In Afghanistan, where having a son is vital for any respectable family, little girls are sometimes disguised and raised as boys. Here, journalist Jenny Nordberg investigates this complicated cultural game of hidden identity
“Our brother is really a girl.”
One of the eager-looking twins nods to reaffirm her words. Then she turns to her sister. She agrees. Yes, it is true. She can confirm it.
They are two 10-year-old identical girls, each with black hair, squirrel eyes, and a few small freckles. We are sitting on a gold-embroidered sofa in their home in Kabul, Afghanistan. The twin sisters, their legs neatly folded underneath them, are a little offended by my lack of reaction to their big reveal. Twin number two leans forward: “It’s true. He is our little sister.”
I smile at them, and nod. “Yes.” Sure.
A framed picture on a side table shows their brother posing in a V-neck sweater and tie, with his grinning, mustached father. It is the only photo on display in the living room. His oldest daughters speak a shaky but enthusiastic English, picked up from textbooks and satellite television. We just have a language barrier here, perhaps.
“OK,” I say, wanting to be friendly. “I understand. Your sister. Now, what is your favorite color, Benafsha?”
She goes back and forth between red and purple before passing the question to her sister, where it gets equally serious consideration. Their brother suddenly appears in the doorway. Mehran, age six, has a tanned, round face, deep dimples, eyebrows that go up and down as he grimaces, and a wide gap between his front teeth. His hair is as black as that of his sisters, but short and spiky. In a tight red denim shirt and blue pants, chin forward, hands on hips, he swaggers confidently into the room, looking directly at me and pointing a toy gun in my face. Then he pulls the trigger and exclaims his greeting: phow. When I fail to die or shoot back, he takes out a plastic superhero from his back pocket. The wingman has blond hair, shiny white teeth, two gun belts slung across his bulging chest, and is armed with a machine gun. Mehran says something in Dari to the figurine and then listens intently to him. They seem to agree: The assault has been a success.
Benafsha comes alive at my side, seeing the chance to finally prove her point. She waves her arms to call her brother’s attention: “Tell her, Mehran. Tell her you are our sister.” The corners of Mehran’s mouth turn downward. He sticks his tongue out in a grimace before bolting, almost crashing into his mother Azita as she walks into the room.
Do you want to look like a boy and dress like a boy, and do more fun things like boys do, like bicycling, soccer, and cricket?
Azita’s eyes are lined with black kohl, and she wears a little bit of blush. “Would you like to see our family album?” she asks, and pulls out two volumes from under a rickety little desk. They tell the story of how her family came to be. Azita flips the page: Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in 2005. Four little girls in cream-colored dresses. All ordered by size. The shortest has a bow in her hair. It is Mehran. Azita puts her finger on the picture. Without looking up, she says: “You know my youngest is also a girl, yes? We dress her like a boy.” I glance in the direction of Mehran, who has been skidding around the periphery as we have talked. She has hopped into another chair and is talking to the plastic figurine again. “They gossip about my family. When you have no sons, it is a big thing missing, and everyone feels sad for you.” Azita says this as if it is a simple explanation.
Having at least one son is mandatory for good standing and reputation here. A family is not only incomplete without one; in a country lacking rule of law, it is also seen as weak and vulnerable. So it is incumbent upon every married woman to quickly bear a son–it is her absolute purpose in life, and if she does not fulfill it, there is clearly something wrong with her in the eyes of others. She could be dismissed as a dokhtar zai, or “she who only brings daughters.” Still, this is not as grave an insult as what an entirely childless woman could be called—a sanda or khoshk, meaning “dry” in Dari. But a woman who cannot birth a son in a patrilineal culture is—in the eyes of society and often herself—fundamentally flawed.
The literacy rate is no more than 10 percent in most areas, and many unfounded truths swirl around without being challenged. Among them is the commonly held belief that a woman can choose the sex of her unborn baby simply by making up her mind about it. As a consequence, a woman’s inability to bear sons does not elicit much sympathy. Instead, she is condemned both by society and her own husband as someone who has just not desired a son strongly enough. Women, too, often resort to blaming their own bodies and weak minds for failing to deliver sons. The character flaws can add up about such a woman in the eyes of others: She is surely difficult and obnoxious. Perhaps even evil.
So Azita and her husband approached their youngest daughter with a proposition: “Do you want to look like a boy and dress like a boy, and do more fun things like boys do, like bicycling, soccer, and cricket? And would you like to be like your father?”
She absolutely did. It was a splendid offer. All it took was a haircut, a pair of pants, and a denim shirt with “superstar” printed on the back. In a single afternoon, the family went from having four daughters to being blessed with three little girls and a spiky-haired boy. Their youngest would no longer answer to Mahnoush, meaning “moonlight,” but to the boy’s name Mehran. To the outside world, the family was finally complete.
Some, of course, knew the truth. But they, too, congratulated Azita. Having a made-up son was better than none, and people complimented her on her ingenuity. When Azita traveled back to her home province—a more conservative place than Kabul—she took Mehran with her. In the company of her six-year-old son, she found she was met with more approval. The switch also satisfied Azita’s husband. Tongues would now cease to wag about this unlucky man burdened with four daughters, who would need to find husbands for all of them, and have his line end with him. In Pashto, Afghanistan’s second official language, there is even a deprecating name for a man who has no sons: He is a meraat, referring to the system where an inheritance, such as land assets, is almost exclusively passed on through a male lineage. But since the family’s youngest took on the role of a son, the child has become a source of pride to her father. Mehran’s revised status has also afforded her siblings considerably more freedom, as they can now leave the house, go to the playground, and even wander to the next block, if Mehran is along as an escort.
There was one additional reason for the transition. Azita says it with a burst of low laughter, leaning in a little closer to disclose her small act of rebellion: “I wanted to show my youngest what life is like on the other side.” That life can include flying a kite, running as fast as you can, laughing hysterically, jumping up and down because it feels good, climbing trees to feel the thrill of hanging on. It is to speak to another boy, to sit with your father and his friends, to ride in the front seat of a car and watch people out on the street. To look them in the eye. To speak up without fear and to be listened to, and rarely have anyone question why you are out on your own in comfortable clothes that allow for any kind of movement. All unthinkable for an Afghan girl.
But what will happen when puberty hits?
“You mean when he grows up?” Azita says, her hands tracing the shape of a woman in the air. “It’s not a problem. We change her into a girl again.”
The colloquialism for the child who is not a son or a daughter is bacha posh. Together with a Dari translator I settled on that spelling, as we are not able to find any written references in English. It literally translates as “dressed like a boy” in Dari. In Pashto, this third kind of child can also be referred to as alakaana. That the term exists and is well-known indicates that these children are not unusual; nor is it a new phenomenon.
But no one knows exactly how many bacha posh are in Afghanistan. They are a minority, but it is not uncommon to see them in villages throughout the country. It seems every Afghan has a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, or someone in their own family who once had a daughter who lived in disguise. The families who share this secret can be rich, poor, educated, uneducated, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara, or Turkoman—it doesn’t matter. The only thing that binds them together is their need for a son. Daughters have been made into sons because the family needed another income through a child who worked; because the road to school was dangerous and a boy’s disguise provided some safety; or because the family lacked sons and needed to present as a “complete” family to the village. Often it is a combination of factors. A poor family may need a son for different reasons than a rich family, but no ethnic or geographical reasons set them apart.
Still, as I began my research, senior officials at the United Nations and experts from both government and independent aid organizations delivered unanimous dismissals when I approached them about the bacha posh phenomenon. According to these agencies, Afghans did not dress their daughters as sons. Why would they do that? It would go against the common understanding of Afghan culture. Gender segregation in Afghanistan is among the strictest in the world, making such an act unthinkable. Dangerous, even, I was told.
But Carol le Duc, an English anthropologist who has been working in the region since 1989, offers a different take on the matter. In her view, the West may be more obsessed with children’s gender roles than Afghans are. Although Afghan society is built on rigid separation of the sexes for adults, gender in childhood in a way matters less there than in the West. According to le Duc, people in Afghanistan “are driven by something much more basic—sexuality. Everything before puberty is just preparation for procreation. That is the main purpose of life here.”
Mehran first arrived at kindergarten in Kabul as a girl named Mahnoush, in pigtails and a pistachio-colored dress. When school shut down for a break she left and never returned. Instead, short-haired, tie-wearing Mehran began first grade with the other children. Nothing else changed much. Some teachers were surprised but did not comment except to one another. The school’s high turnover of students helped, as did the school’s coed policy of not separating boys and girls for lessons or play.
In the years since she left Mahnoush behind, Mehran’s personality has grown louder. When she returns home from school in the late afternoon, her special snack is already set out on the kitchen counter: two oranges on a plate, with a little knife to peel them. On this day, she attacks the oranges in a frenzy, and then, her hands still sticky, crawls up onto her mother’s lap. The goal is to convince Azita to release her laptop so the siblings can watch a film. While her sisters smile as they gently make a request, Mehran is loud and insistent. Her right ear sports a large Band-Aid, after a failed attempt to pierce herself with a needle inspired by the male Bollywood action hero Salman Khan, who wears an earring.
“He’s very much a boy right now,” Azita mutters. “The other day I came home, and he was trying to take apart my computer, saying he was looking for the games inside.” She laughs. “Mehran is not like the girls. He is my naughty one.”
Though the sun has already begun to set, Azita decides to allow the girls an hour of outside play, on the condition that they stay within her range of vision from the window. Allowing young girls outside is uncommon, even in less conservative neighborhoods, and Azita’s 10-year-old twins may be able to go, at most, three more years without headscarves. Their father has let it be known that he would prefer they cover themselves already now.
“They say I am a little bit fat, so I told my mother that maybe it was best they make me a boy, too, since I am not pretty.”
Benafsha and Beheshta say they do not envy Mehran. Why would they want to play football and get dirty? Scream and yell and fight with the boys? Mehran may be their much-cuddled younger sister who rules the family with her temper, but they would not want to trade places with her. In eight-year-old middle child Mehrangis’ view, on the other hand, Mehran absolutely has the better deal. Mehrangis is not included in the twins’ giggly camaraderie, where they always have each other’s backs, and she receives less attention for her appearance. She reveals a proposal she recently made to her parents: “They say I am a little bit fat, so I told my mother that maybe it was best they make me a boy, too, since I am not pretty.”
For Mehran, there is no need to play well behaved, adorable, or pleasing. There is no expectation of grace or adoring smiles. When I take pictures of the girls, Benafsha and Beheshta strike well-rehearsed poses, pouting their lips and batting big flirty eyelashes, sometimes even pointing their fingers at each other and swirling their arms, as they perform a little Bollywood-style dance routine. At times, Mehrangis attempts to emulate them, but it mostly earns her mockery. Mehran goes in the exact opposite direction—looking angry, staring into the camera, hands on her hips. When she does smile, it is a big grin, showing off the large gap between her two front teeth. Her clothes barely hold together at times, especially after she has been rolling around outside for a few hours. And she is the biggest eater in the family, after her father.
Benafsha pulls my sleeve. She wants to say something, but we must move away from the others. We move closer to the wire fence. She says it quickly, her voice low and her face down. “Two of my friends call her a girl. They know I have a sister and not a brother. Also, she fights. The boys, the other neighbors’ boys, they say, ‘You are a girl.’ She tells them, ‘No, I am a boy.’ But they know.”
The twins try to comfort Mehran when it happens, Benafsha says. But sometimes she becomes too upset, and they do not know what to do. Certainly, Mehran annoys the twins at times, but what upsets them more is when other children gossip about her. “She was quiet before,” Benafsha says. “Now she’s naughty and she fights. Now, she cries a lot. When we go to sleep I ask her, ‘Why do you cry?’ She says, ‘Because they say I am a girl.’”
Luckily, Benafsha feels, it will all be over soon. In a few years, Mehran will have to change back into being a girl. They all know it—their mother has told them several times. At some point soon, whatever privileges Mehran now enjoys will end.
Not sure what to say, I look up at the building. Three windows are full of faces wrapped in headscarves, smiling and waving down at us. These girls are too old—too close to puberty—to be allowed outside.
Adapted from The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan. Copyright © 2014 by Jenny Nordberg. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Random House LLC.
Photo by Adam Ferguson
This story appears in the Sept/Oct 2014 print edition of BUST Magazine.