Redefining gender roles
Bacha Posh—a unique Afghan social tradition, attempts to undo gender while simultaneously recasting stereotypes.
The term "Bacha Posh" literally translated from the local Dari language means a "girl dressed like a boy". There are families who bring up their daughters as sons and, once they reach puberty, the girls usually must return to being girls. Parents who have no sons prefer to convert one of their daughters into a Bacha Posh to raise their social standing. In a society where having a male child is of utmost importance and a matter of pride, Bacha Posh provides social relief.
The Bacha Posh is treated like any other male but must unlearn her gender-defined identity on turning 17 or 18. Her speech, her walk, her mobility outside the home, all these aspects have to change. It is a practice that dates back centuries, but it is not easy to accept nor is its provenance known.
In almost every era of history, there have been women who took on the role of men when being a woman became impossible to sustain. Jenny Nordberg argues that there were hundreds of women who lived as men between the 16th and 19th centuries. Many were discovered to be women only when their bodies were carried off the battlefield. They took on a male identity for reasons similar to the Bacha Posh in Afghanistan today. Some needed to support themselves and their families. Others needed it to escape the harsh traditional norms for women to get the freedom they sought.
As historians have documented, by the 19th century, in Europe, the frequency of women who dressed as men seemed to diminish. The reason was, "an increasingly organised society where various forms of civil registration such as border controls and mandatory medical examinations for soldiers made it more difficult for women to pass as men."
There is a close link between gender and freedom. In Afghanistan, just as it is globally, freedom is a very important idea. Defining one's gender becomes a concern only after freedom is achieved and Bacha Posh is a struggle for freedom. According to the United Nations, Save the Children and the Thompson Reuters Foundation, Afghanistan is the worst country in the world to be born a girl, with the average life expectancy of a woman being 44 years. Being born a girl in Afghanistan is to be condemned to a half-life. At best, being a girl child is viewed with disappointment. At worst, it is a humiliation which calls for desperate measures, because having even one boy child is mandatory for good standing and reputation while no sons provokes contempt.
To overcome these hurdles, some Afghan families choose for their daughter to be Bacha Posh. The practice has existed right under the surface as a way to creatively buck a system of gender segregation, where being born a girl always required survival efforts and a resilience difficult to imagine. There is deep gender division and gender-based discrimination, to which Bacha Posh can be a short-term alternative. Being unaware of its future consequences, the girl suffers psychological trauma, identity crises and more.
It is hard for a country with harsh gender segregation to allow for such deviation, but this practice predates Islam in Afghanistan. Because of the prevalent "don't ask, don't tell" norm, each Afghan family will keep the secret of such a child to themselves, which is why there are no exact numbers on Bacha Posh in the country. There are many reasons for Afghan families to pretend that their girls are boys. According to the New York Times, these are poverty and need for the girls to work outside the home, social pressure to have sons and, in some cases, the superstition that doing so can actually lead to the birth of a real boy.
It is not difficult to make a girl child a Bacha Posh. Just cut her hair and dress her in typical Afghan men's clothing. There are no specific legal or religious proscriptions against the practice in Afghanistan. Sons are more valued in Afghanistan, since tribal culture permits only sons to inherit the father's wealth and pass down the family name; families without boys are the objects of pity and contempt.
Although cross-dressing is something which people in most societies are not comfortable with, in Afghanistan it is one form of victimising women. For Afghan women, freedom has a very simple meaning – to avoid an unwanted marriage and to be able to leave the house. Being a Bacha Posh is a price that girl children pay for freedom; to study, to have a profession, to marry. However, while they initially gain some freedom, there is always the fear that their identity would be discovered, while the transition back to reality can leave a permanent psychological scar.
Bacha Posh is a struggle for a little freedom of girls in a highly patriarchal, male-dominated society.
(The author works as a Gender Officer in Action Aid International, Afghanistan. The article is in special arrangement with South Asia Monitor. The views expressed are strictly personal.)