What’s Sex Got to do With… Afghanistan?

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Afghanistan, a country where most power and dominance is inhabited by men, is ranked one of the worst countries in the world to be born a female.  Afghan women who bear only female children are scorned and looked down upon.  To combat this inherent female disprivilege, women have started raising their female children as boys.  Yes, as boys.

The young girls forced to pose as boys in Afghan society are known as the “bacha posh.”  This is not a new practice in Afghanistan, it has been going on since ancient times. It is not well documented, however, because the real gender identity of these girls is kept secret, generally until they are in their teens, their marriageable years.  When the girls are old enough to be arranged to marry a man, then they are forced to quickly transition into a life lived as a woman, contrary to the gender performances they have upheld for years.

This forced transition into womanhood, after years of identifying as a boy, is often difficult for the bacha posh.  They do not realize that women have much more conservative expectations than men.  Women are expected to speak only when spoken to, to stay in the home and cook and clean, to cover every part of their bodies in public.  When girls, raised as boys, are then expected to immediately become women and marry, several resist and insist that women can accomplish things equivalent to the work of men, because they themselves have done so for years.

 

Mehran Rafaat

 

There are a couple different ways to look at the existence of the bacha posh.  It can be seen as evidence of the fluidity of gender.  The young girls are easily raised as boys, suggesting that biological sex and gender expression are not such concrete ideas.  The other way to look at this, though, is to recognize the dangers of such an oppressive society.  A society that is so demeaning to women, so discriminatory and exclusive of a group of people, that they have to compromise the identities of citizens to allow them equal rights, even if just for a phase of their life.  This is an unsettling thing, the bacha posh.  It is a way to push back against such a rigid gendered system of segregation, but also a horrific way to force women to justify their existence in the world.

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3 thoughts on “What’s Sex Got to do With… Afghanistan?

  1. This blog post really caught my attention as I was scrolling through the site. I was interested to read more about Afghanistan’s culture and learn how it ties into sexuality. This idea of the “bacha posh” is something that American kids/families would never have to consider. Girls being raised as boys in order to escape the extreme gender oppression that they would otherwise face, it’s surprising that in this day and age, gender equality still hasn’t been reached. You mention the fluidity of sex and gender as a factor that plays into the bacha posh movement. It left me wondering, why are these young girls, who have been raised as boys, expected to make a swift transition into womanhood when they come of age? It seems that they would only be entering the same life as the women before them, unable to escape their predetermined roles in society. It makes sense to me that they wouldn’t willingly oblige to that lifestyle, for they have experienced what freedom can be. It’s empowering to know that they are resisting the stereotypical gender roles that their society is trying to force on them, arguing instead “women can accomplish things equivalent to the work of men.”

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  2. This was a super enlightening post for me too. I know the Middle East, in general, is infamous for their extreme oppression of women, but I had never heard of this gender flip flop before. This actually reminds me of a book I’ve read about the fascinating world of Islamic women called “Nine Parts of Desire,” by Geraldine Brooks (highly recommend it). Brooks was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and was fed up with her treatment while working on site in the Middle East after growing up in a primarily equal society (compared to the Middle East, at least). As a result, she made it her goal to put herself in the shoes (or rather, veil) of these oppressed women to understand why on earth a women would accept this sexist lifestyle. This is similar to the bacha posh–if you spent your whole life living one way who wants to readily conform to a completely different and arguably worse lifestyle? Brooks grew up in America with far more freedom than the Islamic women she studied thus it makes sense that their lifestyle is incomprehensible to her. Similar to these Afghan girls who’ve been playing boys their whole lives don’t want to turn in their freedom for a new oppressed lifestyle. No one wants to go from having lots of freedom to barely any at all. I don’t blame the bacha posh for resisting this practice, I just hope they’re successful in not conforming and eventually this becomes a bizarre and infrequent practice.

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  3. I found this post really eye opening. It must be extremely difficult for the bacha posh to transition from one socially constructed gender identity to another. I wonder if there is any information about the bacha posh after they are forced to transition into womanhood. Are they more resistant to playing these gender roles or do they conform completely into the traditionally seen version of womanhood? Also, because of the lack of democracy and the constant fighting in the Middle East, could this culture of the bacha posh be eliminated if peace in the Middle East were to occur?

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