If you think it’s challenging to raise girls in this country, you might spare a thought for parents of daughters in Afghanistan, where giving birth to a daughter, rather than a son, is — sadly, terribly, horribly — considered a failure on her parents’ part, and where girls are deprived of many of the freedoms granted to boys.
A fascinating piece in Tuesday’s New York Times examines a startling practice that has grown out of this sad state of affairs: parents who dress their girls as boys, passing them off as sons for years until they reach puberty. A girl so disguised is called a “bacha posh,” which translates, literally as “dressed up as a boy.”
The Times’ Jenny Nordberg reports:
Afghan families have many reasons for pretending their girls are boys, including economic need, social pressure to have sons, and in some cases, a superstition that doing so can lead to the birth of a real boy. Lacking a son, the parents decide to make one up, usually by cutting the hair of a daughter and dressing her in typical Afghan men’s clothing. There are no specific legal or religious proscriptions against the practice. In most cases, a return to womanhood takes place when the child enters puberty. The parents almost always make that decision.
In a land where sons are more highly valued, since in the tribal culture usually only they can inherit the father’s wealth and pass down a name, families without boys are the objects of pity and contempt. Even a made-up son increases the family’s standing, at least for a few years. A bacha posh can also more easily receive an education, work outside the home, even escort her sisters in public, allowing freedoms that are unheard of for girls in a society that strictly segregates men and women.
Of course, it’s not always easy for these girls to give up the freedom they have enjoyed as boys when their parents decide it’s time for them to revert to their true gender, often in order to marry.
Shukria Siddiqui, now 36 and a married mother of three who works as an anesthesiology nurse at a hospital in Kahul, speaks of the difficulty of her “change back” to a woman at age 20, after thinking of herself as a man — often clad in jeans and a leather jacket — for years. Separated from women for so long, she was suddenly thrown in with them and, she said, “had to learn how to sit with women, how to talk, how to behave.”
Though she now thinks of her years as a boy as her “best time,” she also rather wishes they had never happened, saying, “For me, it would have been better to grow up as a girl, since I had to become a woman in the end.”
Another woman interviewed in the Times, Azita Rafaat, believes her time spent as a boy in childhood made her “more energetic” and “more strong” and better able to relate to men. She and her husband have begun dressing their youngest of four daughters as a boy. “Yes, this is not normal for you,” Rafaat told Nordberg. “And I know it’s very hard for you to believe why a mother is doing these things to their youngest daughter. But I want to say for you, that some things are happening in Afghanistan that are really not imaginable for you as a Western people.”
We may not be able to imagine, but as mothers whose daughters have so much more freedom than daughters in Afghanistan have, we can certainly try to understand.