Changing Daughters Into Sons in Afghanistan

Tired of having a sonless family? Change in your female unit for a male replacement. Guaranteed immediate results in family status. (some side effects may include confusion, displacement, perpetuation of social norms, identity crises, and marital problems). 

Just writing this ad gave me a sense of ridiculousness. If it was not a somewhat satirical approach to a real situation, it would almost be funny and as well as absurd. Yet although the words might be foreign, the practice is certainly not in Afghanistan culture.

A friend of mine passed on a New York Times article to me this week: Afghan Boys Are Prized, So Girls Live the Part. I’m part of network that regularly receives and sends news articles all the times– from work, from classmates, from friends in a continuous flow of information. But few made me pause and think and pause and think again like this one did.

Sons are the valued commodity in Afghanistan– daughters, the unwanted children. Despite the evidence, families still hold females responsible for baring their husbands male children. When they fail to do so, the family loses social status. Women face overwhelming pressure to have a son– not only from their husband, but from their in-laws and community. Even Azita Rafaat, a member on Afghanistan’s Parliament, says that ‘“when you don’t have a son in Afghanistan, it’s like a big missing in your life. Like you lost the most important point of your life. Everybody feels sad for you.”’ This educated, politically powerful woman felt like she had failed her role as a woman and a wife because she could only have female children. What a terrible environment, where half of the world’s population is seen as inadequate and unwanted, simply by birth! She also lost prestige in the eyes of her constituents as well as suffered from a terrible family environment. So she picked up the scissors and cut a daughter’s hair.

And thus the demographics of the Rafaat family changed: two parents with four daughters  became two parents with three daughters and a son.

Evidently, this solution is not uncommon in Afghanistan. Who knows how many countless children are running the streets of Kabul, both male and female at the same time. Covered by long trousers under the sun and wearing knives in their back pockets and confidence in their strides, yet entirely female underneath. It’s reminiscent of a Shakespearean play, except there is no comedy element at play here. No happy resolution between the sexes at permanent war with each other: a war of differences and subjugation.

But in a strange way, this social construction would almost make me hope for the future. After all, if girls grow up outside the heavily restricted gender roles, they have a chance at real empowerment– the kind that leads to permanent change. Zahra,  a fifteen year old girl turned boy in Kabul, plays  football and cricket and rides a bike around town. When a boy insults her, she yells back. She operates in a world where it is both necessary and encouraged for her to learn to defend and protect herself. Without her protection of short haircuts and men’s trousers, she would lose this privilege, and be doomed to verbal harassment on the streets and the sidelines on the court that normal Afghani girls experience. While this cultural situation is terrible for women, bringing them up as second class citizens, inside I find myself singing ‘One-girl Revolution.’

How ideal does this situation seem, almost like a way to train women how to break out of their roles and not accept anything less than the best? Girls who are disguised as boys seem to get more education, learn to compete physically, verbally, and mentally with boys, and are able to work in the formal and informal labor force in a way unheard of for Afghani women.  In a way, the Shakespearean freedom opens so many doors.  In a recent Title IX study, which I discussed a few months ago, studies found that  ‘“girls who play sports are more confident [and] have  higher self-esteemment…”’ (Title IX at 35: 2008, 7). The NYtimes article discusses one woman who, when her husband hit her, she hit back. She was never beaten again. Empowerment was a solution that worked. She had learned how to defend herself growing up, and was not about to stop just because he had reverted back to a ‘female’ status of acceptance and victimization. It is because of these stories I want to believe that this generation of women will break out of the mold. That they will be more confident, more assured, and understand the value of their own gender and reject the constructed norms in which only the son can have value. That somehow, when their parents succumb to outside social pressure and gender preference, they are actually creating the perfect environment for a gender revolution.

But I have to be honest. However wonderful that story’s end would be, it’s a fairy-tale.

And the reality is so much more brutal.

Azita Rafaat’s six-year-old ‘son’ slapped his eleven-year old sister, after throwing an almost tantrum, because s/he thought that her sister was taking too much time on the computer. Her mother, upon seeing this, commented with a sigh, ‘“He is very naughty- my daughter adopted all the boys’ traits very soon. You’ve seen her — the attitude, the talking — she has nothing of a girl in her.”’

Boy-girls seem to be absorbed into the cultural structure– treating other girls dismissively and poorly. While I am not sure how universal this example is, I would guess that most boy-girls treat their sisters with less respect and demand certain types of treatment as if it is their due– simply because of their new ‘gender’. So instead of breaking away from tradition, these boy-girls support it and make no effort of cross-over. I doubt they call out for their former girl-friends to play soccer with them in the streets, or ask their sisters to watch the store for them while they run to pick something up. Appearances, not reality, matter here. So no matter how integrated a female can actually be in a society, she will only have that privilege if she follows the constructed social rules.

It might be better if there was a support group for these children. If they played and talked with other boy-girls. Instead, each one is hidden. Sometimes, even their neighborhood doesn’t know the truth about the genders. So instead, these girls go along their entire life being treated with the privileges and responsibilities of being a man in a male’s society until it is time for marriage. And suddenly, all of that power, that position, that behavior is stripped away. Not only are the new woman expected to be submissive to their husbands and suddenly learn how to be a woman and all the ‘feminine’ skills of cooking and sewing and dress, they are expected to do it quickly and expertly.

I can’t imagine how that would be. How world-changing and terrible. To go from having a voice to having nothing at all. It is almost worse than being treated as a girl your whole life. It is as if you were let out into the greener pastures, and then snatched away to be forever trapped behind iron bars on a cement floor. Not only can you see out, you can remember what it felt like to touch the grass, to run with freedom under the sun, talking with whomever you pleased.

And, not only would you lose all of your former friends, you lose yourself. And you have no ready-made network to help build yourself back up. Shukria Siddiqui, who was a man for twenty years, spoke of being unable to interact in the world of women. For a long time, she was “unable to socialize with other women and uncomfortable even greeting them.” I can’t help but think, but what if she could? What if, somehow, there was an underground network in which women could share their liberating experiences, rather than suppress them? But there isn’t. Instead, reintegration is required, as well as the suppression of that history, that truth.

Her family might have benefited by the temporary increase of social status, but the cost:  Siddiqui’s life. (‘“For me, it would have been better to grow up as a girl,” she said, “since I had to become a woman in the end.”’)

This Shakespearean switch has evidently been going on for over a century. It is going to take a stronger force than these women’s experiences alone to change it. The Afghanistan people will only stop this practice when they value girls as well as boys. A good start to this would be changing tribal practices and actual laws to allow girls to inherit the family’s wealth and to work outside the home. It will take time and increased effort, and likely outside pressure to break down these insidious social norms. But it can be done.  And when it is, girls won’t need to cut their hair to play in streets or to help their family take share of the shop. Families won’t need to sacrifice a child’s life for social status. And maybe, just maybe, these girls and boys can be measured by who they are, rather than what they are.

Nordberg, Jenny. 2010. Afghan Boys Are Prized, So Girls Live the Part. NYTimes. September 20.

National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education. 2008. Title IX at 35: Beyond the Headlines.

—by MLT


2 thoughts on “Changing Daughters Into Sons in Afghanistan

  1. GoodReason says:

    When I read this article, I was heartbroken on many levels. Thank you for highlighting it. What will it take to see girls as fully human souls first, and female second?

  2. SMS says:

    Progress is sometimes very slow, but I wonder if a next evolution might be that the girl-boys are allowed to grow up and then remain in their dual sex roles. This would be comparable to Albania which had a similar practice that persisted until just the last few decades. Oddly, it became a springboard to more equality because it demonstrated that women could do things as good as the men. As women gained more rights vis a vis the men the practice just died out. But in the mean time it gave some of them at least some power in the community (at an enormous cost of course). This is no where near the ideal on any level, but I still wonder if it cannot be turned for good – eventually. One can only hope.

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