Girls Will Be Boys: Gender In Afghanistan

by Emilie Branch

Mehran is a six-year-old Afghani girl who is being raised by her parents as a boy. This phenomenon is called bacha posh, and translates to “girl in boy’s clothes”. In Afghanistan boys are valued higher than girls; they are able to carry their father’s name and be privy to his inheritance. Women are alienated from any kind of social standing and not really even allowed to be seen let alone walk freely. Bacha posh looks to remedy this, at least for a time (the exact length one is allowed to pass as a boy varies, but it can last up until the arranged marriage) in a girl’s upbringing.

Mehran’s mother, Mrs. Rafaat decided that she would make her youngest daughter a boy, to combat social pressure. She had given birth to two girls prior to Mehran, and as a result of this was considered a failure. In Afghanistan it’s about keeping up appearences. Mehran passes, and though people realize she is a girl, it doesn’t matter. 

Some girls do not take to a shift in gender as kindly as Mehran, who “has no girl in her”, according to her mother. Miina, a ten year old bacha posh was made that way by her mother who needed her to help earn money for the family. As a boy she is able to work in a local store earning a low wage, but a wage nonetheless. Miina is uncomfortable around the real boys and longs to dress like a girl, often trying on her sister’s clothes at home. Her mother tells her the shift back won’t be long, as her younger sisters will soon take her place. The family’s primary goal for bacha posh is not as much social as it is economic, and so each girl will experience their turn.

The time to change back from boy to girl usually takes place at puberty. For girls who have lived as a boy for as long as they remember, this can be traumatic. Zahra, a 15-year-old bacha posh, does not want to change back—she feels she is one of the boys and says that all she wants is to be a boy. The interviewer describes her as being different from Afghani girls in that she doesn’t “smile or look down”. Zahara holds her own too, if challenged about her gender in the community (most think she is actually male) she matches what boys say to her and one ups them: “I’ve been in fights with boys,” she said. “If they tell me two bad words, I will tell them three. If they slap me once, I will slap them twice.”

Mrs. Siddiqui grew up similar to Zahra, raised as a boy and happy in this role. She remained a boy after the onset of puberty (which happened late). At 20 years old her family set up an arranged marriage, and though she says she is lucky to have a good husband, the shock of being a woman for the first time presented adversity for her. She was unaccustomed to being around women, and was awkward around them. She had not been taught to cook and had trouble navigating her burqa. It’s interesting to note how strong being raised as a boy made Mrs. Siddiqui; when her husband hit her, she hit him back—and that was the last time he raised a hand to her. In spite of this, as well as calling her childhood as a boy her “best time”, she says it would have been better to be raised a girl since womanhood was the inevitability of the situation: “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.” When asked if she wished she had been born a man, she nods silently.

Mrs. Rafaat, remains optimistic about the bacha posh; though she thinks about how it will affect her daughter Mehran all the time. She says that she was able to dress up as a boy and assist her father from the ages of 10-14, citing that this time gave her the energy and ambition that she has now (she serves as one of 68 women on Afghanistan’s Parliament). She also attributes it to being able to communicate more effectively with men, and relate to them. She hopes being a boy will help her daughter in the long run, and not inhibit her, as this is the reality in Afghanistan. It is interesting to note that Mrs. Rafaat was actually raised as a girl, she was just given the chores of a boy when she was of an adolescent age—thus her change back seems like it would have been less traumatic as having no conception of being female and then forced into womanhood.  

Mrs. Rafaat longs for a better future, one where girls don’t have to be liberated only if they are dressed as boys. In spite of this hope, she feels a fear of change, a diversion from the real issues and an almost desperate attachment to tradition amongst her people. “They think it’s all about the burqa,” she said. “I’m ready to wear two burqas if my government can provide security and a rule of law. That’s O.K. with me. If that’s the only freedom I have to give up, I’m ready.” 

Read the full NY Times article here: HkOrVPz0nAntQ

Image courtesy



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