In some countries around the world, having a son is still considered far more preferable than having a daughter.
However, in parts of Afghanistan, the reality of not having a male heir is so harsh for many that instead of accepting their fate they tend to practice a fairly bizarre tradition called “bacha posh,” which basically means disguising a child.
In a society where having a son is a matter of an utmost pride such cultural practice provides social relief to a lot of parents. But unfortunately, girls are the ones who bear the loss as they are denied the chance to live a life in accordance to their gender and then thrust back into highly restricted lives after they hit puberty — just because their parents didn’t bear sons.
In order to be a son of her parents’ dream, the bacha posh needs to first change her attire. Instead of wearing a headscarf and a skirt or a dress, she will be expected to wear a pair of pants and get a short haircut. The transformation goes well beyond the appearance — her speech, her walk, her mobility outside the home, all these aspects have to change.
In fact the façade is so convincing, those who don’t know the child's real gender think of them as any other Afghan boy.
It is no secret Afghanistan is an ultra-conservative country where the authority lies with the male of the house. A girl born in an Afghan household has very little say in affairs of her life. So, in the light of the limited freedom a girl gets, this Afghan social tradition can be seen as an escape from the shackles of severe restrictions and into the world where at least they won’t need an escort while leaving the house.
According to the United Nations, Save the Children and the Thompson Reuters Foundation, Afghanistan is the worst country in the world to be born a girl, with the average life expectancy of a woman being 44 years. In face of such harrowing stats, bacha posh can be seen a short-term alternative to lead a relatively normal life.
But, once bacha posh girl reaches puberty, she's expected to transition back to being a girl, giving up freedoms she's enjoyed until then. It has dire consequences.
This switch that is expected out of girls overnight is one of the many reasons this practice, which remains largely undocumented, is unpopular among many Afghan girls. The temporary freedom comes at a cost of a girl suffering psychological trauma, identity crises and more.
One such Afghan girl named Sitara Wafadar longs for hair like other girls. With five sisters and no brothers, she has been subjected to this gender-twisting custom that enables her to perform duties of a son.
In an interview with the AFP, the 18-year-old talked about how every morning she puts on “the baggy shirt and trousers and flip flops typically worn by Afghan males.” To make her disguise even more convincing, she covers her short brown hair with scarf and changes her voice to conceal her gender.
"I never think that I am a girl. My father always says 'Sitara is like my eldest son'. Sometimes... I attend funerals as his eldest son.When I go to work most people do not realize that I am a girl. If they realized that an 18-year-old girl was working morning to evening in a brick factory then I would encounter many problems. I could even be kidnapped," she explained.
"I don't feel ashamed about what I am doing but people my age tell me 'you have reached puberty and now you don't have to work at a brick factory'. But what should I do? I don't have any other choice," the teen added.
Her father, Noor, said “Allah” did not give him a son, which was reason enough for him to force his daughter to dress as a boy and work. Noor further told the publication about a loan he had taken and how his daughter’s labor would help him repay it.
Bacha poshi may temporarily solve problems for some Afghan families, but it can have a lasting impact on the girl’s psychological health. As they get older and puberty reveals their biological gender, life becomes more difficult — and dangerous. But in a society that is largely male-dominated, there is little regard for struggles of a woman.
Bacha poshi tends to be followed in "particularly conservative areas" of Afghanistan, Kabul University sociology professor Baryalai Fetrat told AFP.
"Girls find it difficult to go back to their normal self or act as a submissive wife to their husbands, which can lead to depression and also domestic violence," Fetrat said.
In Afghanistan’s patriarchal society, this tradition allows the family to avoid the social stigma related to not having any sons, but there is no denying the fact this is a repression against girls and an insult to their own health and wellbeing.
Banner Image Credits: Reuters,Umit Bektas