The Bacha Posh of Afghanistan

At Mehran’s school, children are absolutely forbidden from seeing the opposite sex naked. The headmaster tells me that at this stage, she is certain that to most students, what sets little boys and girls apart is all exterior: pants versus skirts.

That, and the knowledge that those with pants always come first.

Earlier this month, The Atlantic published an article about Afghanistan’s young girls who present as boys, or bacha posh, excerpted from Jenny Nordberg’s forthcoming book, The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan. The girls, who are all under ten, undergo a superficial gender “change” — short hair, boyish clothes, no jewelry — for a multitude of reasons, but most often to strengthen their family’s security, safety, and reputation. Since the children are so young, some of them, like the aforementioned Mehran, who “transitioned” at age six, understand that it’s just for show, and that they will one day return to femininity. Others reject the change completely. As Nordberg notes, Freud ascertained that children don’t learn about genital differences until they are four or five years old, but more recent research maintains that it can happen much earlier — before the girls undergo their transitions, hence some of the girls’ fervent pushback. Either way, many Afghani children are purposely sheltered from such lessons, the first stake in the unceasing project of families attempting to maintain purity among their young.

As problematic as this may be, there is a palpable benefit of becoming a bacha posh: a sense of freedom, a right that, otherwise, these girls would be denied.

[…] 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.

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