How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In Afghanistan, there are girls, there are boys, and then there are the bacha posh, a temporary third gender for girls who live as boys. The practice is at least a century old and is used by families of all socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities to navigate Afghanistan's deeply patriarchal society, which values sons over daughters. Although only a sliver of the population engages in the bacha posh custom, precise numbers are hard to nail down, as there has never been an effort to track the practice.
Afghanistan’s preference for sons stems from its agricultural roots. Male children typically performed the hard labor required to support their families. They built homes, chopped wood, and plowed fields. Boys could travel independently and work outside the home. When they married, sons would bring their wives into the family and expand the nuclear family with their own children. In short, sons contributed in very concrete ways to the prosperity of a family. Daughters, on the other hand, would leave the family once they reached marrying age and were eventually absorbed into their husbands’ families. The grandchildren they produced were considered part of the paternal line. For much of Afghanistan, this is still the case.
One Afghan solution for families with no heirs, although admittedly temporary, is to allow parents to convert a preadolescent daughter into a bacha posh by cutting her hair and dressing her in boy’s clothing. She is assigned a boy’s name. Some families start the change at birth, while others start once the girl has reached school age. The changes, of the name and of the physical appearance, are superficial and simple, with no formality or ceremony. While some families make their girls a bacha posh only for a specific purpose (to enable them to work outside the home after school), the more common story is for girls to live as boys wholly and completely, both within and outside of the home.
The skin-deep son not only is supposed to restore the family’s honor but also serves as a good-luck charm for the parents to conceive a male child in the future. The transformation confers a very practical benefit as well, since a male or bacha posh child can work outside the home for their families. Young boys can sell pens or sticks of gum on the street. Some work as blacksmith apprentices, bread bakers, carpet weavers, farmers, or brickmakers. Child labor is a separate and ongoing struggle in Afghanistan, where it is estimated that 25 percent of children between the ages of six and 17 are working outside the home. So there is some intersection between the worlds of the bacha posh and of child laborers.
Whether or not they have to work, life as a bacha posh is fairly liberating. A girl dressed as a boy can run and climb and shout. She can look men in the eye and make her voice heard. She can play certain sports, such as soccer. She can even go to school. Owing to the Taliban’s efforts to shut down girls’ schools, some families do not want their daughters to attend for fear of their safety but will allow them to go if they are dressed as bacha posh. The exact liberties each bacha posh gains are very much family-specific, since parents differ in what they will allow their daughters to do.
Typically, the young girl’s time as a bacha posh ends just before the onset of puberty and well before she reaches marriageable age. At that time, she must act according to societal norms to maintain the all-important “good reputation” that Afghanistan requires of its women. As a girl, a former bacha posh must keep her voice low and her eyes averted from any male gaze. She is to be humble, meek, and polite. She will not run through the streets or hang upside down from a tree branch in the park or work outside the home. In some families, she will also have to stop shopping in the markets or even stop attending school. For her, the ends of the earth become the four walls of the family home.
Ukmina Manoori, a woman from southern Afghanistan, refused to resign herself to such a fate. She defied tradition and continued to live as a bacha posh as an adult. In her memoir, I Am a Bacha Posh, she recounts looking after her mother and sisters, picking up a gun and fighting alongside the mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and attending both sides of a gender-segregated wedding because she was viewed as both a man and a woman. She is an exception, however, since once sexual maturation has begun, it is taboo for girls to continue to masquerade as boys. Girls who, like Manoori, refuse to leave their bacha posh identities behind will endure the scorn and scathing remarks of neighbors as well as the clergy. Manoori lived in fear of being discovered by the Taliban, who would consider her guise deeply immoral. Women who defy social norms are often deemed less desirable as wives because they develop reputations for being stubborn and difficult or for having had a history of inappropriate interactions with boys. The backlash not only affects the girl but extends to her family as well. That is why bacha posh who prefer ostracism over a return to female life are few and far between.
For most of those outside the immediate family, a bacha posh’s reemergence as female does not come as a surprise. Many may already know of her real identity; they tolerate her boyish appearance and behavior because the charade is woven so tightly into the fabric of Afghan culture. There is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality coupled with the fact that Afghans are deeply private people. It is not socially acceptable to inquire into private matters, nor is it appropriate to speak about them outside of the family unit. Of course, there is much hypocrisy built into this tradition. For starters, it is mystifying that a society with such strict definitions of gender can permit a guise as superficial as cross-dressing to instantly liberate girls and give them opportunities reserved for boys. For example, there is little fanfare if a preadolescent bacha posh is “discovered,” since the practice is viewed as within the social norm. But uncovering an adolescent bacha posh, however, would cause a scandal
The transition back to “normal” life isn’t always easy. Some manage to make the switch to a life as a wife and mother. Some are happy to do so, while others accept this role reluctantly. Some girls even go on to become government officials or politicians. A few, like Manoori, refuse to marry or give up their pants, so to speak. In my conversations with others about bacha posh, I’ve learned of one young woman who is pursuing gender reassignment in the United States, which would not have been an option for her in Afghanistan. It is unclear, however, how much her experience as a bacha posh played into this decision.
Although altering the gender identity of a developing child can have a deep psychological impact, particularly in an oppressive society such as exists in Afghanistan, there is a good chance that this tradition has a positive influence on young girls, enabling them to experience a life free of restrictions. It may change the expectations a woman sets for herself or for her daughter, since she has experienced firsthand that it is culture, not her gender, that limits her options in life. In that respect, my view is that the bacha posh is not wholly negative, and it may even be, for many girls, a gift.
I often get asked, will the tradition of bacha posh ever end? As a custom born out of the devaluation of girls, it will persist until daughters and sons have equal footing within their communities. It will persist until there is some blurring of the lines between what girls can do and what boys can do. It will continue until fathers proudly hoist their daughters onto their shoulders and sons are taught that their sisters may be engineers or soccer players—just like them.
Change may be coming. Take the recent reaction to a March 19 lynching of a young woman in Kabul for allegedly burning a page of a Koran (it was later found to be untrue). Although armed police officers stood by as the mob brutally attacked her, and spectators videotaped the bloody event, in an unprecedented demonstration of solidarity, a group of women served as the pallbearers at the young woman’s funeral and carried her coffin in a funeral procession attended by thousands. This gesture may seem insignificant, but it was a provocative move in a country where women are often banned from attending burials, let alone allowed to participate in them.
Afghan girls are also defying expectations by taking up traditionally male sports such as mountain climbing—and on some very impressive terrain, such as Mount Noshaq, the second-highest peak of the Hindu Kush mountain range. There are now female taxi drivers, pilots, and politicians who are bravely defying tradition at great personal cost. These women are still the outliers, the pioneers. Some have been threatened with death. Some have even been killed, such as Angiza Shinwari, a female politician who died in a car bomb attack in February 2015.
Only time will tell whether the recent gains made in the realm of women’s rights by pioneers such as Manoori or Shinwari will persist or be stomped out again by patriarchy and misogyny. The positive signs are there but still clouded by a world of inequity. Until the birth of a daughter is cause for as much celebration as the birth of a son, there will still be a place for the face-saving bacha posh, even if she is nothing but a girl in boy’s clothing.