Dressed Up As a Boy

A recent NYT article “When Boys Are Prized, Girls Live the Part” written by Jenny Nordberg, described the Afghani tradition of ‘bacha posh’ which translates as ‘dressed up as a boy.’ Since boys are so valued over girls, families with girls often dress one of their girls in boy’s clothes from an early age until puberty or well after.

They do it for many reasons. Since the family name and treasure pass down through sons, boys are highly valued. A boyless family is pitied by the community. It is believed that the mother can determine the sex of her unborn, so she is blamed if she has daughters. In the strictly sex-segregated society a boy can go places a girl can never go – to market for errands, to school unattended, to a job to earn extra money for the family.

The article highlighted two stories of girls dressed up as boys. One mother, who had herself dressed up as a boy, said that the experience had taught her the ways of men and power which had helped her win a job in the Assembly. Because she only had daughters, she and her husband decided to dress their youngest up as a boy, so that her community would think she was fit to be elected.

Another young girl made the decision on her own. She attended school as a girl, then changed into a black suit with boxy shoulders and wide-legged pants. She plays football, cricket and rides a bike. She does not want to wear women’s clothes or ever be a woman when she reaches puberty, because she has seen how people call women names and abuse them.

Nordberg did a yeoman’s job of uncovering an enduring tradition of masquerade that has been going on for several generations in Afghanistan. In a bloodless reportorial style, she never opined on the fetishization of maleness or the oppression of Afghani women her story represents. It was riveting. I’m sure somewhere someone is already pitching it as a movie of the week.

I have just been sad. For all those dear Afghani girls trapped in their homes and tradition. And certainly, despite the official line that there are no gays in Afghanistan, in some province there is a young lesbian dressed up as a boy enjoying freedom of movement and access. I can only imagine that inevitable sad day when all that changes and she must dress up as a woman.