Cross-dressing in most societies is something that most people aren’t comfortable with. But then there are places where the practice is accepted as a way for families to raise their social standing. One such place is Afghanistan, where women live such highly restricted lives that they resort to dressing like men. The cross-dressing is mainly reserved for little girls, whose parents dress them up like boys before sending them out into the world. They are called bacha posh (“dressed like a boy”).
‘Bacha posh’ is the name given to girls who don a boy’s costume. So a family could have daughters, sons and also bacha poshes. A bacha posh is accepted and enjoys all the freedom of a real boyin Afghan society. They have the right to go to school, to travel, to play sports and even to get a job. Inside the home and outside, the bacha posh would be treated like any other male would, even while being referred to in the third person. Among a group of boys, many would not even be aware of the presence of a bacha posh. Should the true gender of the child be discovered somehow, it would be ignored and the pretence would continue as before. Parents who have no sons prefer to convert one of their daughters into a bacha posh to raise their social standing. In a society where having a male child is of utmost importance and a matter of pride, bacha poshes fill in the son’s shoes perfectly.
Photo: Adam Ferguson/The New York Times
If you’re thinking that bacha poshes are a few of the more fortunate female children who get to experience the free world of a man, you’re completely wrong. What’s really disturbing about this practice is that once the girl attains puberty, she is stripped of all privileges and expected to dress and behave like a normal girl; something she’s never done before. She would be expected to remain indoors, behave demurely, never meeting a man’s gaze. Soon, the girl’s marriage would be arranged, as for all other Afghan girls who have reached puberty.
For most former bacha poshes, the transition is a traumatic one. Going from a free bird to being trapped in a cage can hardly be something to look forward to. And to think of the internal identity crisis that such a person would go through is simply heart-wrenching. Given the kind of life that Afghan women live, bacha poshes never want to go back to being one. One bacha posh says, “People use bad words for girls. They scream at them on the streets. When I see that, I don’t want to be a girl. When I’m a boy, they don’t speak to me like that.” Another one states, “I had to learn how to sit with women, how to talk, how to behave. When you change back, it’s like you are born again, and you have to learn everything from the beginning.”
The problem with bacha poshes is that they simply do not know how to behave like women. They don’t know how to ‘act’ as a wife, often tripping over their burqa (veil). They don’t know how to cook either, or lower their gaze. Worse, they are used to yelling and hitting like the other men do. It must be tough having to control these impulses. The unfortunate fact is that bacha poshes exist in real life, but they aren’t officially recognized by the government. There aren’t any laws in place for the protection of these ‘ghost’ members of society. One moment they’re around, the next, they vanish into thin air.