In Afghan culture, the longstanding practice of switching gender roles for boys and girls has different intentions, but similar, disorienting results for the victims. How did these practices begin, and how do they reflect the larger gender politics of Afghanistan?
In a Western context, crossdressing and reversing gender roles are used as a means of outwardly expressing gender identity. But in Afghanistan, altering a child’s appearance as masculine or feminine often signals a social response to oppression or even the trappings of abuse.
For girls, there is the commonly implemented custom of bacha posh, the Dari term for the representation of girls as boys. The custom is so popular, in fact, that Afghans often know someone – a friend, neighbor, distant relative, etc. – who grew up as a girl disguised as a boy, according to reporter and author Jenny Nordberg.
The popularity of this trend stems from the generations-long parental preference of boys over girls in societies where families without sons are pitied. A response to this public shame and stigma is to transform a daughter into a son, at least cosmetically, cutting her hair and dressing her in male-appropriate clothing. It is a decision that comes with plenty of benefits and freedoms. Disguised daughters can attend better schools, play sports, escort their sisters outside, and help their families with chores outside their homes. Even if there are those who may know of a son’s true identity as a bacha posh, having a daughter pose as a boy for a few years enhances the family’s social standing and is favorable to not having any sons at all.
For some families, having a bacha posh isn’t a matter of honor or reputation, but a means of economic survival. For the New York Times, Nordberg interviewed Miina, a 10-year-old girl who goes to work in a small grocery store disguised as a boy. Her earnings keep the family afloat, but she admits that she wants better things — namely, she wants to look and act like a girl. Yet her status as a bacha posh will only last for a few years; her younger sisters will eventually have to take on this role.
There are no legal or religious rulings that speak against bacha posh, yet the practice still comes with negative repercussions. Because these girls are raised and treated as boys, they have immense difficulty when their parents make them behave and dress like girls once they enter puberty. At this point, the girls are of marriageable age and must take on the role of a woman.
It is an incredibly complex reality.
In another interview, Nordberg spoke with a 15-year-old girl who had passed in public as a boy, but worried about growing into an adult life as an Afghan woman because of the oppression and harassment women face. “People use bad words for girls,” the girl told Nordberg. “They scream at them on the streets. When I see that, I don’t want to be a girl. When I am a boy, they don’t speak to me like that.”
Azita Rafaat, a former member of parliament and a mother of four daughters, the youngest of whom is a bacha posh, strives to refine Afghan laws to ensure rights for women. She acknowledges that speaking against this popular practice will draw criticism, but bacha posh exists as a response to the dehumanization of women in Afghan society. “This is the reality of Afghanistan,” she said. And though it is a survival tactic against oppression, it should not have to exist.
Afghanistan’s tradition of gender-swapping contains an even darker reality for boys. Bacha bazi, or “playing with boys”, involves dressing young boys as women and making them perform in front of audiences of men, often with overt sexual themes. These young boys, mostly born of poor families, are bought or kidnapped, forced into pseudosexual bondage by powerful and respected Afghan men, many of whom fought in the resistance against the Soviet Union’s decade-long war in the country.
In 2013, Foreign Policy magazine chronicled the rise of bacha bazi where, under the dominion of the Taliban, the custom was banned for going against Islamic law and those who practiced it did so secretly under great threat. Yet when the Taliban was removed after the U.S. invasion in 2001, the power vacuum was filled by many former anti-Soviet commanders. In an effort to gain complete power and prestige in rural areas, some of these warlords raped, kidnapped, and trafficked young boys. The sexual exploitation and slavery of as many boys as possible became a symbol of power and social status. Once power was secured in the hands of these warlords, bacha bazi became a normalized practice.
In 2010, the PBS’s Frontline newsmagazine aired a feature, The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, wherein reporter Najibullah Quraishi explored bacha bazi customs. He followed a man named Dastager, a former Northern Alliance member against the Soviets and one of the most powerful men in the Takhar Province. Asked what he looks for when selecting a boy, Dastager stated that “[He] should be attractive, good for dancing. Around 12 or 13, and good looking. I tell their parents that I will train them.”
“I’ll get a dancer to teach him dancing,” he continued, “We give the family money, and tell them that I’ll look after him. I’ll get him clothes, and give him money. I pay for all his expenses. He doesn’t need to worry about anything.” Dastager told Frontline that he has had more than 2,000 boys as bacha bazi.
Quraishi was also able to talk to a handful of bacha bazi boys, some of whom were convinced they were satisfied with their situation. Yet when these boys age out of their youth, symbolized by the growth of facial hair, their options are limited to becoming prostitutes or pimps, further fueling the bacha bazi system.
One way of trying to stop bacha bazi is by reforming Afghan laws so they are favorable to the rights of children and gender equality. Though the United Nations has denounced Afghan officials for the continuation of bacha bazi, little has been done to eliminate the system entirely.
A custom such as bacha bazi could also be stopped if those with power — political officials and police officers especially — ended their active participation in it. Rather than attending the performances (the film captures two high-ranking police officers in the audience of an illegal bacha bazi wedding party), government and law enforcement should have a stronger presence in rural areas to override the influence of warlord culture and, consequently, to stop bacha bazi.
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The Sources: Jenny Nordberg, “Afghan Boys are Prized, So Girls Live the Part,” The New York Times, September 20, 2010.
Chris Mondloch, “Bacha Bazi: An Afghan Tragedy,” Foreign Policy, October 28, 2013.
Jamie Doran and Najibullah Quraishi, The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, Frontline, April 20, 2010.
Photo courtesy of Reuters/Ahmad Masood