Bacha Posh: The Afghan Practice of Girls Living as Boys

As of 2021, Global Citizens reports Afghanistan to be the world’s worst country for women and children. Although the country has always been a contender in this list, the insurgence of the Taliban in 2021 spawned the current peak. The invasion of the United States in 2001 slightly upended the situation of women and children in Afghanistan. However, the illiteracy rate, dropout rate, and child marriage rates of girls ascended with each passing year. 

In addition to this, Afghanistan fervently remains to be a patriarchal society. Women do not enjoy or are not permitted fundamental rights in the country, and are heavily suppressed due to this gender division. It becomes a must for each family to have at least one male child to delegate their family responsibilities and inheritance. In a situation where a family lacks a son, the duties and responsibilities are handed over to a designated girl child who disguises herself to pass as a boy, a practice known as “Bacha Posh“.

“There is no social security, little health care and virtually no rule of law. There is just unemployment, poverty and constant war. In this environment, the number of sons equals a family’s strength…. They are insurance”, states Jenny Nordberg, author of the book “The Underground Girls of Kabul. The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys”.

Who is a Bacha Posh?

The word Bacha Posh is derived from the Persian dialect Dari. It translates to “a girl dressed like a boy”. Dating its origin back to the pre-Taliban times, this discreet Afghan tradition quickly became a normative practice. 

Image acquired from The Atlantic.

Male citizens of Afghanistan are allowed to work, play games, attend school beyond a certain age and roam around in public without anyone’s company. Women and girls, on the other hand, are forbidden to be seen in public without a male family member with them. This constraint paves a challenging situation for families without a son. It then becomes essential for such families to masquerade their girl child as a Bacha Posh. 

Bacha Posh are usually prepuberty girls who dress in a boys’ attire, cut their hair short, and enjoy the liberty that comes with being a male citizen of Afghanistan. Along with this, the girls are handed over with responsibilities that are conventionally done by male members of a family. They are obligated to work and support the family until they can. 

In an interview with CNN, Jenny says Bacha Posh receives the basic human rights one can get in Afghanistan. “This will increase her range of movement. She doesn’t need to be kept indoors. She could play sports. She could escort her mother or do errands. She’ll see more of the world outside the house, essentially. And in areas where education is only afforded to boys, she could get an education and could also safely get to school, if it’s dangerous for a girl to travel or to walk to school.”

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The reasons to convert a girl into a Bacha Posh are numerous. Many families in Afghanistan without sons, irrespective of their social and financial hierarchy, will designate one of their girl children as a Bacha Posh. This practice is not against their religious sentiments, and is also not controversial and uncommon. Despite this, the factual identity of the girl is kept hidden from most people barring perhaps only close family friends and school teachers.

Image acquired via Nat Geo.

Families living in poverty can earn a substantial income via bacha posh, who are free to do labor work or help with the family business. While some parents will choose their daughters to be bacha posh for her to avail education, other families with no sons do it due to societal pressure.

This short-term alternative culminates once the girl reaches puberty. After which, she must resort to living her life as a woman – shut indoors doing household chores and eventually married off. Many women face psychological trauma and identity crises due to the sudden shift.

Despite being practiced for centuries, no official records state clear numbers on Bacha Posh since it is a closemouthed practice. Now, under the Taliban’s rule, it is unclear whether this tradition is safe to be continued. “This (Bacha Posh) existed in Afghanistan long, long before the Taliban came to power, and it will exist until the day women have their own human rights,” said Jenny. “But it will also be more dangerous to do it, because I believe the Taliban do not approve of this. It was always risky and it will be more dangerous under a harsher regime,” she added.

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Feature Image Via CNN.

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