to get married, they must suddenly return to being women, a role they don’t always know how to fill. One woman explained, “I had to learn how to sit with women, how to talk, how to behave.” She was uncomfortable socializing with other women and felt anxious even about greeting them. This is the obvious downside to such apparent fluidity: once gender roles are learned, it’s very hard to switch back. But because women are still fundamentally powerless, their gender identities are really not their own.
I was struck, at the end of the article, by a quote from Rafaat, who also spent time as a child dressed as a boy, and who now works in the Afghan Parliament for women’s rights. She said that she saw very little impetus to change Afghan women’s situation, despite great investments from the outside world. “They think it’s all about the burqa,” she said. “I’m ready to wear two burqas if my government can provide security and a rule of law. That’s O.K. with me. If that’s the only freedom I have to give up, I’m ready.”
What a powerful statement – and certainly an expression of the extent to which outside aid seems to be failing Afghan women. But the stories of the basha posh are inspiring, to the extent that girls are getting a taste of the power that should be due to them. What is depressing, and disturbing, is how quickly their culture expects them to conform to servile gender roles when they are no longer children, and how they must abandon their connection to their gender in order to gain this power.
Photo from Flickr.