Cross-Dressing in Afghanistan: Help or Hindrance for Women’s Equality?

(Image source: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/world/asia/21gender.html?pagewanted=all)

In Afghanistan, a country notorious for its gender segregation and inequality, there exists a sizeable group of little girls whose parents push them into a life of cross-dressing. Bacha posh means ‘dressed up as a boy’, and it’s a practice that’s been going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan for ages.

(Image source:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15262680)

Bacha posh are pre-pubescent girls whose parents dress them up and have them live as boys. They are considered to be a third gender–neither male nor female, not quite receiving full benefits granted to males, but free from many of the restrictions their female counterparts face. Usually, bacha posh will ‘become female’ again once they hit puberty.

There are several reasons why parents would elect to have their daughters become bacha posh:

1) If a family is suffering financially, having a boy in the family allows for another income (girls don’t have the same freedom to work that boys have).

2) Having a boy in the family allows for a certain amount of respect and prestige for a family.

3) Some parents recognize that they can give their daughters more opportunities by passing them off as boys.

4) Parents may just want a boy and feel, being sonless, that their lives are not as satisfactory without one.

5) Some families even persist in believing in a “superstition that doing so [having a bacha posh] can lead to the birth of a real boy.”

Interestingly, for such an old practice, there does not seem to be much research on the topic, either in prevalence or effects it has on those who practice it and the society they are a part of. As of 3 years ago, there were “no statistics about how many Afghan girls masquerade as boys. But when asked, Afghans of several generations can often tell a story of a female relative, friend, neighbor or co-worker who grew up disguised as a boy.”  In addition, several of the neighbors, friends, teachers, and colleagues of bacha posh are fully aware of these girls’ true gender, but pretend otherwise and treat them as boys.

It may seem that the practice of bacha posh is actually beneficial to girls, or, maybe at worst, simply innocuous. The benefits are quite obvious: bacha posh are able to have better access to education, a job, money, freedom in dress, action, and are sometimes even able to escort their own sisters. It affords them a life of freedom (at least for a few years) that they could never have had otherwise.

Beneath the surface, I would argue that there are much more troubling implications and that the psychological and societal damage this practice brings overpowers any benefits.

Psychological Implications

As noted above, girls almost always must return to their female gender once puberty hits. The transition from bacha posh to adult woman is difficult–a woman is forced to leave behind the taste of freedom she experienced as a pseudo-boy and submit herself back to the harsh strictures of feminine life. As one interviewer of a former bacha posh notes, “not a day goes by when she does not think back to “my best time,” as she called it. Asked if she wished she had been born a man, she silently nods.”

These women feel lost in society–they are not biologically men, but they are unable to relate to women socially or emotionally, having been conditioned to be boys for most of their lives. They become depressed and dejected at the lives they must return to, unable to conform to the more docile, submissive character that society deems appropriate for them.

In Western society, professionals consider gender identity struggles to be serious problems worthy of treatment and help. It’s overly simplistic to equate bacha posh females exactly with individuals struggling with psychological gender identity disorders, but isn’t the underlying problem somewhat similar? Are these women not in need of help and attention as well?

Societal Implications

Bacha posh is fairly widespread and it is a long-standing practice, and so it appears that at least a significant number of Afghan and Pakistani people are aware of it. In addition, as mentioned above, it is not uncommon for colleagues and people who know the family of a bacha posh to be in on the secret.

It’s frustrating that, in these countries where women are so lacking for support for their rights, it is so easy for society to collectively look the other way and consider a bacha posh to be totally acceptable. What is the difference between a little girl and a bacha posh? Why can’t they use this same attitude for women’s equality and freedoms?

Furthermore, the acceptance of bacha posh begs the following question–if the magic cure to allowing a girl to be given more freedom is just to shave her head and throw her some pants to wear even though it’s still known that underneath it all she is biologically female, what is the root of the prejudice and discrimination against women here anyway? If biology is not the reason for discrimination, then what is?

The message it’s easy to take away, then, is that in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is nothing a woman can do, short of becoming a man, to gain respect from and equality to men. Gender and gender relations have become so twisted that it seems that the only real option is to suppress one’s own femininity and try to become the “better” gender. If women see bacha posh as the primary way to gain rights in their cultures, it seems possible that there could be less incentive to change policy and upheave the damaging framework of their culture.

I understand that this is just one aspect of a whole slew of detrimental practices for females in the Middle East. I also think that the bacha posh practice is perhaps less important a priority to focus on for now in the struggle for women’s rights there. But I do feel that we shouldn’t think of it as a solution or a small victory for women, or even dismiss it as a curious and harmless practice. I think it is neither of these things, but is instead a practice indicative of how severe and deep-rooted female inequality is in the Middle East, and perhaps studying such practices further could give policy- and law-makers a better idea of what is needed to effect permanent change.

 by HP

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3 thoughts on “Cross-Dressing in Afghanistan: Help or Hindrance for Women’s Equality?

  1. sasycasy says:

    Good post! I liked your provocative questions and explanation of how this problem is a piece of a larger problem, and particularly that biology isn’t the problem.

  2. Becca says:

    This is really interesting! It shows that even in a culture with very strict gender roles, there’s still recognition that those roles are social constructions. Females are capable of “male” work, but it’s improper for them to be seen doing it.

    Recently, I’ve seen a few articles on Burneshas in Albania (see URLs below), which are similar to the bacha posh, except that women have to take an oath of lifelong celibacy to become socially male. Most do it in order to support families that lack male heirs or leadership.

    http://www.jillpetersphotography.com/swornvirginsofalbania

    http://cnnphotos.blogs.cnn.com/2013/12/29/women-choose-celibacy-to-become-men/

    There’s also a fictional Persian film called “Baran” about an Afghani refugee girl in Iran who is working while disguised as a boy to support her family. I never realized it might be based on an actual practice in Afghanistan.

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