Afghan Girls Raised as Boys
by Daniel Rosinsky-Larson, Marketing and Outreach Coordinator
In “the worst place to be a woman,” according to Amnesty International, a few Afghan girls get to learn what it’s like to be a boy. Until she was 16 years old, Farhat B. was raised as a son — “Mustafa” — in a family that had only daughters. She played outside freely, worked and went to the stores without being harassed, and attended an all-boy’s school. After that, she was made to resume dressing and acting as a woman, subject to questioning about where she had been and why each day.
Now married and 30 years old, “Mustafa” is “Farhat” again, a housewife who cares for her five children at home, which she does not leave without her husband or son. Her experience is shared by hundreds of bacha posh (literally, ‘dressed as a boy’) in Afghanistan who are temporarily given a boy’s name, dressed in boys clothes, and given the responsibilities of boys, until they reach adolescence.
Life in Afghanistan is easier for families who have a son instead of a daughter. Uneducated neighbors gossip and look down on parents without a son, costing them respect and social opportunities. Community expectations of what a girl should do mean that a son can contribute much more to their families outside the home than a daughter. For some, it’s enough to tell the neighbors that they have a son; a bacha posh daughter gives her family status, and perhaps good luck that will bring them a “real” son later.
Farhat’s father was old and ill when she was born, and the family was worried that they might not sustain themselves. The youngest of five girls, the family decided when she was three to have her live as a bacha posh boy, so that she could help at her father’s small store near their house.
It’s useful to be a boy: while in conservative areas a girl shouldn’t walk alone, a boy can shop and do chores outside the house, or help with the father’s business. In families without a male head of household, the “son” can earn money for the family in jobs outside of cooking and cleaning and other “women’s work,” joining the one in four boys between the ages of 6 and 11 who are forced to work.
“I felt very independent, useful, and efficient when I was a boy, fully free from any restrictions. I did a lot of things for my family, which I wanted to do — particularly for my old and weak father,” says Farhat.
Although puberty is when most bacha posh return to life as a girl, few go back to attend school and pursue their dreams. The same family that demanded that a girl live as a boy will likely demand after her transition “back” that she marry and have children, joining the 57 percent of girls between 16 and 18 who are neither in school nor working. Unlike some bacha posh, when “Mustafa” turned back into “Farhat”, she was allowed to go back to school — the girls’ school. When Farhat returned, the first difference she noticed was how she was treated.
“The male teachers in the boys’ school dealt with me politely and respectfully. But when I started studying in the girls’ school, the female teachers treated all of the girl students quite harshly. They always tried to keep us down and to make us afraid of society in all the lessons in every course.”
Now a housewife, Farhat lives by the restrictions she was taught at the girls’ school. She says, “I am highly dependent on my family. I cannot go outside of my house alone without my husband — or now, my son. I am an obedient daughter-in-law and a caring mother — but sometimes, I really miss the independent limitless life that I had when I was changed from a girl to a boy.”
Former bacha posh women such as Farhat have the bittersweet experience of seeing life from the other side — where they have the freedom to live as they want. Once women get the education they deserve, it is Farhat’s hope they will change their communities, and the practice of bacha posh will no longer be needed for families to get the support they need, or for women to live a life without restriction.