Afghan tradition allows girls to have boys’ freedom

KABUL, Afghanistan — In one neighborhood in Kabul, a group of boys kicked a yellow ball on a dusty playground, their raucous shouts echoing through the surrounding apartment blocks.

Dressed in sweaters and jeans or traditional Afghan men’s clothing, baggy trousers and long shirts, they scramble to score goals. But they don’t know that one is different from the other.

At less than 8 years old, Sanan was a bacha posh: a girl who lived like a boy. One day a few months ago, the girl with rosy cheeks and a mischievous smile cut her black hair short, put on a boy’s clothes, and took a boy’s name, Omid. The move opened up a boy’s world: playing soccer and cricket with boys, wrestling with the son of a nearby butcher, trying to help the family make ends meet.

In Afghanistan’s patriarchal, male-dominated society, where women and girls are often confined to their homes, bacha posh (Dari for “dressing as a boy”) is a tradition that allows girls to enter the freer world of men.

Under this practice, girls dress, behave and be treated as boys, with all their freedoms and obligations. Children can play sports, attend religious or religious schools, sometimes vital to the family, and work. But there’s a time limit: Once Bacha Hipster hits puberty, she reverts to her traditional girly gender roles. The transition isn’t always easy.

It is unclear how the approach is viewed by Afghanistan’s new rulers, the Taliban, which seized power in mid-August and have not issued a public statement on the issue.

Their rule has so far been less severe than when they last took power in the 1990s, but women’s freedoms are still severely restricted. In most places, thousands of women are barred from working, and girls over primary school age cannot return to public schools.

With the crackdown on women’s rights, the Bacha luxury tradition may be more attractive to some families. Thomas Barfield, a professor of anthropology at Boston University who has written several books on Afghanistan, said that since the practice is temporary, the Taliban may not deal with it at all as children eventually return to female roles. problem.

“Because it’s within the family and it’s not permanent, the Taliban may stay out of it,” Barfield said.

It is unclear where the practice originated or how long it has existed, nor is it possible to know how widespread it is. A similar tradition exists in Albania, another patriarchal society, although it is limited to adults. According to the Albanian “sworn virgin” tradition, a woman takes an oath of celibacy and declares herself a man, after which she can inherit property, work and serve as a member of the village council – all of which are insurmountable for women.

Baha’i luxury traditions are one of the “least investigated” topics in terms of gender in Afghanistan, said Barfield, who lived with an Afghan nomadic family that included Baha’s luxury for about two years in the 1970s. “It just goes away because the girls go back to being female and they get married.”

Girls who are chosen for bacha posh are usually the louder and more confident daughters. “It’s a role that fits very well, and sometimes even outside the family, people don’t know it exists,” he said.

“It’s so invisible that it’s one of the few gender issues that doesn’t come up as a political or social issue,” Barfield noted.

There are various reasons why a parent might want a bacha posh. Sons have traditionally been valued more than daughters, a practice that often occurs in families without boys. Some people think it’s a status symbol, some people think it will bring good luck to the next child.

But for others, like Sanham’s family, the choice is a necessity. Construction jobs dried up last year as Afghanistan’s economy collapsed. Sanan’s father had a back injury and lost his job as a plumber. He turned to selling coronavirus masks on the street for the equivalent of $1 to $2 a day. But he needs a helper.

The family has four daughters and a son, but their 11-year-old boy is unable to use his hands fully after being injured. So the parents say they decided to make Sanham a Baja luxury.

“We had to do it because of poverty,” said Fahima, Sanham’s mother. “We don’t have a son to work for us, and her father doesn’t have anyone to help him. So I’ll consider her my son until she’s a teenager.”

Still, Fahima refers to Sanam as “my daughter”. In their native language, Dari, pronouns are not a problem, as “he” and “she” use one pronoun.

Sanam said she prefers to live like a boy.

“It’s better to be a boy…I wear[Afghan menswear]jeans and a jacket, and go to work with my dad,” she said. She enjoys playing in the park with her brother’s friends and also enjoys playing cricket and football.

Once she grows up, Sanam said, she wants to be a doctor, commander or soldier, or work with her father. She will turn back into a girl.

“When I grow up, I’ll let my hair grow out and wear girl clothes,” she said.

The transition isn’t always easy.

“When I put on a girl’s clothes, I thought I was in prison,” said Najay, even though she would go to school as a girl. One of seven sisters, her boy’s name is Assadollah.

Now 34, she is married with four children and weeps for her lost freedom in the male world.

“In Afghanistan, boys are more valuable,” she said. “There is no oppression on them, no restrictions. But being a girl is different. Being forced to marry at a young age.”

Najieh said young women could not leave their homes or let strangers see their faces. After the Taliban took over, she lost her job as a teacher because she had been teaching boys.

“It’s better to be a man than a woman,” she said, wiping the tears from the corners of her eyes. “It was very difficult for me. … If I were a man, I could be a teacher at the school.”

“I wish I could be a man, not a woman. Stop this pain.”