In a society that demands sons at almost any cost, some families are cutting their daughters’ hair short and giving them male names.
An excerpt from “The Underground Girls of Kabul” published in The Atlantic
Mehran, age 6, first arrived at her kindergarten in Kabul as Mahnoush, in pigtails and a pistachio dress. When school shut down for a break, Mahnoush left and never returned. Instead a short-haired, tie-wearing child with the more masculine-sounding name of Mehran began first grade with the other children.
Nothing else changed much. Some teachers were surprised but did not comment except to one another. When the male Koran teacher demanded Mehran cover her head in his class, a baseball cap solved the problem. Miss Momand, a teacher who started her job after Mehran’s change, remembers being startled when a boy was brought into the girls’ room for afternoon nap time but realizing, as she helped Mehran undress, that she was a girl. Mehran’s mother Azita later explained to Miss Momand that she had only daughters, and that Mehran went as the family’s son. Miss Momand understood perfectly. She herself used to have a friend at school who was a family’s only child and had assumed the role of a son.
Officially, girls like Mehran do not exist in Afghanistan, where the system of gender segregation is among the strictest in the world. But many other Afghans, too, can recall a former neighbor, a relative, a colleague, or someone in their extended family raising a daughter as a son. These children even have their own colloquialism, bacha posh, which literally translates from Dari to “dressed like a boy.” Midwives, doctors, and nurses I’ve met from all over the provinces are more familiar with the practice than most; they have all known bacha posh to appear at clinics, escorting a mother or a sister, or as a patient who has proven to be of another birth sex than first presumed.
The health workers say that families who disguise their daughters in this way can be rich, poor, educated, or uneducated, or belong to any of Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups. The only thing that binds the bacha posh girls together is their families’ need for a son in a society that undervalues daughters and demands sons at almost any cost. They disguised their girls as boys because the family needed another income through a child who worked and girls aren’t allowed to, 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, as in Kabul, 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.
And to most of them, the health workers told me, having a bacha posh in the family is an accepted and uncontroversial practice, provided the girl is turned back to a woman before she enters puberty, when she must marry and have children of her own. Waiting too long to turn someone back could have consequences for a girl’s reputation. A teenage girl should not be anywhere near teenage boys, even in disguise. She could mistakenly touch them or be touched by them, and be seen as a loose and impure girl by those who know her secret. It could ruin her chances of getting married, and she would be seen as a tarnished offering. The entire family’s reputation could be sullied. For that reason, and because the bacha posh I spoke to were minors, some names and details have been changed in the story that follows.
Mehran seems to have adapted well to her new role. She takes every opportunity to tell those around her that she is a boy. She will refuse sewing and doll play in favor of cycling, soccer, and running. According to Miss Momand, Mehran has fully become a boy, and neither her exterior nor her behavior is distinguishable from another boy’s. All the teachers play along and help protect her secret by letting her change clothes in a separate room when necessary.
“So is this all normal to you? Common, even?” I ask Miss Momand.
“Not exactly. But it is not a problem.”
The rules are clear: dresses for girls, pants for boys. There are no other cross-dressers attending school. But the school has other things to worry about, such as how many armed guards are needed by the front gate. The teacher expresses some solidarity with Azita: “Mehran’s mother is in parliament. She is a good woman. We do what we must.”
“We women, or we Afghans?”
As for academic skills, Mehran is “intelligent, but a little lazy,” according to her teacher. A few years after leaving Mahnoush behind, Mehran’s personality has grown louder. She spends breaks floating in and out of the boys’ soccer games and other outdoor activities, depending on where the action seems to be at the moment. Mehran is well aware she is a girl, according to the teachers. Since Mehran was a girl for several years before she was remade into a boy, there should be little confusion for her in that regard. But she always introduces herself as a boy to newcomers.
Sigmund Freud claimed that children are not even aware of genital differences until around the age of 4 or 5, but in the 1980s, the psychoanalysts Eleanor Galenson and Herman Roiphe proved that children’s understanding of a sexual identity begins much earlier. According to their findings, a child can be aware of his or her birth sex as early as 15 months.
Mehran is well aware she is a girl, according to the teachers. But she always introduces herself as a boy to newcomers.
Yet in Afghanistan, there is a certain interest in keeping children in the dark, or at least blurring the lines about boys and girls. Specifics about anatomical differences are purposely not explained by many parents, in order to keep the minds of children—and especially those of little girls—“pure” for as long as possible before they marry.
It reminds me of a story my mother once told me about how she, as a 10-year-old in a more conservative version of Sweden of the 1950s, proclaimed to her mother that she intended to become a boy when she grew up. My mother had only one sister and a dim view of differences between men and women, never having seen her father or any other men without clothes. My grandmother scoffed at her daughter and called her stupid but did not offer any explanation for why the plan wasn’t feasible.
At Mehran’s school, children are absolutely forbidden from seeing the opposite sex naked. The headmaster tells me that at this stage, she is certain that to most students, what sets little boys and girls apart is all exterior: pants versus skirts.
That, and the knowledge that those with pants always come first.