In Afghanistan, sons provide status, protection, and success – to such an extent that families without them will sometimes pass a daughter off as a son, at least until adolescence. Journalist Jenny Nordberg writes about this practice in her new book, The Underground Girls of Kabul. Nordberg recently answered questions from Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe.
Q. As far as you know, is the practice of the bacha posh unique to Afghanistan?
No. It’s called bacha posh in Afghanistan (as in: dressed up like a boy) but in fact, hiding your birth sex is a universal trick that women and girls have always employed, to escape oppression and segregation. Whenever one category of humans – in this case women and girls – is denied basic human rights, such as freedom of movement; to have a voice; access to an education; to choose when and if and with whom they have children, there will always be those who try to escape that fate.
Bacha posh is a form of subversion under impossible circumstances. So as strange as this may seem, when you think of it, and also of how our own history has treated women, bacha posh also comes to make total sense.
You only need to look to the countries closest to Afghanistan, such as India, Iran and Pakistan and you’ll find these underground girls there too. They are called something different in each country, but my research shows that the equivalent of bacha posh exist all over those Middle Eastern and Asian countries with limited rights and freedoms for women and girls. It was just not written about before I found it.
Q. Are most people actually fooled by this practice? Or do many know and simply play along with the pretense?
Most Afghans will know of a neighbor, a relative or someone in the neighborhood or village, who has a bacha posh in the family. But with these children, it’s the element of disguise that matters: For a little girl to be able to walk to school, if the road is insecure, or to move with groups of boys outside and play, or to run errands to the bazaar as a bacha – a boy – means she will not raise any eyebrows and can just be part of society in a way that girls cannot.
In a strong culture of honor, it’s the father’s responsibility to keep his daughters pure and protected before marriage; so any girl running around on her own will be more of a disturbance to the order of society than someone who looks like a boy. So yes, you could say that society plays along with it – better to accept the occasional made-up boy than to openly allow girls and women freedom of movement. You could say it’s a version of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, as another example of how to handle a system with built-in discrimination.
Q. Why were people willing to discuss this with you?
I work from the premise – and this is also based on the experience – that everyone wants to tell his or her story. It’s just a question of when, and how. In most of these cases, it began with a chain of introductions, and many conversations and meetings without notebooks, cameras or recorders. It takes sharing meals and learning about families and for me to open up about who I am and why I’m there. It sometimes also takes some very skilled and diplomatic Afghan colleagues who interpret. Each subject in my book has made a very conscious decision to share details of their personal history, lives and bodies with me. In turn, I have been very transparent about my work, and always tried to be extremely careful, and I have tried to honor their stories by portraying them accurately and respectfully.
Q. What message does this practice send to the other daughters in a family?
That there is a difference between pants and skirts. And that those with pants always come first. Every girl in Afghanistan is aware that had she been born a boy, her life would have been entirely different. So there can be some jealousy. But a bacha posh in the family can benefit sisters, too, as the made-up “brother” can escort them outside, and through that afford other girls in the family more freedom of movement.
Q. Did you feel that the mothers you spoke to regretted or worried about the practice?
Several mothers constantly questioned themselves about this decision. In particular those who had older girls; mothers would worry that daughters had turned too “boyish” to be able to go back and portray the ideal image of a “proper” and shy Afghan girl. But a schoolteacher told me what some others also echoed: “In Afghanistan, we are who we must be.” In a place with almost constant war and insecurity, that is considered to be the absolute worst place to be a woman and to be born a girl, this is one more way of coping. That is not to say that it cannot have deep consequences for the child who experiences it.
Q. How did you come away feeling about this overall? Is it a harmful practice or does it actually have certain benefits?
This is at the same time a consequence of, and a way to creatively resist, extreme oppression and segregation. And I will not ever attempt to judge that. In our part of the world, we speak of such things as human rights and children’s rights, and what they entail. But Afghanistan is an entirely different context, where gender becomes secondary to attempts to reach for even small freedoms. My research shows that the bacha posh who “become” women relatively early after growing up as boys – and by that I mean before puberty – often speak of the empowering effects of knowing what they are capable of. But for those women who remain as young men for years, the transition is extremely hard, as they are no longer in disguise – they have crossed over to the other side, and in that they have also become. And that’s where perhaps the most interesting part of my book begins.