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Meet the girls of Afghanistan who grow up disguised as boys…

Every morning Bibi Hakmeena pulls on loose pants, a baggy shirt and a black turban, and goes to work as a provincial council member in Afghanistan. So far, so normal. Except Bibi, who dresses like a man and carries a Kalashnikov everywhere, is actually a woman. In a country known for its strict gender roles, this seems to fly against cultural norms, but it is a practice ingrained in Afghan tradition. Bibi is a bacha posh (meaning dressed like a boy).

“Afghan families tend to covet sons,” says paediatrician and author of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, a fictional bestseller based on bacha posh, Nadia Hashimi. “For mothers and fathers who are unfortunate enough to have only daughters, the bacha posh tradition is a creative solution.” Parents simply select a daughter, crop her hair, dress her as a boy, and give her a male name. This means that she can help her father outside the home and attend school – things that many girls in Afghanistan aren’t allowed to do.

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It wasn’t always this way. Before Taliban rule, Afghanistan was a relatively progressive country, with many women educated to university level and holding skilled jobs. Around 40 per cent of doctors were female, and 70 per cent of schoolteachers. However, the Taliban regime quickly stripped women of their rights and relegated them to the home, with many barely stepping over the threshold, let alone attending school. Although there have been dramatic steps forward since then, women have struggled to regain equality. Men are still heirs who carry on the family name, while women fade into their marital family.

Mehran, a seven-year-old bacha posh, poses with her sisters

Mehran, a seven-year-old bacha posh, poses with her sisters

As a result, families without sons aren’t highly regarded in the community. Dressing girls as boys became so common that it’s now deemed normal. Nadia says that nearly everyone has a “one or two degree of separation” from a bacha posh. Parents keep it hush-hush, and it’s something that nobody likes to talk about. Usually, even if the community find out, they keep up the pretence. Everyone from the girl’s neighbours and teachers, to extended family and friends, may know that she’s a girl, yet they will treat her as a boy.

For those selected, it’s an honour. “They have all the liberties and privileges afforded to a boy,” explains Nadia. “Whereas girls are expected to be sheltered, modest, and involved in domestic chores, boys are different. They can run through the streets, play sports, and look men in the eye during conversation.” The parents gain respect from their community and their child is given opportunities they would otherwise be denied. Given that 85 per cent of women receive no formal education in Afghanistan, it sounds like a win-win situation for all parties.

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Although Bibi Hakmeena is an exception (most bacha posh return to life as a woman when they reach puberty), she’s an example of a woman in a position of power, thanks to this tradition. Actors, professionals and members of the government are just a few occupations that prominent former bacha posh have entered. Many supporters of the tradition believe that it gives girls an opportunity to be confident, not to mention educated, in ways that only boys are encouraged to be.

Aside from learning and developmental benefits, bacha posh are often spared child marriage. Around 50 per cent of Afghan women are married or engaged by the time they reach 12. Girls who are brought up as boys often get married when they  are considered a woman, as they are allowed to live as a male until adolescence.

However, critics of the practice claim that it’s simply perpetuating a severe lack of women’s rights. The fact that a girl has to pretend to be a boy in order to have career prospects and gain confidence is enough to make any feminist wince. “It’s clear that the bacha posh is a manifestation of a misogynistic culture,” says Nadia. “My wish would be to see the practice become obsolete because the perceived need no longer exists.”

15-year-old Zahra has dressed as a boy since she was a toddler

15-year-old Zahra has dressed as a boy since she was a toddler

There’s a strong argument against bacha posh, particularly due to the effects of gender confusion on a child’s impressionable mind. School years and puberty, which marks the transition between becoming a child and an adult in most societies, is when a person learns their sense of self. This is where they play out their own personality versus their role in the family, hopefully finding the right path somewhere along the way. As a paediatrician, this is something that Nadia finds crucial to child development. “Any benefit [to living formative years as a boy] comes at a high price. The transitions can be very difficult on a young psyche,” she says.

Nadia’s novel, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, explores this high price in the realms of fiction. As a paediatrician with Afghan heritage, she became fascinated with the practice and began to research it further. She found that the transition back to being a woman is extremely difficult for most bacha posh. “Some girls choose to return to their natural gender when their physical differences become impossible to conceal,” she explains. “Others reject the transition and choose to continue living as a man. For some, marriage is challenging because requires them to take a subservient role to a husband when they have lived feeling equal to a man.”

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For some, the impact of this sudden change is distressing. Nadia believes that some young women developmental disorders such as gender dysphoria, where there is a difference between the individuals expressed gender and the one others assign them. The BBC spoke to one former bacha posh who told them: “If my parents force me to get married, I will compensate for the sorrows of Afghan women and beat my husband so badly that he will take me to court every day.”

The UN recently branded Afghanistan the worst place to be born a woman. So is the solution to this problem simply living under the guise of a different gender? It certainly worked for Bibi Hakmeena, who is seen as a role model by many. But hopefully, one day, this need will become obsolete, and little girls will have a range of successful women to look up to. After all, nothing is more liberating than knowing you can achieve anything in life, just by being yourself.



Images: Adam Ferguson originally taken for Jenny Nordberg who brought the story bacha posh to the world’s attention in a report for the New York Times