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Facing social pressures, families disguise girls as boys in Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan — Six-year-old Mehran Rafaat is like many girls her age. She likes to be the center of attention. She is often frustrated when things do not go her way. Like her three older sisters, she is eager to discover the world outside the family’s apartment in their middle-class neighborhood of Kabul.
But when their mother, Azita Rafaat, a member of Parliament, dresses the children for school in the morning, there is one important difference. Mehran’s sisters put on black dresses and head scarves, tied tightly over their ponytails. For Mehran, it’s green pants, a white shirt and a necktie, then a pat from her mother over her spiky, short black hair. After that, her daughter is out the door — as an Afghan boy.
There are no statistics about how many Afghan girls masquerade as boys. But when asked, Afghans of several generations can often tell a story of a female relative, friend, neighbor or co-worker who grew up disguised as a boy. To those who know, these children are often referred to as neither “daughter” nor “son” in conversation, but as “bacha posh,” which literally means “dressed up as a boy” in Dari.
Through dozens of interviews conducted over several months, where many people wanted to remain anonymous or to use only first names for fear of exposing their families, it was possible to trace a practice that has remained mostly obscured to outsiders. Yet it cuts across class, education, ethnicity and geography, and has endured even through’s many wars and governments.
Afghan families have many reasons for pretending their girls are boys, including economic need, social pressure to have sons, and in some cases, a superstition that doing so can lead to the birth of a real boy. Lacking a son, the parents decide to make one up, usually by cutting the hair of a daughter and dressing her in typical Afghan men’s clothing. There are no specific legal or religious proscriptions against the practice. In most cases, a return to womanhood takes place when the child enters puberty. The parents almost always make that decision.
In a land where sons are more highly valued, since in the tribal culture usually only they can inherit the father’s wealth and pass down a name, families without boys are the objects of pity and contempt. Even a made-up son increases the family’s standing, at least for a few years. A bacha posh can also more easily receive an education, work outside the home, even escort her sisters in public, allowing freedoms that are unheard of for girls in a society that strictly segregates men and women.
But for some, the change can be disorienting as well as liberating, stranding the women in a limbo between the sexes. Shukria Siddiqui, raised as a boy but then abruptly plunged into an arranged marriage, struggled to adapt, tripping over the confining and straining to talk to other women.
The practice may stretch back centuries. Nancy Dupree, an 83-year-old American who has spent most of her life as a historian working in Afghanistan, said she had not heard of the phenomenon, but recalled a photograph from the early 1900s belonging to the private collection of a member of the Afghan royal family.
It featured women dressed in men’s clothing standing guard at King Habibullah’s harem. The reason: the harem’s women could not be protected by men, who might pose a threat to the women, but they could not be watched over by women either.
“Segregation calls for creativity,” Mrs. Dupree said. “These people have the most amazing coping ability.”
It is a commonly held belief among less educated Afghans that the mother can determine the sex of her unborn child, so she is blamed if she gives birth to a daughter. Several Afghan doctors and health care workers from around the country said that they had witnessed the despair of women when they gave birth to daughters, and that the pressure to produce a son fueled the practice.
“Yes, this is not normal for you,” Mrs. Rafaat said in sometimes imperfect English, during one of many interviews over several weeks. “And I know it’s very hard for you to believe why one mother is doing these things to their youngest daughter. But I want to say for you, that some things are happening in Afghanistan that are really not imaginable for you as a Western people.”
Pressure to Have a Boy
From that fateful day she first became a mother — Feb. 7, 1999 — Mrs. Rafaat knew she had failed, she said, but she was too exhausted to speak, shivering on the cold floor of the family’s small house in Badghis Province.
She had just given birth — twice — to Mehran’s older sisters, Benafsha and Beheshta. The first twin had been born after almost 72 hours of labor, one month prematurely. The girl weighed only 2.6 pounds and was not breathing at first. Her sister arrived 10 minutes later. She, too, was unconscious.
When her mother-in-law began to cry, Mrs. Rafaat knew it was not from fear whether her infant granddaughters would survive. The old woman was disappointed. “Why,” she cried, according to Mrs. Rafaat, “are we getting more girls in the family?”
Mrs. Rafaat had grown up in Kabul, where she was a top student, speaking six languages and nurturing high-flying dreams of becoming a doctor. But once her father forced her to become the second wife of her first cousin, she had to submit to being an illiterate farmer’s wife, in a rural house without running water and electricity, where the widowed mother-in-law ruled, and where she was expected to help care for the cows, sheep and chickens. She did not do well.
Conflicts with her mother-in-law began immediately, as the new Mrs. Rafaat insisted on better hygiene and more contact with the men in the house. She also asked her mother-in-law to stop beating her husband’s first wife with her walking stick. When Mrs. Rafaat finally snapped the stick in protest, the older woman demanded that her son, Ezatullah, control his new wife.
He did so with a wooden stick or a metal wire. “On the body, on the face,” she recalled. “I tried to stop him. I asked him to stop. Sometimes I didn’t.”
Soon, she was pregnant. The family treated her slightly better as she grew bigger. “They were hoping for a son this time,” she explained. Ezatullah Rafaat’s first wife had given birth to two daughters, one of whom had died as an infant, and she could no longer conceive. Azita Rafaat delivered two daughters, double the disappointment.
Mrs. Rafaat faced constant pressure to try again, and she did, through two more pregnancies, when she had two more daughters — Mehrangis, now 9, and finally Mehran, the 6-year-old.
Asked if she ever considered leaving her husband, she reacted with complete surprise.
“I thought of dying,” she said. “But I never thought of divorce. If I had separated from my husband, I would have lost my children, and they would have had no rights. I am not one to quit.”
Today, she is in a position of power, at least on paper. She is one of 68 women in Afghanistan’s 249-member Parliament, representing Badghis Province. Her husband is unemployed and spends most of his time at home. “He is my house husband,” she joked.
By persuading him to move away from her mother-in-law and by offering to contribute to the family income, she laid the groundwork for her political life. Three years into their marriage, after the fall of the in 2002, she began volunteering as a health worker for various nongovernmental organizations. Today she makes $2,000 a month as a member of Parliament.
As a politician, she works to improve women’s rights and the rule of law. She ran for re-election on Sept. 18, and, based on a preliminary vote count, is optimistic about securing another term. But she could run only with her husband’s explicit permission, and the second time around, he was not easily persuaded.
He wanted to try again for a son. It would be difficult to combine pregnancy and another child with her work, she said — and she knew she might have another girl in any case.
But the pressure to have a son extended beyond her husband. It was the only subject her constituents could talk about when they came to the house, she said.
“When you don’t have a son in Afghanistan,” she explained, “it’s like a big missing in your life. Like you lost the most important point of your life. Everybody feels sad for you.”
As a politician, she was also expected to be a good wife and a mother; instead she looked like a failed woman to her constituents. The gossip spread back to her province, and her husband was also questioned and embarrassed, she said.
In an effort to preserve her job and placate her husband, as well as fending off the threat of his getting a third wife, she proposed to her husband that they make their youngest daughter look like a son.
“People came into our home feeling pity for us that we don’t have a son,” she recalled reasoning. “And the girls — we can’t send them outside. And if we changed Mehran to a boy we would get more space and freedom in society for her. And we can send her outside for shopping and to help the father.”
Together, they spoke to their youngest daughter, she said. They made it an alluring proposition: “Do you want to look like a boy and dress like a boy, and do more fun things like boys do, like bicycling, soccer and cricket? And would you like to be like your father?” Mehran did not hesitate to say yes.
That afternoon, her father took her to the barbershop, where her hair was cut short. They continued to the bazaar, where she got new clothing. Her first outfit was “something like a cowboy dress,” Mrs. Rafaat said, meaning a pair of blue jeans and a red denim shirt with “superstar” printed on the back.
She even got a new name — originally called Manoush, her name was tweaked to the more boyish-sounding Mehran.
Mehran’s return to school — in a pair of pants and without her pigtails — went by without much reaction by her fellow students. She still napped in the afternoons with the girls, and changed into her sleepwear in a separate room from the boys. Some of her classmates still called her Manoush, while others called her Mehran. But she would always introduce herself as a boy to newcomers.
Khatera Momand, the headmistress, with less than a year in her job, said she had always presumed Mehran was a boy, until she helped change her into sleeping clothes one afternoon. “It was quite a surprise for me,” she said.
But once Mrs. Rafaat called the school and explained that the family had only daughters, Miss Momand understood perfectly. She used to have a girlfriend at the teacher’s academy who dressed as a boy.
Today, the family’s relatives and colleagues all know Mehran’s real gender, but the appearance of a son before guests and acquaintances is just enough to keep the family functioning, Mrs. Rafaat said. At least for now.
Mr. Rafaat said he felt closer to Mehran than to his other children, and thought of her as a son. “I am very happy,” he said. “When people now ask me, I say yes and they see that I have a son. So people are quiet, and I am quiet.”
Mehran’s case is not altogether rare.
Ten-year old Miina goes to school for two hours each morning, in a dress and a head scarf, but returns about 9 a.m. to her home in one of Kabul’s poorest neighborhoods to change into boys’ clothing. She then goes to work as Abdul Mateen, a shop assistant in a small grocery store nearby.
Every day, she brings home the equivalent of about $1.30 to help support her Pashtun family of eight sisters, as well as their 40-year-old mother, Nasima.
Miina’s father, an unemployed mason, is often away. When he does get temporary work, Nasima said, he spends most of his pay on drugs.
Miina’s change is a practical necessity, her mother said, a way for the entire family to survive. The idea came from the shopkeeper, a friend of the family, Nasima said: “He advised us to do it, and said she can bring bread for your home.”
She could never work in the store as a girl, just as her mother could not. Neither her husband nor the neighbors would look kindly on it. “It would be impossible,” Nasima said. “It’s our tradition that girls don’t work like this.”
Miina is very shy, but she admitted to a yearning to look like a girl. She still likes to borrow her sister’s clothing when she is home. She is also nervous that she will be found out if one of her classmates recognizes her at the store. “Every day she complains,” said her mother. “ ‘I’m not comfortable around the boys in the store,’ she says. ‘I am a girl.’ ”
Her mother has tried to comfort her by explaining that it will be only for a few years. After all, there are others to take her place. “After Miina gets too old, the second younger sister will be a boy,” her mother said, “and then the third.”
Refusing to Go Back
For most such girls, boyhood has an inevitable end. After being raised as a boy, with whatever privileges or burdens it may entail, they switch back once they become teenagers. When their bodies begin to change and they approach marrying age, parents consider it too risky for them to be around boys anymore.
When Zahra, 15, opens the door to the family’s second-floor apartment in an upscale neighborhood of Kabul, she is dressed in a black suit with boxy shoulders and wide-legged pants. Her face has soft features, but she does not smile, or look down, as most Afghan girls do.
She said she had been dressing and acting like a boy for as long as she could remember. If it were up to her, she would never go back. “Nothing in me feels like a girl,” she said with a shrug.
Her mother, Laila, said she had tried to suggest a change toward a more feminine look several times, but Zahra has refused. “For always, I want to be a boy and a boy and a boy,” she said with emphasis.
Zahra attends a girls’ school in the mornings, wearing her suit and a head scarf. As soon as she is out on the steps after class, she tucks her scarf into her backpack, and continues her day as a young man. She plays football and cricket, and rides a bike. She used to practice tae kwon do, in a group of boys where only the teacher knew she was not one of them.
Most of the neighbors know of her change, but otherwise, she is taken for a young man wherever she goes, her mother said. Her father, a pilot in the Afghan military, was supportive. “It’s a privilege for me, that she is in boys’ clothing,” he said. “It’s a help for me, with the shopping. And she can go in and out of the house without a problem.”
Both parents insisted it was Zahra’s own choice to look like a boy. “I liked it, since we didn’t have a boy,” her mother said, but added, “Now, we don’t really know.”
Zahra, who plans on becoming a journalist, and possibly a politician after that, offered her own reasons for not wanting to be an Afghan woman. They are looked down upon and harassed, she said.
“People use bad words for girls,” she said. “They scream at them on the streets. When I see that, I don’t want to be a girl. When I am a boy, they don’t speak to me like that.”
Zahra said she had never run into any trouble when posing as a young man, although she was occasionally challenged about her gender. “I’ve been in fights with boys,” she said. “If they tell me two bad words, I will tell them three. If they slap me once, I will slap them twice.”
Time to ‘Change Back’
For Shukria Siddiqui, the masquerade went too far, for too long.
Today, she is 36, a married mother of three, and works as an anesthesiology nurse at a Kabul hospital. Short and heavily built, wearing medical scrubs, she took a break from attending to a patient who had just had surgery on a broken leg.
She remembered the day her aunt brought her a floor-length skirt and told her the time had come to “change back.” The reason soon became clear: she was getting married. Her parents had picked out a husband whom she had never met.
At that time, Shukur, as she called herself, was a 20-year old man, to herself and most people around her. She walked around with a knife in her back pocket. She wore jeans and a leather jacket.
She was speechless — she had never thought of getting married.
Mrs. Siddiqui had grown up as a boy companion to her older brother, in a family of seven girls and one boy. “I wanted to be like him and to be his friend,” she said. “I wanted to look like him. We slept in the same bed. We prayed together. We had the same habits.”
Her parents did not object, since their other children were girls, and it seemed like a good idea for the oldest son to have a brother. But Mrs. Siddiqui remained in her male disguise well beyond puberty, which came late.
She said she was already 16 when her body began to change. “But I really had nothing then either,” she said, with a gesture toward her flat chest.
Like many other Afghan girls, she was surprised the first time she menstruated, and worried she might be ill. Her mother offered no explanation, since such topics were deemed inappropriate to discuss. Mrs. Siddiqui said she never had romantic fantasies about boys — or of girls, either.
Her appearance as a man approaching adulthood was not questioned, she said. But it frequently got others into trouble, like the time she escorted a girlfriend home who had fallen ill. Later, she learned that the friend had been beaten by her parents after word spread through the neighborhood that their daughter was seen holding hands with a boy.
‘My Best Time’
Having grown up in Kabul in a middle-class family, her parents allowed her to be educated through college, where she attended nursing school. She took on her future and professional life with certainty and confidence, presuming she would never be constricted by any of the rules that applied to women in Afghanistan.
Her family, however, had made their decision: she was to marry the owner of a small construction company. She never considered going against them, or running away. “It was my family’s desire, and we obey our families,” she said. “It’s our culture.”
A forced marriage is difficult for anyone, but Mrs. Siddiqui was particularly ill equipped. She had never cooked a meal in her life, and she kept tripping over the burqa she was soon required to wear.
She had no idea how to act in the world of women. “I had to learn how to sit with women, how to talk, how to behave,” she said. For years, she was unable to socialize with other women and uncomfortable even greeting them.
“When you change back, it’s like you are born again, and you have to learn everything from the beginning,” she explained. “You get a whole new life. Again.”
Mrs. Siddiqui said she was lucky her husband turned out to be a good one. She had asked his permission to be interviewed and he agreed. He was understanding of her past, she said. He tolerated her cooking. Sometimes, he even encouraged her to wear trousers at home, she said. He knows it cheers her up.
In a brief period of marital trouble, he once attempted to beat her, but after she hit him back, it never happened again. She wants to look like a woman now, she said, and for her children to have a mother.
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.
But she also wishes her upbringing had been different. “For me, it would have been better to grow up as a girl,” she said, “since I had to become a woman in the end.”
Like Mother, Like a Son
It is a typically busy day in the Rafaat household. Azita Rafaat is in the bathroom, struggling to put her head scarf in place, preparing for a photographer who has arrived at the house to take her new campaign photos.
The children move restlessly between Tom and Jerry cartoons on the television and a computer game on their mother’s laptop. Benafsha, 11, and Mehrangis, 9, wear identical pink tights and a ruffled skirt. They go first on the computer. Mehran, the 6-year-old, waits her turn, pointing and shooting a toy gun at each of the guests.
She wears a bandage over her right earlobe, where she tried to pierce herself with one of her mother’s earrings a day earlier, wanting to look like her favorite Bollywood action hero: Salman Khan, a man who wears one gold earring.
Then Mehran decided she had waited long enough to play on the computer, stomping her feet and waving her arms, and finally slapping Benafsha in the face.
“He is very naughty,” Mrs. Rafaat said in English with a sigh, of Mehran, mixing up the gender-specific pronoun, which does not exist in Dari. “My daughter adopted all the boys’ traits very soon. You’ve seen her — the attitude, the talking — she has nothing of a girl in her.”
The Rafaats have not yet made a decision when Mehran will be switched back to a girl, but Mrs. Rafaat said she hoped it need not happen for another five or six years.
“I will need to slowly, slowly start to tell her about what she is and that she needs to be careful as she grows up,” she said. “I think about this every day — what’s happening to Mehran.”
Challenged about how it might affect her daughter, she abruptly revealed something from her own past: “Should I share something for you, honestly? For some years I also been a boy.”
As the first child of her family, Mrs. Rafaat assisted her father in his small food shop, beginning when she was 10, for four years. She was tall and athletic and saw only potential when her parents presented the idea — she would be able to move around more freely.
She went to a girls’ school in the mornings, but worked at the store on afternoons and evenings, running errands in pants and a baseball hat, she said.
Returning to wearing dresses and being confined was not so much difficult as irritating, and a little disappointing, she said. But over all, she is certain that the experience contributed to the resolve that brought her to Parliament.
“I think it made me more energetic,” she said. “It made me more strong.” She also believed her time as a boy made it easier for her to relate to and communicate with men.
Mrs. Rafaat said she hoped the effects on Mehran’s psyche and personality would be an advantage, rather than a limitation.
She noted that speaking out may draw criticism from others, but argued that it was important to reveal a practice most women in her country wished did not have to exist. “This is the reality of Afghanistan,” she said.
As a woman and as a politician, she said it worried her that despite great efforts and investments from the outside world to help Afghan women, she has seen very little change, and an unwillingness to focus on what matters.
“They think it’s all about the burqa,” she said. “I’m ready to wear two burqas if my government can provide security and a rule of law. That’s O.K. with me. If that’s the only freedom I have to give up, I’m ready.”
The author of this article can be contacted at bachaposh [at] gmail [dot] com.