Afghanistan — Six-year-old Mehran Rafaat is like many girls her age. She likes
to be the center 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 neighborhood of Kabul.
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.
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, neighbor 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
calls for creativity,” Mrs. Dupree said. “These people have the most amazing
is a commonly held belief among less educated Afghans that the mother can
determine the sex of her unborn child, so she is blamed if she gives birth to a
daughter. Several Afghan doctors and health care workers from around the country
said that they had witnessed the despair of women when they gave birth to
daughters, and that the pressure to produce a son fueled the practice.
this is not normal for you,” Mrs. Rafaat said in sometimes imperfect English,
during one of many interviews over several weeks. “And I know it’s very hard
for you to believe why one mother is doing these things to their youngest
daughter. But I want to say for you, that some things are happening in
Afghanistan that are really not imaginable for you as a Western people.”
Pressure to Have a Boy
that fateful day she first became a mother — Feb. 7, 1999 — Mrs. 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.
had just given birth — twice — to Mehran’s older sisters, Benafsha and
Beheshta. The first twin had been born after almost 72 hours of labor, 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.
her mother-in-law began to cry, Mrs. Rafaat knew it was not from fear whether
her infant granddaughters would survive. The old woman was disappointed. “Why,”
she cried, according to Mrs. 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.
with her mother-in-law began immediately, as the new Mrs. 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 Mrs. Rafaat finally snapped the stick in protest, the older woman demanded
that her son, Ezatullah, control his new wife.
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.”
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
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.
if she ever considered leaving her husband, she reacted with complete surprise.
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.”
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,”
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
organizations. Today she makes $2,000 a month as a member of Parliament.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
an effort 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.
came into our home feeling pity for us that we don’t have a son,” she recalled
reasoning. “And the girls — we can’t send them outside. And if we changed
Mehran to a boy we would get more space and freedom in society for her. And we
can send her outside for shopping and to help the father.”
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.
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,” Mrs. Rafaat said, meaning a pair of blue jeans
and a red denim shirt with “superstar” printed on the back.
even got a new name — originally called Manoush, her name was tweaked to the
more boyish-sounding Mehran.
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
Momand, the headmistress, with less than a year in her job, said she had always
presumed Mehran was a boy, until she helped change her into sleeping clothes
one afternoon. “It was quite a surprise for me,” she said.
once Mrs. Rafaat called the school and explained that the family had only
daughters, Miss Momand understood perfectly. She used to have a girlfriend at
the teacher’s academy who dressed as a boy.
the family’s relatives and colleagues all know Mehran’s real gender, but the appearance
of a son before guests and acquaintances is just enough to keep the family
functioning, Mrs. Rafaat said. At least for now.
Rafaat said he felt closer to Mehran 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.”
case is not altogether rare.
old Miina goes to school for two hours each morning, in a dress and a head scarf,
but returns about 9 a.m. to her home in one of Kabul’s poorest neighborhoods to
change into boys’ clothing. She then goes to work as Abdul Mateen, a shop
assistant in a small grocery store nearby.
day, she brings home the equivalent of about $1.30 to help support her Pashtun
family of eight sisters, as well as their 40-year-old mother, Nasima.
father, an unemployed mason, is often away. When he does get temporary work,
Nasima said, he spends most of his pay on drugs.
change is a practical necessity, her mother said, a way for the entire family
to survive. The idea came from the shopkeeper, a friend of the family, Nasima
said: “He advised us to do it, and said she can bring bread for your home.”
could never work in the store as a girl, just as her mother could not. Neither
her husband nor the neighbors would look kindly on it. “It would be
impossible,” Nasima said. “It’s our tradition that girls don’t work like this.”
is very shy, but she admitted to a yearning to look like a girl. She still
likes to borrow her sister’s clothing when she is home. She is also nervous
that she will be found out if one of her classmates recognizes her at the
store. “Every day she complains,” said her mother. “ ‘I’m not comfortable
around the boys in the store,’ she says. ‘I am a girl.’ ”
mother has tried to comfort her by explaining that it will be only for a few
years. After all, there are others to take her place. “After Miina gets too
old, the second younger sister will be a boy,” her mother said, “and then the
Refusing to Go Back
most such girls, boyhood has an inevitable end. After being raised as a boy,
with whatever privileges or burdens it may entail, they switch back once they
become teenagers. When their bodies begin to change and they approach marrying
age, parents consider it too risky for them to be around boys anymore.
Zahra, 15, opens the door to the family’s second-floor apartment in an upscale
neighborhood of Kabul, she is dressed in a black suit with boxy shoulders and
wide-legged pants. Her face has soft features, but she does not smile, or look
down, as most Afghan girls do.
said she had been dressing and acting like a boy for as long as she could
remember. If it were up to her, she would never go back. “Nothing in me feels
like a girl,” she said with a shrug.
mother, Laila, said she had tried to suggest a change toward a more feminine
look several times, but Zahra has refused. “For always, I want to be a boy and
a boy and a boy,” she said with emphasis.
attends a girls’ school in the mornings, wearing her suit and a head scarf. As
soon as she is out on the steps after class, she tucks her scarf into her
backpack, and continues her day as a young man. She plays football and cricket,
and rides a bike. She used to practice tae kwon do, in a group of boys where
only the teacher knew she was not one of them.
of the neighbors know of her change, but otherwise, she is taken for a young
man wherever she goes, her mother said. Her father, a pilot in the Afghan
military, was supportive. “It’s a privilege for me, that she is in boys’
clothing,” he said. “It’s a help for me, with the shopping. And she can go in
and out of the house without a problem.”
parents insisted it was Zahra’s own choice to look like a boy. “I liked it,
since we didn’t have a boy,” her mother said, but added, “Now, we don’t really
who plans on becoming a journalist, and possibly a politician after that,
offered her own reasons for not wanting to be an Afghan woman. They are looked
down upon and harassed, she said.
use bad words for girls,” she said. “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
said she had never run into any trouble when posing as a young man, although
she was occasionally challenged about her gender. “I’ve been in fights with
boys,” she said. “If they tell me two bad words, I will tell them three. If
they slap me once, I will slap them twice.”
Time to ‘Change Back’
Shukria Siddiqui, the masquerade went too far, for too long.
she is 36, a married mother of three, and works as an anesthesiology nurse at a
Kabul hospital. Short and heavily built, wearing medical scrubs, she took a
break from attending to a patient who had just had surgery on a broken leg.
remembered the day her aunt brought her a floor-length skirt and told her the
time had come to “change back.” The reason soon became clear: she was getting
married. Her parents had picked out a husband whom she had never met.
that time, Shukur, as she called herself, was a 20-year old man, to herself and
most people around her. She walked around with a knife in her back pocket. She
wore jeans and a leather jacket.
was speechless — she had never thought of getting married.
Siddiqui had grown up as a boy companion to her older brother, in a family of
seven girls and one boy. “I wanted to be like him and to be his friend,” she
said. “I wanted to look like him. We slept in the same bed. We prayed together.
We had the same habits.”
parents did not object, since their other children were girls, and it seemed
like a good idea for the oldest son to have a brother. But Mrs. Siddiqui
remained in her male disguise well beyond puberty, which came late.
said she was already 16 when her body began to change. “But I really had
nothing then either,” she said, with a gesture toward her flat chest.
many other Afghan girls, she was surprised the first time she menstruated, and
worried she might be ill. Her mother offered no explanation, since such topics
were deemed inappropriate to discuss. Mrs. Siddiqui said she never had romantic
fantasies about boys — or of girls, either.
appearance as a man approaching adulthood was not questioned, she said. But it
frequently got others into trouble, like the time she escorted a girlfriend
home who had fallen ill. Later, she learned that the friend had been beaten by
her parents after word spread through the neighborhood that their daughter was
seen holding hands with a boy.
‘My Best Time’
grown up in Kabul in a middle-class family, her parents allowed her to be
educated through college, where she attended nursing school. She took on her
future and professional life with certainty and confidence, presuming she would
never be constricted by any of the rules that applied to women in Afghanistan.
family, however, had made their decision: she was to marry the owner of a small
construction company. She never considered going against them, or running away.
“It was my family’s desire, and we obey our families,” she said. “It’s our
forced marriage is difficult for anyone, but Mrs. Siddiqui was particularly ill
equipped. She had never cooked a meal in her life, and she kept tripping over
the burqa she was soon required to wear.
had no idea how to act in the world of women. “I had to learn how to sit with
women, how to talk, how to behave,” she said. For years, she was unable to
socialize with other women and uncomfortable even greeting them.
you change back, it’s like you are born again, and you have to learn everything
from the beginning,” she explained. “You get a whole new life. Again.”
Siddiqui said she was lucky her husband turned out to be a good one. She had
asked his permission to be interviewed and he agreed. He was understanding of
her past, she said. He tolerated her cooking. Sometimes, he even encouraged her
to wear trousers at home, she said. He knows it cheers her up.
a brief period of marital trouble, he once attempted to beat her, but after she
hit him back, it never happened again. She wants to look like a woman now, she
said, and for her children to have a mother.
not a day goes by when she does not think back to “my best time,” as she called
it. Asked if she wished she had been born a man, she silently nods.
she also wishes her upbringing had been different. “For me, it would have been
better to grow up as a girl,” she said, “since I had to become a woman in the
Like Mother, Like a Son
is a typically busy day in the Rafaat household. Azita Rafaat is in the
bathroom, struggling to put her head scarf in place, preparing for a
photographer who has arrived at the house to take her new campaign photos.
children move restlessly between Tom and Jerry cartoons on the television and a
computer game on their mother’s laptop. Benafsha, 11, and Mehrangis, 9, wear
identical pink tights and a ruffled skirt. They go first on the computer.
Mehran, the 6-year-old, waits her turn, pointing and shooting a toy gun at each
of the guests.
wears a bandage over her right earlobe, where she tried to pierce herself with
one of her mother’s earrings a day earlier, wanting to look like her favorite
Bollywood action hero: Salman Khan, a man who wears one gold earring.
Mehran decided she had waited long enough to play on the computer, stomping her
feet and waving her arms, and finally slapping Benafsha in the face.
is very naughty,” Mrs. Rafaat said in English with a sigh, of Mehran, mixing up
the gender-specific pronoun, which does not exist in Dari. “My daughter adopted
all the boys’ traits very soon. You’ve seen her — the attitude, the talking —
she has nothing of a girl in her.”
Rafaats have not yet made a decision when Mehran will be switched back to a
girl, but Mrs. Rafaat said she hoped it need not happen for another five or six
will need to slowly, slowly start to tell her about what she is and that she
needs to be careful as she grows up,” she said. “I think about this every day —
what’s happening to Mehran.”
about how it might affect her daughter, she abruptly revealed something from
her own past: “Should I share something for you, honestly? For some years I
also been a boy.”
the first child of her family, Mrs. Rafaat assisted her father in his small
food shop, beginning when she was 10, for four years. She was tall and athletic
and saw only potential when her parents presented the idea — she would be able
to move around more freely.
went to a girls’ school in the mornings, but worked at the store on afternoons
and evenings, running errands in pants and a baseball hat, she said.
to wearing dresses and being confined was not so much difficult as irritating,
and a little disappointing, she said. But over all, she is certain that the
experience contributed to the resolve that brought her to Parliament.
think it made me more energetic,” she said. “It made me more strong.” She also
believed her time as a boy made it easier for her to relate to and communicate
Rafaat said she hoped the effects on Mehran’s psyche and personality would be
an advantage, rather than a limitation.
noted that speaking out may draw criticism from others, but argued that it was
important to reveal a practice most women in her country wished did not have to
exist. “This is the reality of Afghanistan,” she said.
a woman and as a politician, she said it worried her that despite great efforts
and investments from the outside world to help Afghan women, she has seen very
little change, and an unwillingness to focus on what matters.
think it’s all about the burqa,” she said. “I’m ready to wear two burqas if my
government can provide security and a rule of law. That’s O.K. with me. If
that’s the only freedom I have to give up, I’m ready.”