Girls to boys: Mehran Rafaat (left), 7, stands next to her 11-year-old twin sisters, Benafsha and Behishta, outside their family home in Qala-e-Naw, Badghis Province, Afghanistan. When she was five, Mehran’s female identity was changed by her parents to male because of societal pressure to have a boy in the family. Her previous name was Manush, a girl’s name. When Mehran reaches puberty, she will likely resume the identity of a female so she can marry. Photo: Adam Ferguson
The Underground Girls Of Kabul: In Search Of A Hidden Resistance In Afghanistan
Author: Jenny Nordberg
Bacha posh. I’d never read much about this traditional subculture in Afghanistan where girls are dressed like boys through their childhood.
The practice is carried out not only to raise the status of a family that hasn’t produced any sons but also to give girls the chance to obtain freedom and opportunities – going to school, playing freely in the outdoors, getting a job … the kind of things most of us take for granted.
It’s a tradition practised by families who have not been able to conceive boys for various reasons.
Some believe having a daughter masquerade as a boy may increase their chances of conceiving a son next while for many, pretending they have a son just lessens the stigma – in Afghanistan, you are to be pitied if you have not conceived a boy. Shamed, even.
And often, a man takes another, younger wife if he hasn’t been “given” a son by his present wife – yes, ignoring the biological truth that the gender of a child is determined by the male chromosome.
The Underground Girls Of Kabul tells us about these girls through three characters:
Azita, a female Parliamentarian whose youngest daughter is chosen to pose as her only son; Zahra, the tomboy teenager who struggles with puberty and resists her parents’ attempts to turn her into a woman; Shukria, who was forced to marry and have three children after living for 20 years as a man; and Shahed, an Afghan special forces soldier, still in disguise as an adult man.
Written by journalist Jenny Nordberg (who contributed to a Pulitzer Prize winning series on the issue in The New York Times in 2005), the book unearths the practice that was introduced to help girls escape, even for a few years, their female fate in a country that puts little value on them.
As boys, the bacha posh get a taste of a world that is forbidden to them if they didn’t disguise themselves.
They get bigger portions of food, they get to kick a ball around with their friends outside, they get to shout, scream, squeal, and don’t have to look away when talking to others, particularly boys. And they have access to education.
It’s shocking and it’s sad for an outsider to read about. But for Afghanis, this is an accepted practice that’s necessary in a country that offers barely any options for girls.
It is a matter of survival. While it is impossible not to feel moved by the stories and the narrative, Nordberg consolidates her skills as a journalist to keep her narrative from evoking melodrama. Readers come away informed about the reality of the complex lives of women in a country that has suffered through much through the decades.
It’s without doubt an exploration on gender politics, and an insight into what it really means to be born a woman in this environment. For some, as Nordberg highlights in her book, the practice of bacha posh is only logical.
It’s one way of pushing the boundaries, of testing the limits of what girls can achieve in such a restrictive environment.
To others, however, it creates an identity crises – the transition back into womanhood can be traumatic.
Nordberg’s character Shukria talks about how, when she lies with her husband at night, she feels confused.
“Sometimes it is very hard for me to be in bed with my husband because he is a man. I think I am also a man. I feel like a man myself, on the inside.”
Zahra, for example, refuses to transition back into womanhood to be married off. She’s had a taste of what life is like for a man and to return to womanhood seems impossible.
“I will refuse to get married. My no is a no! When I grow up, I will go to the West … nobody can force me to do anything,” she says.
Aziza is my favourite character in the book. Her story summarises Nordberg’s narrative quite cohesively.
Aziza was a bacha posh for five years and she reckons that the exposure and opportunities she experienced as a boy contributed to her becoming a Parliamentarian. She is brave and determined.
And, to some extent, she is a trailblazer. She was, after all, for a short period, treated as an equal.
However, she married a man who beat her and her own daughter becomes a bacha posh as a matter of necessity.
As Aziza muses, “We know what it is like to be men. But they know nothing of us.”
And therein lies the problem.