The Afghan masquerade: Girls living as boys, turning girls again

Six-year-old Mehran Rafaat is like many girls her age. She likes to be the centre of attention. She is often frustrated when things do not go her way. Like her three older sisters, she is eager to discover the world outside the family’s apartment in their middle-class neighbourhood of Kabul.

But when their mother, Azita Rafaat, a member of parliament, dresses the children for school in the morning, there is one important difference. Mehran’s sisters put on black dresses and head scarves, tied tightly over their ponytails. For Mehran, it’s green pants, a white shirt and a necktie, then a pat from her mother over her spiky, short black hair. After that, her daughter is out the door — as an Afghan boy.

There are no statistics about how many Afghan girls masquerade as boys. But when asked, Afghans of several generations can often tell a story of a female relative, friend, neighbour or co-worker who grew up disguised as a boy. To those who know, these children are often referred to as neither ‘daughter’ nor ‘son’ in conversation, but as ‘bacha posh,’ which literally means ‘dressed up as a boy’ in Dari.

Through dozens of interviews conducted over several months, where many people wanted to remain anonymous or to use only first names for fear of exposing their families, it was possible to trace a practice that has remained mostly obscured to outsiders. Yet it cuts across class, education, ethnicity and geography, and has endured even through Afghanistan’s many wars and governments.

Afghan families have many reasons for pretending their girls are boys, including economic need, social pressure to have sons, and in some cases, a superstition that doing so can lead to the birth of a real boy. Lacking a son, the parents decide to make one up, usually by cutting the hair of a daughter and dressing her in typical Afghan men’s clothing. There are no specific legal or religious proscriptions against the practice. In most cases, a return to womanhood takes place when the child enters puberty. The parents almost always make that decision.

In a land where sons are more highly valued, since in the tribal culture usually only they can inherit the father’s wealth and pass down a name, families without boys are the objects of pity and contempt. Even a made-up son increases the family’s standing, at least for a few years. A bacha posh can also more easily receive an education, work outside the home, even escort her sisters in public, allowing freedoms that are unheard of for girls in a society that strictly segregates men and women.

Disorienting as well as liberating

But for some, the change can be disorienting as well as liberating, stranding the women in a limbo between the sexes. Shukria Siddiqui, raised as a boy but then abruptly plunged into an arranged marriage, struggled to adapt, tripping over the confining burqa and straining to talk to other women.

The practice may stretch back centuries. Nancy Dupree, an 83-year-old American who has spent most of her life as a historian working in Afghanistan, said she had not heard of the phenomenon, but recalled a photograph from the early 1900s belonging to the private collection of a member of the Afghan royal family.

It featured women dressed in men’s clothing standing guard at King Habibullah’s harem. The reason: The harem’s women could not be protected by men, who might pose a threat to the women, but they could not be watched over by women either.

“Segregation calls for creativity,” Dupree said. “These people have the most amazing coping ability.”

From that fateful day she first became a mother — Feb 7, 1999 — Rafaat knew she had failed, she said, but she was too exhausted to speak, shivering on the cold floor of the family’s small house in Badghis province.

She had just given birth — twice — to Mehran’s older sisters, Benafsha and Beheshta. The first twin had been born after almost 72 hours of labour, one month prematurely. The girl weighed only 2.6 pounds and was not breathing at first. Her sister arrived 10 minutes later. She, too, was unconscious.

When her mother-in-law began to cry, Rafaat knew it was not from fear whether her infant granddaughters would survive. The old woman was disappointed. “Why,” she cried, according to Rafaat, “are we getting more girls in the family?”

Rafaat had grown up in Kabul, where she was a top student, speaking six languages and nurturing high-flying dreams of becoming a doctor. But once her father forced her to become the second wife of her first cousin, she had to submit to being an illiterate farmer’s wife, in a rural house without running water and electricity, where the widowed mother-in-law ruled, and where she was expected to help care for the cows, sheep and chickens. She did not do well.

Conflicts with her mother-in-law began immediately, as the new Rafaat insisted on better hygiene and more contact with the men in the house. She also asked her mother-in-law to stop beating her husband’s first wife with her walking stick. When Rafaat finally snapped the stick in protest, the older woman demanded that her son, Ezatullah, control his new wife. He did so with a wooden stick or a metal wire. “On the body, on the face,” she recalled. “I tried to stop him. I asked him to stop. Sometimes I didn’t.”

Soon, she was pregnant. The family treated her slightly better as she grew bigger. “They were hoping for a son this time,” she explained. Ezatullah Rafaat’s first wife had given birth to two daughters, one of whom had died as an infant, and she could no longer conceive. Azita Rafaat delivered two daughters, double the disappointment.

Azita Rafaat faced constant pressure to try again, and she did, through two more pregnancies, when she had two more daughters — Mehrangis, now 9, and finally Mehran, the 6-year-old.

Asked if she ever considered leaving her husband, she reacted with complete surprise. “I thought of dying,” she said. “But I never thought of divorce. If I had separated from my husband, I would have lost my children, and they would have had no rights. I am not one to quit.”

Today, she is in a position of power, at least on paper. She is one of 68 women in Afghanistan’s 249-member parliament, representing Badghis province. Her husband is unemployed and spends most of his time at home. “He is my house husband,” she joked.
By persuading him to move away from her mother-in-law and by offering to contribute to the family income, she laid the groundwork for her political life. Three years into their marriage, after the fall of the Taliban in 2002, she began volunteering as a health worker for various nongovernmental organisations. Today she makes $2,000 a month as a member of parliament.

Running for election

As a politician, she works to improve women’s rights and the rule of law. She ran for re-election on Sept 18, and, based on a preliminary vote count, is optimistic about securing another term. But she could run only with her husband’s explicit permission, and the second time around, he was not easily persuaded.

He wanted to try again for a son. It would be difficult to combine pregnancy and another child with her work, she said — and she knew she might have another girl in any case. But the pressure to have a son extended beyond her husband. It was the only subject her constituents could talk about when they came to the house, she said.

“When you don’t have a son in Afghanistan,” she explained, “it’s like a big missing in your life. Like you lost the most important point of your life. Everybody feels sad for you.”
As a politician, she was also expected to be a good wife and a mother; instead she looked like a failed woman to her constituents. The gossip spread back to her province, and her husband was also questioned and embarrassed, she said.

In an attempt to preserve her job and placate her husband, as well as fending off the threat of his getting a third wife, she proposed to her husband that they make their youngest daughter look like a son.

Together, they spoke to their youngest daughter, she said. They made it an alluring proposition: “Do you want to look like a boy and dress like a boy, and do more fun things like boys do, like bicycling, soccer, and cricket? And would you like to be like your father?” Mehran did not hesitate to say yes.

That afternoon, her father took her to the barbershop, where her hair was cut short. They continued to the bazaar, where she got new clothing. Her first outfit was ‘something like a cowboy dress,’ Rafaat said, meaning a pair of bluejeans and a red denim shirt with ‘superstar’ printed on the back. She even got a new name — originally called Manoush, her name was tweaked to the more boyish-sounding Mehran.

Mehran’s return to school — in a pair of pants and without her pigtails — went by without much reaction by her fellow students. She still napped in the afternoons with the girls, and changed into her sleepwear in a separate room from the boys. Some of her classmates still called her Manoush, while others called her Mehran. But she would always introduce herself as a boy to newcomers.

Mehran’s father said he felt closer to her than to his other children, and thought of her as a son. “I am very happy,” he said. “When people now ask me, I say yes and they see that I have a son. So people are quiet, and I am quiet.”

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