Revealing Afghanistan's Bacha Posh: A Q&A with Jenny Nordberg

Who are the bacha posh of Afghanistan?

Bacha posh” is the term for a girl who is “dressed up like 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.

Why are girls disguised as boys in Afghanistan?

It’s 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. (Just for a girl to ride a bike, for instance, would be seen by many as inappropriate.)

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.

When you first broke the story of Afghanistan’s bacha posh in a 2010 New York Times article, it drew millions of views and a massive response from readers worldwide. What drew you to this topic and inspired you to expand the article into a full-length book?

This is the story of a lifetime. How often does a journalist come upon an actual secret, which holds the promise of a journey straight into the unknown, where no one has gone before? It also cuts right into the most difficult questions of human existence: war, oppression, and the difference between men and women. When I first discovered and started researching the bacha posh, I was frustrated to find that none of the Western experts on Afghanistan I asked had any idea about this practice. In time, I realized I had to become the expert.

Furthermore, as a woman, the experience of bacha posh opens a window onto a very raw form of patriarchy, where my kind is unwanted, despised and abused. Writing a full-length book gave me the space to go much more in-depth on this issue and to try to understand why that is.

I also hope that my book will reach an even broader audience; as a reader of my original Times’ piece said: “What woman hasn’t wondered how life would have been different if she had been born a boy?” Her comment helped me realize that this is not just a story about Afghanistan – it’s a story about all women, and the history we share, which should be read and understood by women (and men) everywhere.

Most bacha posh are forced to become girls before they hit puberty, sometimes after living their whole lives as boys. What kind of lasting impact – if any – did this have on the women you interviewed?

My research, based on interviews with dozens of bacha posh, shows that the impact on adult females depends very much on when their transition back to the female gender takes place. A few years as a boy when they were children may be remembered as an empowering experience. But for those who go through puberty and beyond as young men, things quickly become much more complicated. Aside from the psychological conundrum, those who are nurtured as boys and young men though their teens and beyond can see a delay in the development of female identity and even the onset of puberty. It’s an example of how the mind affects the body. Bacha posh really is a unique, current-day nurture versus nature experiment.

To research and write this book, you spend a great deal of time in Afghanistan over the past few years. What was it like?

Working in a country at war can be physically and mentally exhausting; you’re on high alert most of the time. There’s a feeling that there is no time to lose, because who knows for how long you can be lucky, and not be in the wrong place when a blast goes off?

Imagine how Afghans feel, who have lived with this for more than thirty years. The good side of it is that Afghans are extremely polite and hospitable, and that there is very little time for indecision or procrastination; interactions are much more immediate. With the constant presence of potential disaster, life takes sharper contours. And you laugh a lot together.

You reported this book from Afghanistan and worked closely with its subjects. Did you become friends with the women you interviewed for the book?

A classic tenet of journalism says that a journalist should not make friends with her subject. But I believe you can be a professional and a human being at the same time. With all my main characters, I have developed an intimate, respectful bond. Over the past years, I’ve asked them to tell me things they have never spoken of before, about their bodies, about sex, about religion – all the forbidden topics. In return, I have also shared some of my secrets with them.

At the same time, there were no blurred lines about who the journalist was, and who the subjects were. Each of these very brave women made a conscious choice to be part of this book, and I have tried to honor that by offering a lot of transparency about my work. For instance, when I had a somewhat finished the book manuscript in the summer of 2013, I went back to Kabul to see each of them again. We read it together, and for those who could not read, I read out loud. Some details were added; others taken out. Together we have tried to be careful and protect their families. In the end, I hope I have done them and their courage justice and they have told me they hope people will want to know about them.

This is a dispatch from inside extreme oppression, from those who just happened to be born in the most dangerous place on earth to be a woman.

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