Bacha Posh: An Afghan social tradition where girls are raised as boys

Zarifa Sabet, IANS, March 2, 2018. Parents who have no sons prefer to convert
one of their daughters into a Bacha Posh to raise their social standing.
term “Bacha Posh” literally translated from the local Dari language
means a “girl dressed like a boy”. There are families who bring up
their daughters as sons and, once they reach puberty, the girls usually must
return to being girls. Parents who have no sons prefer to convert one of their
daughters into a Bacha Posh to raise their social standing. In a society where
having a male child is of utmost importance and a matter of pride, Bacha Posh
provides social relief.
Bacha Posh is treated like any other male, but must unlearn her gender-defined
identity on turning 17 or 18. Her speech, her walk, her mobility outside the
home, all these aspects have to change. It is a practice that dates back
centuries, but it is not easy to accept nor is its provenance known.
almost every era of history, there have been women who took on the role of men
when being a woman became impossible to sustain. Jenny Nordberg argues that
there were hundreds of women who lived as men between the 16th and 19th
centuries. Many were discovered to be women only when their bodies were carried
off the battlefield. They took on a male identity for reasons similar to the
Bacha Posh in Afghanistan today. Some needed to support themselves and their families.
Others needed it to escape harsh traditional norms for women to get the freedom
they sought.
historians have documented, by the 19th century, in Europe, the frequency of
women who dressed as men seemed to diminish. The reason was, “an
increasingly organised society where various forms of civil registration such
as border controls and mandatory medical examinations for soldiers made it more
difficult for women to pass as men”.
is a close link between gender and freedom. In Afghanistan, just as it is
globally, freedom is a very important idea. Defining one’s gender becomes a
concern only after freedom is achieved and Bacha Posh is a struggle for
to the United Nations, Save the Children and the Thompson Reuters Foundation,
Afghanistan is the worst country in the world to be born a girl, with the
average life expectancy of a woman being 44 years. Being born a girl in
Afghanistan is to be condemned to a half-life. At best, being a girl child is
viewed with disappointment. At worst, it is a humiliation which calls for
desperate measures, because having even one boy child is mandatory for good
standing and reputation while no sons provokes contempt.
overcome these hurdles, some Afghan families choose for their daughter to be
Bacha Posh. The practice has existed right under the surface as a way to
creatively buck a system of gender segregation, where being born a girl always
required survival efforts and a resilience difficult to imagine.
is deep gender division and gender-based discrimination, to which Bacha Posh
can be a short-term alternative. Being unaware of its future consequences, the
girl suffers psychological trauma, identity crises and more.
is hard for a country with harsh gender segregation to allow for such deviation,
but this practice predates Islam in Afghanistan. Because of the prevalent
“don’t ask, don’t tell” norm, each Afghan family will keep the secret
of such a child to themselves, which is why there are no exact numbers on Bacha
Posh in the country.
are many reasons for Afghan families to pretend that their girls are boys.
According to the New York Times, these are poverty and need for the girls to
work outside home, social pressure to have sons and, in some cases,
superstition that doing so can actually lead to the birth of a real boy.
is not difficult to make a girl child a Bacha Posh. Just cut her hair and dress
her in typical Afghan men’s clothing. There are no specific legal or religious
proscriptions against the practice in Afghanistan.
are more valued in Afghanistan, since tribal culture permits only sons to
inherit the father’s wealth and pass down the family name; families without
boys are the objects of pity and contempt.
cross-dressing is something which people in most societies are not comfortable
with, in Afghanistan it is one form of victimising women. For Afghan women,
freedom has a very simple meaning: To avoid unwanted marriage and to be able to
leave the house. Being a Bacha Posh is a price girl children pay for freedom;
to study, to have a profession, to marry. However, while they initially gain
some freedom, there is always the fear that their identity would be discovered,
while the transition back to reality can leave a permanent psychological scar.
Posh is a struggle for a little freedom of girls in a highly patriarchal,
male-dominated society.
Sabet works as a Gender Officer in Action Aid International, Afghanistan. The
article is in special arrangement with South Asia Monitor)