Gender Identity in Afghanistan
It’s hard to imagine an underground resistance at work in Afghanistan made up of a world of girls dressing to be boys. That’s is exactly what I did discover when I read the Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Norberg. Gender identity in Afghanistan is a confusing, complicated subject. I was familiar with the issue of girls being regarded as second class citizens in both India and China, this was something quite different.
This month’s book group selection is packed with information I previously knew very little about. It was an eye opening and thought provoking story about gender identity and the idea of nature versus nuture. The author, an investigative journalist, turned some of my understanding of what it means to grow up a girl on it’s head, and confirmed other ideas about what it means to be a woman. I was a little leery of the read, as I had visions of rape and beatings when the girls were discovered in their state of bacha posh, but I found this secret way of life to be in some places, a part of their lifestyle, a underground society that men, women and children might whisper about, but for the most part accept.
In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is a cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as as misfortune. A bacha posh (literally translated from Dari as ‘dressed up like a boy”) is a third kind of child—a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented to the outside world. Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke the story of this phenomenon for the New York Times, constructs a powerful and moving account of those secretly living on the other side of a deeply segregated society where women have almost no rights and title freedom.
Through the female characters, we get a taste of this life and the consequences of living like a boy and then trying to revert back and ‘become’ a girl again. While here in the US we certainly don’t have to subvert our identities, their is an underlying current of gender development as soon as a child is out of the womb. We are swaddled in pink or blue blankets with a little cap to match in the nurseries. Toys are geared towards one sex or the other. Rooms are painted appropriate colors. Yes, it starts early. I tried to raise my own children as neutrally as possible. “No toy guns in our house”. At age three my son would pick up any stick he could get his hands on and play shoot or have a mock sword battle. Where does that come from? Is it this nurturing that is responsible? Did he come out of the womb ready to battle? Today it is common belief that we are born gender specific. Norberg illustrates, more than once, girls being raised immediately at birth as sons, make a successful transition. Some love it, others can’t wait to return back to the other side. It is hard to know whether the status of men in their society, or the nurturing of the characteristics is responsible. In any event, it muddies the waters when it comes to thinking about teenagers in crisis with identity issues in our own country.
As the oldest of three daughters, there was always much pressure on me to achieve. I often wonder if we had a brother how things would be different. My father, a successful entrepreneur, never asked one of us to go into his business. Would that have been different if he had a son? I attended a college that had recently gone co-ed. The unhealthy male/female culture was full of mysogynist behavior and Title IX beginnings. This is all part of my make up, and has shaped me into the woman I am today. I perhaps go a bit overboard to insist on letting my daughter and her friends know they can accomplish anything they put their minds to.
It feels superficial to even be comparing any of what I have experienced to what strong girls in Afghanistan live on a daily basis. However, it does help to understand why parents would go so far to help their daughters achieve a better life. All of this is a process. I can project that in the same circumstances I would allow my daughter to be raised as a son, with limitations. As a parent I would go to great lengths to help either of my children have a better life. I don’t think I could ever go so far as to insist, if she wasn’t in favor of the plan.
There are so many layers to this complicated issue, but in the end, I ask myself is this action of the parents in Afghanistan helpful? In a culture of violence and severe segregation, I find the bacha posh to make sense, and I understand why it happens. By allowing girls to attend school and learn, even though they are dressed as a boy, it is a step towards education and in turn a step towards ending the cycle of oppression and poverty.
This post was inspired by The Underground Girls of Kabul by journalist Jenny Nordberg, who discovers a secret Afghani practice where girls are dressed and raised as boys. Join From Left to Write on September 16th as we discuss The Underground Girls of Kabul. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.