Afghan Girls Gain Freedom…By Dressing As Boys

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.


Geri M.

Good God, what extremes sexism goes to. Afghans need to realize that rationalism applies to sex also--it isn't necessary to be crazy, God doesn't demand it.

Allan Y.
.7 years ago

This story is just short of bizarre! Thank goodness, these girls are not drowned as they are commonly done in China.

Judy S.
Judy Stern7 years ago

educate a boy and you educate one person educate a girl and you educate the village. down with stupidity educate the women

jane richmond
jane richmond7 years ago

It is disgusting that these girls have to hide their gender in order to live a "normal" life. Girls should be valued.
Where would these men be without women?? Nowhere!

ChanTlalok Rain C.

thanx Amelia, good comments, God Bless everyone. Allah Akbar. Wakan Tanka.

M B.
M B7 years ago

Well, the problem with much of the world is that it's being run by these ignorant, backward thinking men with no education whatsoever that have been brainwashed by their religious fanatics, and that's what's giving Islam a bad rep. I know that in previous generations, much of the Muslim world was nowhere near as backwards as it is today. Women in Iran and Afghanistan had many rights and were not required to wear the veil. In fact in Iran they were wearing mini skirts in the 60's! Come to think of it I'm not really impressed with Christian extremism either these days, which is running so rampant in our government. Unfortunately these girls do live in a culture where women are not respected, so if it means that they have to dress as boys in order to get an education, freedom, etc. then I guess that's what they have to do. It's sad but it is their reality.

Claire S.
Claire Sayers7 years ago

It is sad that they have to go this far to pretend that they have a son instead of the daughter. Not only are they feeding into the mentality that males are superior to females, they're also intrinsicaly telling their daughters that they don't have value because of something they couldn't control.

Trina Dewes
Trina Dewes7 years ago

Males as a whole on this planet are very very sad and the women that support male insanity, sadder.

Barb F.
Barb F7 years ago

well said Mirza Mudassir Najeeb

Mirza Mudassir Najeeb
Past Member 7 years ago

Alright Alright lets not go all godzilla on Islam here....granted that Muslims of this day and age have, to an extent, abysmally ruined the religion's reputation, but lets just not blindly bash the religion.

you see, an illiterate human being is as good as a wild animal, an illiterate religious fanatic on the other hand is extremely dangerous. when people lack basic education and are cringed and frustrated by the hardships of life with an added measure of some fanatic brainwashing you will have what we have now: the so called islamic extremists. lets just go back about a 100 years into the revered western society's will find extremism and barabarianism of no parallel nothing that compares to what Muslims are being poked for how do you think that western society evolved? i believe it was education. is anyone is going to turn and tell me that there was no religion in western societies back then? btw how many of the western community actually follow their religion anymore? how many of the christians reallly attend their sunday masses? how many jews go back to the synagogue to praise the cannot compare the delapidated muslim cummunities to western modernized counterparts. you want to help? you want to stop this(i want this to stop)? killing and waging war is not the answer...dissemniation of impartial and unbiased knowledge & Education is. i say educate the one's that need education. bring logic & reasoning into the situation. oh well i hope we