There is a fascinating article in Monday’s New York Times about girls in Afghanistan who are referred to as “bacha posh,” literally translated to mean “dressed up as a boy.” The article describes the unquantified but seemingly (from discussions with Afghans from multiple generations) large number of girls whose families dress them up as boys at a young age and present them to society as boys. The families do it for many reasons, especially shame at not having a male son and the need for a child to be able to work to help support the family. The bacha posh, unlike a regular girl, is allowed to work outside the home and have significantly more freedom in public, and finds it easier to attend school and get an education.
I found the article to be fascinating. I was really surprised by the the idea that Afghanistan, a country that is typically associated with traditional mores and standards, would have so many people willing to engage in what is essentially cross-dressing. But apparently it has been going on for generations—the article mentions a woman in 1900 who dressed up as a man in order to guard a harem, playing a role than neither men nor women were allowed to do.
The article also raises many issues about gender identity: girls raised as boys are usually turned back into girls when they hit puberty, and are then left to struggle between who they are used to being and who they must be. In the article, a fifteen-year-old girl whose parents initially proposed that she become a bacha posh explains how she never wants to go back—that nothing in her feels like a girl. It makes me think about the idea of gender perfomance, Judith Butler’s idea that gender is not inherent but rather a creation of society:
Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis.”
I haven’t studied the concept enough to have a sure opinion about it, but this article certainly points towards the idea that gender can be changed based on society’s expectations of someone; a girl whose parents decided for her that she would be a boy takes on the societal roles of a boy and learns to love playing the role of a boy. If that can happen, which it appears it does, then it would seem that gender could be an arbitrary thing that is separate from a body’s physical elements and function. A few personal stories cannot be taken as definitive, of course, but it is really interesting that these girls continue to want to act like and function as boys even when allowed or forced to return to their lives as girls.
Part of what makes the article so interesting and sad is the way it describes the difficulties that women in general face in Afghanistan, from being beaten by husbands to needing a husband’s explicit permission to run for political office, to the constant social pressure to have a girl and the subsequent exclusion and disappointment at bringing a girl into the world rather than a boy. One of the most poignant things I read about was the fact that many girls wish they could have stayed boys, but could not: when they hit puberty, they have to publicly go back to being a girl, get married, become a wife, and are thrust into the foreign and confusing world of womanhood. I find this quote from the article, a reflection of a bacha posh after having formally gone back to being a woman, to be incredibly sad: “Still, not a day goes by when she does not think back to ‘my best time,’ as she called it. Asked if she wished she had been born a man, she silently nods.” It’s sadness lies not just in the woman’s own personal struggle, but in the fact that Afghanistan is a place where women do not want to be women—that there is a place where women clearly feel that their lives would be better as men. That’s something for all of us to think about and remember: that even as feminism in the Western world grows and thrives, there are a lot of women out there without the privileges we have.