Afghanistan's Female Sons

The Tradition of Bacha Posh

When dressed as a boy, Tamana Mirwais, 10, can sell biscuits and drinks on the street for her family. Casper Hedberg / Kontinent

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.

Tamana Mirwais, 10, changes between boys and girls clothes every day before or after school in a store near her girls' school. Casper Hedberg / Kontinent

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

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