In this edition of Foreign Affairs Unedited, author Nadia Hashimi discusses the tradition of Bacha Posh and her recent article "Afghanistan's Female Sons," with Foreign Affairs Deputy Web Editor Rebecca Chao.


CHAO:  So, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your background.  When did you first come across this practice of bacha posh?

HASHIMI:  So, it's interesting -- when you grow up, within a culture, it's sometimes hard, I've realized, to pin down when's the first time you heard about something.  It's kind of like, you know, when was the first time you heard about the Easter bunny.  And it's just -- a thing that you grew up hearing about. When I was seven years old, I learned about it or something like that.

So, it's -- it's something that kind of floated around the consciousness of the people.  We'd heard about it, people had mentioned it.  But we also just -- within the Afghan community, again, I don't think we gave it much thought.

And I've realized that, in the last few years, you know, since I've written the book about it and -- and I've just engaged people in -- in harder conversations about the practice, and kind of picking it apart and thinking about what it means, and is it good, is it bad.  People are kind of analyzing it now and realizing, yeah, I -- I guess it is sort of an odd thing to do.

But there were sort of -- you know, everybody knew of one when they were living in Afghanistan.  So, it's a -- it's sort of this interesting practice that's lingered in the background.

And so, it's hard to pinpoint when you actually -- when I had actually learned about it.  But the conversations about it have progressed in the last few years.

CHAO:  You wrote about there being in Afghanistan, girls, boys, and then bacha posh.  So, I was wondering if -- in Afghanistan, is it not considered a sort of guise, but a gender?

 HASHIMI:  No, I think it is considered a guise and people -- because people understand that it is a temporary phenomenon. In that temporary period, it might be treated as a third gender, but really it's -- it's -- it is a guise, and the society only accepts it within those limits.

CHAO:  And so, why would Afghan families practice bacha posh?  Why would parents willingly present their daughters as their sons?

HASHIMI:  Afghanistan is a very patriarchal society.  And, in actually -- a lot of societies are very patriarchal -- and there's an evolution in all societies in general.  So, where Afghanistan is on the spectrum and on that -- that process of evolution, is different than where we are for, you know, for example, in the United States.

But being that it's a very patriarchal society, families tend to look at their sons in a very different way.  Sons traditionally are the -- are -- become breadwinners, not only for their own families but also for the families of their parents.  And so, they can go on and, you know, work outside of the home, or work within the home and add to the economy of the home.

When they get married, their -- they -- their wives sort of are enveloped into that nuclear family and they bring grandchildren in and, you know, carry on that family line.

Whereas daughters are of course part of the immediate family, as they're raised, though, there is this understanding that they -- once they marry, they're absorbed into a different family or a -- into another family the same way the sons' wives are brought into this one.

And so, I think the -- the -- the way families have traditionally looked at daughters is -- is that, you know, daughters are with you for a time but then you lose them.  And so, that sort of created a distance and -- and between that and the economic benefit, which is a concrete benefit of having a sons over daughters has sort of progressed and the shell (ph) between them has widened.

CHAO:  And I was wondering personally, because you said that almost every family knows of a bacha posh, do you personally anyone who was a bacha posh as a child or is currently one?

HASHIMI:  So, my husband's -- on my husband's side of the family, he has two cousins who were actually raised as boys for a while.  I have another family friend that I've spoken with who, after discussing my book and the topic coming up at dinner, she happened to be talking with her mother -- and her mother, who's in her 90s, said, oh, you know, actually, I was one when I was a child.  And she didn't even know that...

CHAO:  So when someone reveals to you, like at the dinner, Oh, I was a bacha posh, what kind of conversations do you have about her experience?

HASHIMI:  So, what happened in that situation was -- it was very interesting.  I ended up speaking with the woman's daughter after their conversation.  And she was so surprised, because she had no idea that her mother actually from the time that she was born until she was about eight or nine, I believe, had been living as a boy.

And she asked her mother, you know, why -- why did you never tell me this?  And she said, well, it just never seemed like the right time or -- then she kind of just forgot about it.

But I think that questions are -- are so different and it depends on the circumstance.  That particular individual had been -- her mother had declared her a boy at birth, because her father was disappointed that they weren't having any sons and was looking into marrying a second wife.  And so, to dissuade him from doing that, she decided to tell him that their most recent child was actually a boy.

And so, she -- you know, the child was able -- kept that charade up for about eight years until she -- she said she herself decided that she wanted to be a girl and she was a girl.  So, the circumstances...

HASHIMI:  Are sort of interesting in terms of, you know, at what age did it start, at what age did it end, and then, you know, what effect that had on that individual?  Are they very masculine, very, you know, strong -- strong willed, or are they, you know, sort of -- how are they in their marriage with their husbands?

And all those questions sort of come into play, because it's interesting to figure out what those years as a boy in a society where gender is so different -- what those years had -- what kind of lasting effect they have on the individual.

CHAO: . And so this woman who decided to voluntarily transition back into being a girl, during those seven or so years that she was a boy, her father never knew?

HASHIMI:  So, I'm not sure exactly in what year her father found out.  The story that she told me was that the father didn't know, and clearly the father was not on diaper duty in that day (ph), because he didn't find out for quite some time. And he did end up marrying a second wife.  And I believe their first child was a girl, as well.  So, he was just destined to be disappointed, I think.

CHAO:  Did any of these personal stories inform the way that you wrote your novel?

HASHIMI:  You know, I think they all sort of trickled in there.  The experience of each bacha posh -- and that's the interesting part about it -- is so different, depending on, you know, how her family is treating the transition, both from a girl to a boy and then back again.

And what their expectations are for their daughters in the meantime -- there are some families who have a very open-minded view of what girls can do, but still they're engaging in this practice.  And then there are other families that are more conservative.

So, the -- the experiences of a bacha posh can be so varied depending on (inaudible) -- and not just, you know, the Afghan culture at large.  And being able to play with that, especially, you know, taking into the mindset of a -- of a pediatrician who looks at the development of children, I was able to, sort of weave that in as what would happen to this particular girl who's experienced this life with this particular family and how would that play out in her story.

CHAO:  So, what are some of those benefits that families receive by practicing bacha posh?

HASHIMI:  A lot of it is -- is really this sort of intangible benefit of having a son and being able to boast that they have a son.

There is unfortunately a real -- you know, when people announce that they're having a child, if it's a girl, it's not really celebrated in the same way that a son is, especially for the first child.  There's sort of this big pressure on a woman to have a son as her first child.

CHAO:  And what about for the girl herself?  Are there any benefits for her?

HASHIMI:  So, she will have some benefits -- and I think that's the problem with the practice, is that she actually does get benefit out of it, and that's what makes it harder for her to re-transition into being a boy.

But, you know, the girls -- what they're able to do is they're (ph) able to live as a gender that experiences a lot more liberty.  And it's not so much that it's just the liberty of being able to walk into the street, but it's a different way of being able to carry yourself.  So, it's a different confidence that the child is allowed to have.

You know, girls are taught to be meek and you -- you don't look people in the eye, especially strangers; you keep your eyes sort of downcast.  You keep your voice pretty humble, you don't really shout in the streets, you don't run through the streets. Your behavior is carefully watched when you're a girl.  You always have to be appropriate.

Whereas young boys, you know, that's the -- the saying of "boys will be boys" -- sort of translates within to the Afghan society, as well.  And so, boys can do lots of different things and, you know, they -- some mischievous, whereas girls, it would be a totally different reputation.

So, girls who are dressed as a boy are able to do a lot of those things.  They're able to play sports, they're able to run and jump and -- and, you know, shout at the top of their lungs, and look people in the eye, and do different things that give them the experience of self-confidence.

CHAO:  In the Western view I’ve seen people write about bacha posh as this sort of subversive act where families who  are…believe in gender equality use it as a way to allow their daughters to experience freedom. But then I’ve also seen on the other hand that no, it’s families that actually are trying to conform to society that practice bacha posh. So I was wondering what your view on that was?

HASHIMI:  I think it's both; I think, you know, like we talked about earlier, there -- there are families who do this, but still have a very open-minded view of daughters, and what daughters should be able to do and -- and put them on a fairly equal ground as their sons.

But then there are also families that are more traditional-minded in terms of, you know, the rights of genders and the equality of genders.  And they may convert one of their daughters into a son, but as soon as she goes back to being a girl, her -- her life and her entitlements are very different.

CHAO:  And then when a girl’s time as a bacha posh ends, usually, how do they make the transition.

HASHIMI:  So, the transitions are abrupt.  They're informal.  There is no ceremony or, you know, like a -- a reintroduction into society.  Or there's definitely no debutante ball or anything like that.

And I think that is what also creates hardship on the mindset of some of these girls who are making that transition is -- because they're very ill-prepared for it.  It is something that sort of is drilled into them, as well.  It's, you know, your time is up and now you have to go back to being a girl.

And, you know, these are girls who are growing up within families -- they most likely have sisters.  And so, they know what the life of a girl is; they don't really have to be taught.  That's something that they've seen around them as they're growing up.

But all of the sudden, it's really just that everything that they have been doing -- those activities, those freedoms are going to be taken away.  And so, their -- their experience, you know, the next day is -- is a totally different one.

CHAO:  You mention the story of Ukmina Manoori. It’s quite an incredible one. So, she’s a middle aged woman who never dropped her male identity and she even fought with the soviet-led Afghan forces during the Soviet-Afghan War.

 HASHIMI:  You know, I read her memoir; I haven't had the pleasure of meeting her or speaking with her personally.  But having read her memoir, she is a really fascinating person, because she's one of those characters who has pushed the limits clearly as a middle-aged woman who's still living as a man.  She does not fit the mold of the -- the classic bacha posh experience.

And the things that she's done -- I mean, picking up weapons and going and fighting alongside other militiamen or Mujahideen fighters, it's -- that's a pretty impressive story.  And she also talks about sort of being able to pass through -- and going to a wedding, for example, and -- and she could walk on the women's side of the guest hall and she could also pass through the men's side.

And I think for her, also kind of reaching that middle age (ph), no longer seen as actual (inaudible) creature which gives her a lot of room to continue and persist in this perpetual bacha posh state.

But I think what she sort of -- when -- when she tells of her experience, she really has taken on the persona of -- of a man.  And the people around her have come to accept it.

So, even if when you look at her face and (inaudible) you got characteristics in there, I think at this point, she carries herself -- and the comportment is really so important that it -- that overrides, you know, whatever facial features people are able to sort of tease out from her -- looking at her.

CHAO:  I remember you mentioning in your piece that women tend not to marry their sons to former bacha posh. Um, is that the case if they don’t know if the girl was a bacha posh before or if they do know, they ignore it?

HASHIMI:  No, I think what would happen there is, typically a mother-in-law is looking for her son (inaudible) a wife who is going to add a lot of family and not cause a lot of trouble.

And it's not so much in a -- in a very evil or domineering way, but when -- when they're bringing a daughter-in-law into the family, it's someone that they -- they want to be able to get along with, that they think will raise children well for them, that will help care for them as they enter their golden years.  So, they're looking for that kind of an individual.

You know, when they're looking at a girl who was a bacha posh when she was younger, I think they're going to be looking more specifically at how her behavior is in the contemporary times.  So, if she is now 19 or 20 years old, but she was bacha posh when she was seven, that may not really matter if in the last seven years or so, she has been a very respectable girl.  Then that experience that she had earlier on probably isn't going to come into play.

If this is a girl who was a bacha posh until she was, you know, 15 and is now 17 years old, and they're looking at her for marriage and she is very stubborn and you can tell that she doesn't want to get married, then that obviously is not going to be the most attractive wife or potential bride to bring into the family.

CHAO:  And as a pediatrician do you think that this practice is, you know, psychologically healthy for young girls?

HASHIMI:  I don't think it's psychologically healthy to play with an individual's gender identity.  And I think we've come to really understand that in this country and treat gender very -- you know, there's a lot more focus on treating gender with a lot of respect, and understanding that each individual is born with a gender identity that we might not understand.

I mean, we as a whole, as a society -- we understand male gender, we understand female gender.  We're still struggling with understanding the genders that don't fit into those two pretty little boxes.

And -- but being that we don't understand those outside the boxes, I think we -- what we do get, is that it is very hard for an individual to identity as an opposite gender and then go back and flip-flop between the two.  And that has a lot of impact.

When you're -- when we're teaching our daughters, we're teaching them to be strong as girls.  And so, if you take them and change them into boys and then tell them, wait, now you're a girl -- you can't do all of those things, that sort of goes against everything that we here, you know, in the more conscientious parenting mindset -- that goes against what we really -- what we really advocate for our children.

CHAO:  And what was your own childhood like?

HASHIMI:  So, my own childhood --- I wish I'd been more appreciative of it when I was younger.

I'm a lot more appreciative of it now that I can look back and realize, you know, how amazing my parents were.  I grew up in suburban areas outside of New York City with parents who were very Afghan in culture.  And, you know, they both from their families brought together within our family a sense of education being paramount, of women being able to do anything.

And so, when I look back now, especially the more and more that I've, you know, thought about gender and what it means and I -- I can tell you that I've never in my life heard from any man in my family that I could not do something, or that I could not achieve something because I was a girl.

I mean, I have a lot of uncles, I have my father-in-law.  And every step of the way has been an encouragement.

I remember all of my uncles coming to all of my graduations and, you know, clapping, and being proud, and taking me out to dinner afterwards.  And so, my experience as a girl was I have never had anyone tell me otherwise, you know, within my family.

I think, you know, we have experiences outside of that, which highlighted for me how incredible my family experience really was.  And I think if every -- not just every Afghan girl, but if every girl had that experience around her where people didn't really say, "well, you can't do that because you're a girl," I mean, how much different would it be on the mindset of those girls and what would their -- how would that change their potential?