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Bacha posh ("dressed up as a boy" in the Dari language) is a cultural practice in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan in which some families without sons will pick a daughter to live and behave as a boy. This enables the child to behave more freely: attending school, escorting her sisters in public, and working. Bacha posh also allows the family to avoid the social stigma associated of not having any male children.
The custom dates back one century and is still practiced today. It may have started with women disguising themselves as men to fight, or to be protected, during periods of wartime. Historian Nancy Dupree told a reporter from The New York Times that she recalled a photograph dating back to the early 1900s during the reign of Habibullah Khan in which women dressed as men guarded the king's harem, because officially, the harem could be guarded by neither women nor men. "Segregation calls for creativity," she said, "These people have the most amazing coping capability."
Overview of the practice
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is societal pressure for families to have a son to carry on the family name and to inherit the father's property. In the absence of a son, families may dress one of their daughters as a male, with some adhering to the belief that having a bacha posh will make it more likely for a mother to give birth to a son in a subsequent pregnancy.
A girl living as a boy will dress in characteristic male clothing, have her hair cut short, and use a male name. The purpose of the practice is not deception and many people, such as teachers or family friends, will be aware that the child is actually a girl. In her family, she will occupy an intermediate status in which she is treated as neither a daughter nor fully as a son, but she will not need to cook or clean like other girls. As a bacha posh, a girl is more readily able to attend school, run errands, move freely in public, escort her sisters in places where they could not be without a male companion, play sports and find work.
The girl's status as a bacha posh usually ends when she enters puberty. Women raised as a bacha posh often have difficulty making the transition from life as a boy and adapting to the traditional constraints placed on women in Afghan society.
Azita Rafaat, a legislator elected to the National Assembly of Afghanistan to represent Badghis Province, has had no sons and has raised one of her daughters as a bacha posh. She said she understood that "it's very hard for you to believe why one mother is doing these things to their youngest daughter", and that "things are happening in Afghanistan that are really not imaginable for you as a Western people."
Osama, the 2003 film made in Afghanistan written and directed by Siddiq Barmak, tells the story of a young girl in Afghanistan under Taliban rule who disguises herself as a boy, Osama, in order to support her family, as her father and uncle had both been killed during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and she and her mother would not be able to travel on their own without a male "legal companion".
Prevalence and acceptability
The practice of bacha posh is said to be growing in prevalence. It is widely accepted, and is seen as a reasonable solution to the problem of not having a boy in the family. As far as experts can tell, the practice is fairly common, but due to its nature and poor government record-keeping, it is unclear just how many bacha posh there are. In Afghanistan, everyone knows about at least one family where this practice is going on if not in their own families.
Motivations and effects
Developmental and clinical psychologist Diane Ehrensaft theorizes that, by behaving like boys, the bacha posh are not expressing their true gender identity, but simply conforming to parents' hopes and expectations. She cites parents offering their daughters privileges girls otherwise wouldn't get, such as the chance to cycle, play soccer, and cricket, as well as bacha posh complaining that they aren't comfortable around boys, and would rather live as a girl.
After having lived as bacha posh for some time though, most find it hard to socialize again with girls because they have become comfortable with socializing with boys, since that is what they grew up doing. Elaha, who was a bacha posh for twenty years, but switched back to being a girl when she entered university, told the BBC that she switched back only because of traditions of society. The reason it is so hard for bacha posh to change back to being girls is because they are boys when they are supposed to be developing their personalities, so they develop boyish personalities because that is what they are taught. Some bacha posh feel as if they have lost essential childhood memories and their identities as girls. Others feel that it was good they got to experience the freedoms that they would not have had if they had been normal girls growing up in Afghanistan. The change itself can also be very hard as almost, if not all, rights and privileges of the "boys" are taken away when they are transitioned back into a women's role. Many women do not want to go back once they have experienced freedom as a boy.
The heart of the controversy over this practice, in terms of the recent movement for Afghan women's rights, is whether the practice of bacha posh empowers women and helps them succeed or if the practice is psychologically damaging. Many of the women who have gone through the process say they feel that the experience was empowering as well as smothering. The true problem, activists say, is not the practice itself, but women’s rights in that society.
Reentry into society
When bacha posh are of marriageable age (around 17-18, sometimes sooner) they are usually switched back to girls, though in rare cases it can occur even later. Often this change occurs when they are forced to marry someone chosen by their parents. Many bacha posh do not want to get married because they feel that once married they will be repressed and even abused by their husbands and society. This fear of repression is not unfounded, as Afghan culture places men over women in their hierarchy. Furthermore, since the bacha posh are technically boys growing up, they do not learn what women typically learn when they are young, like cooking, sewing, and other household chores. This makes married life hard for them because they do not know how to do the essential things that they are expected to know.
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