When I was young, during the summer months, my family and I would frequently stay at my Auntie Marion and Uncle Platt’s (1912-2010), cabin by Lake Champlain in Vermont. One picture always struck me: that of a chubby-cheeked little girl doing the dishes, surrounded by gamboling brothers, a single tear rolling down her face saying, “I wish I were a boy!”
I imagine some Contrarian readers can relate, whether it was swimming in underpants in co-ed pools or running through sprinklers in just shorts-before you were clapped into a burqa and forced to stay inside. No, probably not — that’s just a fantasy that our Tea Party “friends” imagine will occur if the “Ground Zero” mosque is built. (Although I’d love to think we have readers in Afghanistan!)
For some Afghan girls, the sprinkler runs don’t have to stop, so to speak. In her New York Times article “Afghan Boys Are Prized, So Girls Live the Part,” Jenny Nordberg describes the tradition of dressing daughters as sons. These children become almost a third gender, described neither as “daughter” nor “son,” but as bacha posh, or “dressed as a boy” in Dari.
The reasons for this are many: economic need, social pressure for male offspring and the superstition that creating a bacha posh can lead to the birth of a son. Moreover, uneducated Afghans believe that females determine the sex of the infant.
I first heard of this phenomenon (though not the precise term for it) several years ago when I watched the movie Osama. Set in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, it’s about a family of three generations of women who create a bacha posh out of their youngest member so they do not starve.
In the movie, when her former doctor daughter announces “I wish God hadn’t created women!” her elderly mother, in a truly radical statement, asks, “What are you saying? Men and women are equal… a shaved man under a burqa looks like a woman. A woman with short hair, a hat, and pant looks like a man.
But hang on, what’s this bacha posh business in 2010? After nine years of U.S. occupation, shouldn’t the country look more like Lilith Fair? After reading about this and Bibi Aisha, I’m beginning to think Bush II lied, and our reasons for invading had nothing to do with helping women after all.
Granted, as a member of parliament, Azita Rafaat, (mother of bacha posh Mehran), is more fortunate than the fictional family of women in Osama. But despite childhood dreams of being a doctor and speaking six languages, she was forced to become her first cousin’s second wife. She objected to her mother-in-law’s abuse of her husband’s first wife, eventually snapping the walking stick she older woman used. When her mother-in-law insisted her son control his second wife, he did. With a wooden stick or metal wire.
When she became pregnant, her status changed somewhat, as people hoped for a boy. However, Rafaat delivered twin girls, followed by two more girls.
Now, Azita Rafaat is one of 68 women in Afghanistan’s 249-member Parliament, while her husband is jobless. Despite her professional accomplishments, Razaat maintains, “When you don’t have a son in Afghanistan…it’s like a big missing (sic) in your life. Like you lost the most important point of your life. Everybody feels sad for you.”
To save face with her constituents and prevent her husband from taking a third wife, Rafaat disguised her youngest as a boy.
Although most bacha posh transition back to girls at adolescence, for one girl in the NYT profile, Afghan womanhood holds little appeal. As Zahra explains, “People use bad words for girls…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.”
Polygamy, societal pressure for male offspring, street harassment of females. It’s a wonder Zahra isn’t excited to join the ranks of Afghan womanhood.