I just read a fascinating book by Jenny Nordberg titled The Underground Girls of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys. Although the title catch attention, it does not reveal the many societal issues hidden inside.
Jenny tells the story of parents in Afghanistan raising their daughters disguised as boys (called bacha posh), in a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ manner. When a bacha posh boy reaches puberty he is obliged to turn (back) into a girl. In some cases ‘boys’ continues living as men, refusing to become a woman destined for marriage and childbearing. Not until ‘she’ turns too old to have children, is ‘she’ no longer considered a sexual threat to society, and can be tolerated and sometimes even acknowledged as a grown-up man.
At first glance this is about how families with only daughters can gain the societal status and pride that comes with having sons. A closer look shows it is more to it. Some mothers have had the privileged experience of partly living as a boy, and want to show their daughters what it is like. They explain to Jenny that it has made them stronger. In some cases the father also agrees that the experience can be useful and that in this way their daughters can become someone that push, an otherwise traditional, society forwards. While these parents conform their daughters into traditional male gender roles – at the same time – they challenge these roles by turning their ‘sons’ back into women, ending up more educated and empowered in a way their siblings will never be.
For some families it has been about enabling their daughters to get an education, for others it has been a way to add to the family income by having a son that can work. In the end of the day bacha posh is a mean to tackle socio-economic disadvantage and poverty. An aspect often missing when referring to gender identities in Western Europe.
Asking the bacha posh themselves about why they prefer being boys they all answer with one word: Freedom.
‘That life can include flying a kite, running as fast as you can, laughing hysterically, jumping up and down because it feels good, climbing trees to feel the thrill of hanging on. It is to speak to another boy, to sit with your father and his friends, to ride in the front seat of a car and watch people out on the street. To look them in the eye. To speak up without fear and to be listened to, and rarely have anyone question why you are out on your own in comfortable clothes that allow for any kind of movement. All unthinkable for an Afghan girl.’
As these ‘boys’ learn to believe in themselves, such an empowerment is out of reach to girls. One of the ‘boys’ explains that while women are considered second-class citizens ‘all the work that boys can do, women can do, too. I know it, because I do it’. Another one said ‘it’s.. important to be a bacha posh in the head, to know you can do anything’.
The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mentality only works in a society that does not rely much on administrative controls revealing gender. In other parts of the world, identity documents is an integral part of all services in society, such as renting a flat, enrolling in education or applying for a job. Complex administrative bureaucracy is exactly what makes everyday life impossible for people that want to live contrary to their gender as assigned by birth.
I often feel at unease with those who tend to question transgender person’s right to live according to their preferred identity. But in this particular context I believe it is legitimate to ask, as Jenny does, whether some of these ‘boys’ who want to remain boys after reaching puberty, really would like to be men if they would live in another environment where girls and women have the rights and opportunities they do not enjoy in Afghanistan.
Jenny also discuss the many unwanted daughters that are born. An immediate response may be that this is due to lack of sexual reproductive health and rights. On the contrary, birth control is actually available for free at hospitals, but families rarely use it. When examining closer, it is rather an issues of infrastructure and poverty. Long distances and bad road conditions, such as mud and rain may hinder people from small villages to access the medical centre, other times they may not have a car, or no gas, or none to drive it. A staggering number of 18.000 Afghan women die each year of complication from childbirth, this is about 50 women per day or one every half hour. It illustrates how all policy areas, even that of transport concerns women’s right.
The phenomenon of bacha posh may seem odd for Western people. The book adds ‘a missing piece in the history of women‘, helping us to see the world differently and question our presumptions.
P.s. The notion of ‘odd’ reminded me about a less than three minutes TED talk by Derek Sivers ‘Weird, or just different?’, watch it. To add, a different fascinating reading about disguising as a man is ‘Self-Made Man‘ by Norah Vincent.