WHAT would drive a mother to willingly dress her newborn baby girl in masculine clothing and assign her a boy’s name? Why would parents choose to begin disguising their six-year-old daughter as a son? And what would motivate a pubescent teenager to pray that god grant her a flat chest and facial hair?
These are questions Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg answers in The Underground Girls of Kabul, an exploration of the little-mentioned but entrenched practice among Afghan families of raising a selected female child as male. Although this tradition is virtually unknown in the West, in Afghanistan so important is it to produce an heir that even “a made-up son is better than none at all”.
Thus, the pattern of anointing one daughter to become a household’s bacha posh (literally “dressed like a boy”) continues to flourish, albeit covertly.
Through extended interviews with five such boy-girls of varying ages, Nordberg explores the thinking behind the choices made by parents and, later, by a minority of the bacha posh themselves as they approach adulthood and fight to retain their male identities.
For some, the rationale for their gender-bending upbringing is purely practical: a divorcée needs to have a protective young man in her home for the sake of respectability, a poor couple depends on income from a boy’s after-school work to put food on the table for their younger children, a son is required to act as a bodyguard for vulnerable siblings.
For others, however, the situation is far more nuanced: experiencing a false boyhood enables a little girl to taste freedom to a degree that is simply unfathomable for a female child in Afghan society. It is this liberty that some bacha posh are reluctant to relinquish as they mature and are pressured to embrace a future as prospective brides.