“Bacha Posh”

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A really fascinating feature piece from Jenny Nordberg explores the Afghan practice of “bacha posh” in which a young girl is dressed as a boy and thus becomes entitled to participate in Afghan life as a boy would. On Nordberg’s account this is a basically accepted social practice for families with no male children. There’s a term for it, and though bacha posh girls are expected to seriously maintain the pretense that they’re boys, but actually fooling people isn’t really necessary:

Mehran’s return to school — in a pair of pants and without her pigtails — went by without much reaction by her fellow students. She still napped in the afternoons with the girls, and changed into her sleepwear in a separate room from the boys. Some of her classmates still called her Manoush, while others called her Mehran. But she would always introduce herself as a boy to newcomers.

Khatera Momand, the headmistress, with less than a year in her job, said she had always presumed Mehran was a boy, until she helped change her into sleeping clothes one afternoon. “It was quite a surprise for me,” she said.

But once Mrs. Rafaat called the school and explained that the family had only daughters, Miss Momand understood perfectly. She used to have a girlfriend at the teacher’s academy who dressed as a boy.

The whole piece is worth reading, more as a human interest thing than as a policy tract, but I do wish it had said something about the status of this practice under the Taliban. Bacha posh, at least as described here, has an interesting interplay with regressive gender norms in Afghanistan. On the one hand, it’s obviously a form of subversion and certainly violates the letter of the prohibitions on girls’ activities. On the other hand, it’s clearly a form of adaptation to those traditions. Families with only female children simply can’t get by under the existing rules. Bacha posh allows everyone to at least pretend that the rules are being upheld, which allows them to remain normative. Did/does the Taliban recognize the way basha posh helps maintain the viability of gender apartheid, or did/do they seriously try to wipe it out?

Meanwhile, for some more policy-oriented takes I’d recommend Joshua Foust on the parliamentary elections and Caroline Wadhams on sticking to our timeline.