bacha posh is a defiant piece of women’s history that no one has gone looking for. Until now.
“bacha posh” did not exist on the internet until Jenny Nordberg’s 2010 New York Times story, first using the term. While tales of girls dressed like boys have always been found in art and fantasy, the actual practice was not documented and known to the outside world until then. It did not even have a name.
In Afghanistan, “bacha posh” is the literal term for a girl who is dressed up, and disguised as, a boy. These children are part of a hidden practice in which parents disguise daughters as sons. Instead of wearing a headscarf, and a skirt or a dress, a little girl will get a short haircut and a pair of pants, and she’ll be sent off into the world as one of the boys. The bacha posh look like boys, they learn to behave like boys, and to those around them who don’t know, they are Afghan boys.
It is a creative, some would say desperate, way to buck the system in a suppressive, gender-segregated society. In Afghanistan, men make most of the decisions and women and girls hold very little value. From the moment she is born, an Afghan girl has very few rights and little control over her own life. She often cannot leave the house without an escort. She must guard her behavior and appear modest at all times.
For Afghan girls, posing as a boy opens up a whole new world. It affords a girl freedom of movement; for some that means a chance to go to school, for others the ability to work and support their families. In every case, it allows her to see and experience things most girls and young women in Afghanistan never do.
For Jenny Nordberg, discovering Afghanistan’s secret practice of bacha posh — where mothers disguise their daughters as sons, so they can escape segregation and reach for freedoms that their birth sex does not allow — became a five-year research project in a deeply conservative society, exploring questions about religion, gender and sexuality — all forbidden topics in Afghanistan. It’s also a story about the Western world’s involvement in the country – why we have so strongly desired to help women there, and how we have gone about it.
Some extremely brave Afghan women revealed their most intimate secrets to Nordberg for The Underground Girls of Kabul, published September 2014, two years after Nordberg’s breaking piece in The New York Times. They have all taken a journey to infiltrate the other side – the world of men and boys – in a real-life nature versus nurture experiment.
Bachaposh.com is a continuation of the stories uncovered in The Underground Girls of Kabul.