To make me understand why some bacha posh [ literal translation: “dressed up like a boy”] continue to live as men in Afghanistan when they reach adulthood, another sister asks a rhetorical question that is excruciatingly simple to answer: “If you could walk out the door right now as a man or stay in here forever as a woman, which would you choose?”
She is right. Who would not walk out the door in disguise — if the alternative was to live as a prisoner or slave? Who would really care about long hair or short, pants or skirt, feminine or masculine, if renouncing one’s gender gave one access to the world? . . . A great many people in this world would be willing to throw out their gender in a second if it could be traded for freedom.(p.212)
Author/journalist Jenny Nordberg absolutely did not understand what she saw in Afghanistan when she went to cover the US-led war. She was certain she was seeing girls dressed as boys, behaving as boys, enjoying the freedoms of boys, and yet, when she tried to learn more about this phenomenon, government officials, and “some of the world’s foremost experts on women, history and human rights [told her] that it would be dangerous and stupid to pursue something that doesn’t exist anyway”. Being a dedicated investigative reporter, when told she should leave, she stayed. Being an investigative reporter, Nordberg couldn’t leave it alone. The result is a provocative and poignant book based on the true stories of women — and bacha posh — she met, interviewed, followed over time on their journeys through a regressive, patriarchal society where boys are cherished and the birth of a girl is considered “failure”.
Nordberg met several accomplished women who served the community outside their own homes, doctors, nurses, but they were an incredibly small community. Slowly, she was led to homes where, each morning, a daughter was dressed as a son— a bacha posh — and sent off to school. She met other, older bacha posh who refused to give up their freedom and revert back to being a daughter at puberty. She met some who did not want to revert back but were forced to marry — with mixed results. She questions whether such daughters suffer gender-confusion. She traces the religious and political oppression against this somewhat subtle rebellion.
In this book, we are introduced to Azita who grew up during the Russian regime with a father who was liberal and educated, who gave her freedom and encouraged her to study; she wanted to become a doctor. But then the Taliban came and daughters once more were kept indoors and refused education. Finally, she was married to a cousin as his 2nd wife because his 1st could not provide him with a son. Azita becomes a strong personality who gains success, becomes a politician, serves a term, supports her family, only to be defeated by a corrupt bureaucracy, and become again a prisoner in her home, a woman who must negotiate with her husband in order to go outside to meetings or events. A woman whose husband distrusts her and beats her, and allows her, because despite the bacha posh she has no sons, to be put in 2nd place to the 1st wife.
Azita had been a bacha posh and new other girls who had been as well. Over time, she helps Nordberg meet others: Shukria — forced to marry after 20 years living with the freedom of a man, had three children, only to have her husband divorce her and a divorced woman in Afghanistan has less status than a whore, but she continues to work as a nurse and studies to become a doctor; Shahed — an undercover police officer, female but living as an adult male lost all of her savings to a smuggler when she tried to flee Afghanistan through Tajikistan; Nader — whose brothers pressured her to wear a head scarf when driving her car, only to incur the wrath of male drivers who shouted abuse at her and drove dangerously around her, trying to trap her. She has never done it since and coaches sports and a t’ai chi school for other bacha posh; Zahra, — who at fourteen wishes to remain a boy a little longer and as a result, experiences mental and physical abuse in her neighbourhood; Niima — who “attends school for two hours each morning in a dress and a head scarf . . . then returns to the house, changes into work clothes, and goes to work as a shop assistant in a small grocery store near the family’s house” as Abdul Mateen. For Niima, who is bacha posh to help feed her family, she lives in fear of discovery; “it is simple math — if she is caught, no one eats”. (p.63)
Nordberg discusses the confusion being a bacha posh creates in some of the girls and sites many different doctors she has met or read. She also traces the origins of this cultural anomaly in other parts of the middle east mostly. She writes of those who have changed their gender identity in other countries in times of war out of necessity and those who do so because of intolerance:
It is the story of a gay U.S. Marine who had to pretend he was straight. It is the story of a Jewish family in Nazi Germany posing as Protestants. It is the story of a black South African who tried to make his skin lighter under apartheid. Disguising oneself as a member of the recognized and approved group is at the same time a subversive act of infiltration and a concession to an impossible racist, sexist, or otherwise segregating system.(p.223)
For many of the bacha posh in Afghanistan, the identity change is their own private rebellion against a system that would repress women. Of the various groups that have come into the country to help women, few have grasped the truth that the “men are the key to infiltrating and subverting patriarchy”, and while the new figures for education look good, at first glance — “close to 10 million students registered, compared with around fifty thousand under the Taliban . . . half of [their] newly created schools have no actual buildings, many lack teachers, most students never graduate, and one-fifth of the registered students are permanently absent.” (p.266)
This book documents an incredible journey of revelation, of bold women who refuse to be beaten by a value system where women are devalued and suppressed. It brings one up sharply when it is compared to our Western way of life where segregation of various kinds are changing but at times seem impossible to eradicate. Or when one remembers that women in North America have had the vote for less than 100 years. We take it for granted that women can choose not to marry or have children, that women are not chattels to be sold into marriage, that they can make choices for themselves and have the freedom to live where and how they choose. We have already forgotten a life where the difference between men and women is “just one word: freedom.” As Nordberg quotes American author Robin Morgan, “[Birth] is a reality; gender and freedom are ideas”. And these ideas should belong to everyone! This is a book everyone should read. * * * * *