For centuries, families in Afghanistan with no male heirs have turned to the tradition of bacha posh. Daughters are transformed into sons — their hair cut, names changed, dresses swapped out for boys’ clothing. The young girl is reintroduced into the community where neighbors and extended family members dutifully accept the charade. The new son brings honor to the family —
From the comfort of my American home, it’d be easy to dismiss this age-old custom from my family’s homeland as fundamentally backwards. No doubt the practice perpetuates the idea that girls are less desirable or valuable than boys, a damaging message being sent loud and clear by these young women’s own mothers and fathers. The perceived necessity for bacha poshs only demonstrates the depth of misogyny in a country where just the veneer of maleness can convert a child from a burden into a source of pride.
And yet my righteous indignation as quickly melts into desperate optimism. Most of what we know about bacha poshs — which literally means “dressed up as a boy” in Dari — is anecdotal, but it unquestionably frees these young women from many of the oppressive restrictions that mark an Afghan girl’s life. She can attend school, leave her home unchaperoned, even work at her father’s side.
Azita Rafaat, a former bacha posh, went on to become an educated parliamentarian. Bibi Hakmeena similarly became a mujahideen fighter and then a politician. A third former bacha posh became a provincial head of Afghanistan’s Women’s Affairs Department. I once read the story of a nurse-anesthetist who, after being struck by her husband, actually had the gall to strike back, perhaps because of her bacha posh past. He never hit her again.
These are just a few cases, but one can imagine how great the impact could be in a society where even adult women barely achieve second-class status. Giving a handful of girls the chance to look boys in the eye, to stroll through their neighborhood streets without hiding their faces, to sit in a classroom, to voice their opinions — all seem to plant the seeds of aspiration and entitlement both among the bacha poshs themselves but every girl around them, too.
It is important to remember that the bacha posh, a young child, cannot consent to her relatives toying with her gender identity. She is not warned of the psychological effects of the transformation, not prepared for having her freedoms and self-confidence stripped away once she reaches marrying age.
Yet I choose to believe that some good does come from this tradition. We’ve learned from these twice-undone women that something lingers with them. When the veil goes back on and these boy-girls become women, some of their confidence remains. It’s part of their adult identity and part of what they teach the next generation of Afghan girls.
Nadia Hashimi is an Afghan-American pediatrician living outside Washington, D.C. Her debut novel, “The Pearl That Broke Its Shell” will be released this week.