Mehran Rafaat (in white) is a bacha posh
Afghanistan has had a rough time in recent history. The sudden transformation from fashionable escape for the West to war-torn warlord-ruled landscape to complete Taliban control (and now it seems that the whole place is more or less up for grabs as the current government’s complicity with the Taliban has been revealed) has been something shocking to look at independently of any time period before or after a given moment, or in a historical panorama of the past century.
Kabul was once named the “Paris of the Middle East.” The high society women were very well integrated into European society and many took on French as a second language in an aristocratic gesture to their high-brow city’s namesake.
But the times have changed considerably since then. Anyone who kept up with the news of the Taliban takeover at the beginning of the millenium are familiar with the plight of women in Afghanistan, a percieved problem for Western observers that Sharia law sanctioned. Women were no longer allowed to sport Western haircuts or fashions, and they had to retreat into the billowing black folds of burqas. Though I don’t wish to discuss the legitimacy of this (because I think that, in general, if a woman chooses to wear a hijab or a whole burqa, that is her prerogative in every regard) the loss of feminine freedoms is unmistakable. Now no longer able to leave the house without a male relative, or have any interaction with men unless it is a family member, women are put back in the house in a move that tore the Middle East from the magnetic grasp of the Western world.
The gender barrier is not entirely impenetrable. In fact, there are moments when it can prove to be quite porous. This region’s infatuation with male-dominance has lead to an interesting loophole for women.
At some point in a young girl’s childhood, the parents, desperately needing a son to legitmize their family, tell the girl that she is no longer going to wear girls’ clothes anymore. The young girl does not really have an understanding of the implications of this external change until years later. She abides her parents wishes and she has her hair cut like a boy, and exchanges her clothes for that of her prodigal brother.
A superstition had somehow woven itself inextricably into the folklore of the larger Afghan community, and it was believed that dressing up a daughter as a son would increase a woman’s chances of giving birth to a son at some point.
With the transformation complete, the young girl discovers that she is able to circumvent the strick stipulations enforced against her sex. Though it is common knowledge that she is merely a stand-in son until the real one comes along, she is treated as a boy by the community at large. She is able to explore the streets outside of her dusty home without a male chaperone. At school, she plays sports with the boys and does not hang out with the girls anymore. She bonds with her father.
The “bacha posh” (literally “dressed up as a boy” in Dari) grows accustomed to her new assumed gender. But then she grows up and the requisite physical changes begin to take place. Her disguise begins to fail her, and her mother and father tell her that it is time to turn back into dutiful daughter once again.
“For me, it would have been better to grow up as a girl since I had to become a woman in the end,” commented a former bacha posh.
She has to grow accustomed to a burqa that drags on the floor and bunches around her legs, she must grow out her hair and keep it from falling into her face. She can no longer play soccer with the boys and she grows closer to her mother who may have had a son in the years that the daughter played the part.
“When you change back, it’s like you are born again.”
Some women choose to stay as a bacha posh indefinitely because they grow so accustomed to it. Despite their parents’ wishes. Other change back, but fail to fall into the confines of perfect domicility. In the article, one woman speaks of her husband who hit her. Her reaction was to hit him back. That settled the couple’s dynamic quickly.
I think what is most curious about this social phenomenon is the ability of women to access the world of men in a completely acceptable way. It is completely acceptable for a women to become a man in a hyper-masculine society. Of course, the catch is that she’ll go back once her time is up, but I still think it is remarkable that this can happen in a place where gender roles are so stringently policed. I feel like this sort of cross-dressing would be seen as utterly unacceptable in the United States. Though that’s because men and women are much more equal in their importance to society (though sexism still runs rampant), it would seem that Americans are still completely uncomfortable by obfuscating our set gender roles because, perhaps, that is something reserved for a subversise transvestite community found in drag clubs.
Social norms are terribly inconsistent and prove contrary to other tenets of a society beliefs. The fact that gender-bending is acceptable in Afghanistan and still taboo in America is somewhat mystifying in some ways, though sensible in a pragmatic way for those in desperate want of a son. This alternate road also demands the question: why don’t women gain more rights if they are already granted such freedoms if they dress as men? It seems over-complicated to be even worth the difficult transition between genders that could later inhibit a woman’s future formation of an identity. Also, it seems odd that men, who so zealousy guard their birthright, allow women to assume their role. I would feel emasculated in that position, but perhaps that’s only an American standpoint. Though perhaps it’s utterly useless to try and compare these two regions that have such different ethos governing how we view gender identity and sex. But it would be interesting to look at it further because I think it would help me as an American point out how men percieve themselves in relation to each other and to women.
In Afghanistan, it seems like the idea of a man so far as fulfilling the position of head of the household is largely a symbolic position that coincides with said individual having a penis. But this physical attribute, given the bacha posh tradition, is only secondary to the need of a strong hand to govern the household. Having a son ensures the protection of the household in the future, but at that age the differences between a girl and a boy honestly are not that significant. Symbolically, a girl can stand in place of a boy until puberty hits, when the actual mark of manhood becomes apparent. Then the man must take on the role of ruler of the house, as well as adventurer who crosses the threshold and enters the wide open world in order to secure the needs of his family unit.
Perhaps I’m looking at this entire phenomenon in archaic terms, but the transferability of masculinity in children is significant. In America, girls are girls and boys are boys. Gender identity is seen as set in stone. In Afghanistan, the role in the household and the face you present to the outside world is much more ritualized, and in fact offers great evidence that perhaps gender roles – especially when instituted at a young age – are more flexible than Americans may think.
Alec also blogs at the BAM blog, where this article was originally posted