Bacha posh (Persian: بچه پوش, literally "dressed up as a boy") is a cultural practice in parts of Afghanistan, in which some families without sons will pick a daughter to live and behave as a boy. This enables the child to behave more freely: attending school, escorting her sisters in public, and working. Bacha posh also allows the family to avoid the social stigma associated of not having any male children.
The custom is documented at least one century ago, but is likely to be much older, and is still practiced today. It may have started with women disguising themselves as men to fight, or to be protected, during periods of wartime.
Historian Nancy Dupree told a reporter from The New York Times that she recalled a photograph dating back to the early 1900s during the reign of Habibullah Khan in which women dressed as men guarded the king's harem because officially, the harem could be guarded by neither women nor men. "Segregation calls for creativity," she said, "These people have the most amazing coping capability."
Overview of the practice
In Afghanistan, there is societal pressure for families to have a son to carry on the family name and to inherit the father's property. In the absence of a son, families may dress one of their daughters as a male, with some adhering to the belief that having a bacha posh will make it more likely for a mother to give birth to a son in a subsequent pregnancy.
A girl living as a boy will dress in characteristic male clothing, have her hair cut short, and use a male name. The purpose of the practice is not deception and many people, such as teachers or family friends, will be aware that the child is actually a girl. In her family, she will occupy an intermediate status in which she is treated as neither a daughter nor fully as a son, but she will not need to cook or clean like other girls. As a bacha posh, a girl is more readily able to attend school, run errands, move freely in public, escort her sisters in places where they could not be without a male companion, play sports and find work.
The girl's status as a bacha posh usually ends when she enters puberty. Women raised as a bacha posh often have difficulty making the transition from life as a boy and adapting to the traditional constraints placed on women in Afghan society.
Azita Rafaat, a legislator elected to the National Assembly of Afghanistan to represent Badghis Province, has had no sons and has raised one of her daughters as a bacha posh. She said she understood that "it's very hard for you to believe why one mother is doing these things to their youngest daughter", and that "things are happening in Afghanistan that is really not imaginable for you as a Western people."
Osama, the 2003 film made in Afghanistan written and directed by Siddiq Barmak, tells the story of a young girl in Afghanistan under Taliban rule who disguises herself as a boy, Osama, in order to support her family, as her father and uncle had both been killed during the Soviet-Afghan War and she and her mother would not be able to travel on their own without a male "legal companion".
Prevalence and acceptability
The cultural practice of bacha posh was originally non-publicized outside of the Middle East. However, as a result of media productions bacha posh and their role in society is slowly being revealed. There are no statistics on how many families have daughters "dressed as a boy," due to the somewhat secretive nature of the practice. Only the main family, family friends, and necessary health and education officials know the bacha posh's biological sex. It is tolerated and acknowledged by society in the main, and seen as a practical solution for those without an heir or accompanying male figure. Although it is tolerated, a bacha posh can be bullied and teased for not conforming to religious beliefs and social norms once discovered to be female. Once revealed, a bacha posh can receive stigmatization similar to that felt by the LGBT community, without actually identifying as such.
Motivations and effects
Developmental and clinical psychologist Diane Ehrensaft theorizes that, by behaving like boys, the bacha posh is not expressing their true gender identity, but simply conforming to parents' hopes and expectations. She cites parents offering their daughters privileges girls otherwise wouldn't get, such as the chance to cycle and to play soccer and cricket, as well as bacha posh complaining that they aren't comfortable around boys, and would rather live as a girl.
After having lived as bacha posh for some time though, most find it hard to socialize again with girls because they have become comfortable with socializing with boys since that is what they grew up doing. Elaha, who was a bacha posh for twenty years, but switched back to being a girl when she entered university, told the BBC that she switched back only because of traditions of society. The reason it is so hard for a bacha posh to change back to being a girl is that they are a boy when they are supposed to be developing their personalities, so they develop more stereotypical masculine personality traits because that is what they are taught. Some bacha posh feel as if they have lost essential childhood memories and their identities as girls. Others feel that it was good they got to experience the freedoms that they would not have had if they had been normal girls growing up in Afghanistan. The change itself can also be very hard as most if not all, rights and privileges of the "boys" are taken away when they are transitioned back into a women's role. Many women do not want to go back once they have experienced freedom as a boy.
The heart of the controversy over this practice, in terms of the recent movement for Afghan women's rights, is whether the practice of bacha posh empowers women and helps them succeed or if the practice is psychologically damaging. Many of the women who have gone through the process say they feel that the experience was empowering as well as smothering. The true problem, activists say, is not the practice itself, but women’s rights in that society.
Re-entry into society
When a bacha posh becomes of marrying age commonly at 15-17 and/ or when their feminine forms become more pronounced it is in most cases that the father will decide when the bacha posh is to become his daughter. Nevertheless, being a bacha posh of marriageable age the women are able to have a say in the decision to be placed at a daughter status. However, if this means them going against their father's wishes thereby the family's wishes the young bacha posh can end up further marginalized without the family's support in a highly family oriented society. As a majority of bacha posh spends their prepubescent years in a male role in society many skipped learning the necessary skills acquired to be an ideal attentive soft-spoken domestic wife as such many experience untoward anxiety over the transition to womanhood.
- Nadia Hashimi's 2014 novel The Pearl that Broke Its Shell
- Jenny Nordberg's book The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan
- Iranian movie director Majid Majidi's 2001 film Baran.
- Osama, 2003 Afghan film about a girl who dresses as a boy to support her family
- Nadia Hashimi's 2016 children's novel One Half from the East
- Anna-Marie McLemore's young adult novel When the Moon was Ours features Sam (Samira), an Italian/Pakistani protagonist who is also a transgender man coming to terms with gender identity within/outside his role as bacha posh
- The Breadwinner, 2017, is about a girl who dresses as a boy to support her family.
- A Second Birth by Ariel Mitchell (Full Length Play, Dramatic Comedy: In a rural village in southern Afghanistan, a family struggles with the tradition of bacha posh). New York City premiere: THML Theatre Company at The Center at West Park, March 1-24, 2019. Development, production history, awards.
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- Menvielle, Diane Ehrensaft; foreword by Edgardo. Gender born, gender made: raising healthy gender-nonconforming children (3rd ed., rev. and updated. ed.). New York: Experiment. ISBN 1615190600.
- Qadiry, Tahir (March 27, 2012). "The Afghan Girls Who Live As Boys". BBC. Retrieved May 22, 2012.
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- Qadiry, Tahir (March 27, 2012). "The Afghan Girls Who Live as Boys". BBC News. Retrieved May 22, 2012.
- Bulatovic, Marija. "The Bacha Posh Afghanistan's Youngest Crossdressers". University of Illinois at Chicago. Retrieved May 22, 2012.