When Girls Become Boys, a Study of Bacha Posh in Afghanistan

Bacha posh, translated as “dressed as a boy” in Persian, is a prevalent gendered practice that allows young girls to disguise themselves as boys in the absence of male figures in the home in Afghanistan. This post analyzes the lives of bacha poshs as well as dissect how the practice disproportionately contributes to a potential gender dysphoria movement involving young girls and adolescents.

While the new identity offers newfound liberties for young, Afghan girls, who gain increased mobility and freedom outside of the home with tasks and activities they could not perform beforehand, the practice and its privileges change the psyche of the bacha posh and increase the likelihood of resistance when it is time to “transition” back to their biological sex.

Why Girls Are Less Valued Than Boys

In Afghan society, where young girls are valued less than boys for reasons including not having the right to inherit the family name or work outside the home without a male escort, a family’s inability to have a male heir can be seen as shameful.[i] While societal standards for Afghani women have loosened since the Taliban regime, many are still required to maintain the “honor of the family” while in public and in rural areas often require a male escort, or a mahram, to ensure that honor is protected.[ii]

Since young boys often serve as their mother’s mahram in the absence of their fathers or uncles, the lack of a son in the house can be economically detrimental to a working class family that relies on a mother’s income.

When a family lacks a boy in the home, it is impossible for the mother to go to work without jeopardizing her safety.[iii] If additional income is needed in the home, young boys can be used as extra employees on the street or at a market with their fathers, uncles, or neighbors.[iv] 

The Boy of the Family

When a family lacks a boy to do extra work outside the home or to serve as a mahram for female family members, parents will often turn to their young daughters for help. Dressing them in boys’ clothes and cutting their hair, parents create bacha poshs out of their daughters, who are then expected to act as the boy of the family.

From attending school, serving as their mother’s mahram, and even working in the market to earn money for their families, bacha poshs attain a new level of freedom that was not available to them as girls. The practice is viewed as a necessary means for families without sons.[vi]

It also enables families to avoid the social stigma of not being able to have sons, as only the bacha posh’s direct family, close friends, necessary educators, and doctors know her true identity.

A bacha posh customarily exercises her identity until she reaches puberty, when her parents force her to “become” a woman again in preparation for marriage and domestic housework.[vii] While there are no statistics reflecting how many bacha poshs currently live in Afghanistan due to the practice’s secretive nature, it is believed that families are increasingly using their daughters in the place of absent sons.[viii]

A bacha posh’s external appearance reverts back to that of a woman after transitioning back to the biological gender, but internally a bacha posh is forever changed due to her time as a young boy. 

The Liberated Bacha Posh

An Afghan girl’s time as a bacha posh can be one of the most liberating periods of her life. Since Afghanistan remains a predominantly male-centric society, the woman’s presence outside of the home is discouraged and while becoming more pronounced in political spheres, remains rare.[i] When parents decide to create a bacha posh out of their daughter, they are gifting her with freedoms she lacked with her biological sex as well as preserving family honor by finally having a “son.”

As a bacha posh, the now-young boy no longer needs an escort in public and has greater mobility and opportunities outside of the home. This enables him to go to school and serve as a generator of income if his family lacks additional earnings. Sporting short hair and traditional Afghan garments, the bacha posh may start to develop masculine traits over time and his memory of being a girl with more traditionally feminine characteristics begins to diminish. 

As he becomes more comfortable with his new identity, the bacha posh could face scrutiny in public, either by his peers at school or those with more conservative views that see through the bacha posh disguise.[ii] Despite some critiques, bacha posh has become less of a taboo and is viewed more as a way of life, indicating an expanding societal understanding and recognition of the practice.

In schools, for example, the appearance of a young bacha posh in the classroom may not draw much attention. If anything, his new identity is accepted quickly by his peers.[iii] This is not to say the bacha posh will not face verbal and at times violent rebukes at the hands of critics in Afghanistan. However, a bacha posh rarely has to transition back to a girl because of public scrutiny.

His timely freedom comes to an end abruptly when he reaches puberty, at which he is often forced to “transition” back to a girl. 

When a Boy Becomes a Girl…Again

When it is time for a bacha posh to transition back to his biological sex, the switch often indicates a difficult adjustment.

As young girls become bacha poshs during critical developmental years in their childhood, any habit they solidify in the years they are boys will likely stay with them as they experience adolescence and adulthood. Among these habits are the traditionally masculine traits bacha poshs develop when inhabiting the identity, which is associated with freedom and rights women in Afghanistan do not have.

Once a bacha posh experiences the freedom of being a boy in Afghan society, some do question: why go back to gendered restrictions and feminine traits they no longer identify with? These factors contribute to the broader conversation of bacha poshs and gender dysphoria, a condition many bacha poshs develop after their time as young boys. 

Mental Security of Bacha Posh

If a young Afghan girl were to dress in male garments and play soccer with her male classmates, she would be taking part in gender nonconformity because she is acting like a boy while being referred to as a girl. On the contrary, a bacha posh is a young girl who begins to identify and act like a young boy for an extended period of time. This can spur internal conflict within the bacha posh whether he transitions back or remains a boy: a textbook example of gender dysphoria in an uncommon place.

While clinical psychologists could make the argument that a bacha posh is exposed to additional conditions found in the DSM-5, bacha poshs are at risk specifically for gender dysphoria once their time in the practice ends.

As a practice that disproportionately affects young girls, bacha posh fosters conditions for gender dysphoria to prevail, instigating gender conflicts and resistance for bacha poshs in Afghanistan. While bacha posh has become less taboo in the region and is often viewed as a “necessity” for son-less families, the mental security of the bacha posh is scarcely taken into account.

As a result, bacha poshs endure emotionally and sex-based difficulties that persist long after they have reached puberty, sparking a “fight-or-flight” reaction to their current identity. With more bacha poshs refusing to convert back to their biological sex after reaching puberty, infrastructure must be put in place in Afghanistan to ensure their mental health is addressed. Whether through private psychological clinics or support groups comprised of past and present bacha poshs, the practice must continue to be normalized and the gender dysphoria that accompanies it de-stigmatized. 

Guest post by Ana Paula Velasco, a young gender studies scholar 

 

References: 

[i] Strochlic, Nina. “Inside the Lives of Girls Dressed as Boys in Afghanistan.” National Geographic. 2018. 

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2018/march/bacha-posh-gender-afghanistan/

[ii] “Bacha Posh: The Resilient Girls of Afghanistan.” Institute for Human Rights. 2018. https://cas.uab.edu/humanrights/2018/01/12/bacha-posh-resilient-girls-afghanistan/

[iii] Strochlic, Nina. “Inside the Lives of Girls Dressed as Boys in Afghanistan.”

[iv] Brand, Madeline, “Why Some Afghans Are Raising their Girls as Boys.” PRI, 2014. https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-11-12/why-some-afghans-are-raising-their-girls-boys

[v] Strochlic, Nina. “Inside the Lives of Girls Dressed as Boys in Afghanistan.”

[vi] Corboz, Julienna; Gibbs, Andrew; Jewkes Rachel, “Bacha Posh in Afghanistan: factors associated with raising a girl as a boy.” Culture, Health, and Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention, and Care. 2019.

[vii] Nordberg, Jenny. 2010. “Afghan Boys are Prized, so Girls Live the Part.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/world/asia/21gender.html

[viii] Corboz, Julienna; Gibbs, Andrew; Jewkes Rachel, “Bacha Posh in Afghanistan: factors associated with raising a girl as a boy.”

From section: When Girls Are Dressed as Boys

[i] Hashrat-Nazimi, Waslat, “‘King of the Women’ – an unlikely Afghan.” Deutsche Welle. 2011. https://www.dw.com/en/king-of-the-women-an-unlikely-afghan/a-15457529

[ii] “Bacha Posh: The Resilient Girls of Afghanistan.”

[iii] Nordberg, Jenny. “Jenny Nordberg and Women of Afghanistan: A Woman Who Lived As A Bacha Posh.”

 

 

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