Mehran, age 6, first arrived at her kindergarten in Kabul as Mahnoush, in pigtails and a pistachio dress. When school shut down for a break, Mahnoush left and never returned. Instead a short-haired, tie-wearing child with the more masculine-sounding name of Mehran began first grade with the other children.
Nothing else changed much. Some teachers were surprised but did not comment except to one another. When the male Koran teacher demanded Mehran cover her head in his class, a baseball cap solved the problem. Miss Momand, a teacher who started her job after Mehran’s change, remembers being startled when a boy was brought into the girls’ room for afternoon nap time but realizing, as she helped Mehran undress, that she was a girl. Mehran’s mother Azita later explained to Miss Momand that she had only daughters, and that Mehran went as the family’s son. Miss Momand understood perfectly. She herself used to have a friend at school who was a family’s only child and had assumed the role of a son.
Officially, girls like Mehran do not exist in Afghanistan, where the system of gender segregation is among the strictest in the world. But many other Afghans, too, can recall a former neighbor, a relative, a colleague, or someone in their extended family raising a daughter as a son. These children even have their own colloquialism, bacha posh, which literally translates from Dari to “dressed like a boy.” Midwives, doctors, and nurses I’ve met from all over the provinces are more familiar with the practice than most; they have all known bacha posh to appear at clinics, escorting a mother or a sister, or as a patient who has proven to be of another birth sex than first presumed.
The health workers say that families who disguise their daughters in this way can be rich, poor, educated, or uneducated, or belong to any of Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups. The only thing that binds the bacha posh girls together is their families’ need for a son in a society that undervalues daughters and demands sons at almost any cost. They disguised their girls as boys because the family needed another income through a child who worked and girls aren’t allowed to, because the road to school was dangerous and a boy’s disguise provided some safety, or because the family lacked sons and needed to present as a complete family to the village. Often, as in Kabul, it is a combination of factors. A poor family may need a son for different reasons than a rich family, but no ethnic or geographical reasons set them apart.
And to most of them, the health workers told me, having a bacha posh in the family is an accepted and uncontroversial practice, provided the girl is turned back to a woman before she enters puberty, when she must marry and have children of her own. Waiting too long to turn someone back could have consequences for a girl’s reputation. A teenage girl should not be anywhere near teenage boys, even in disguise. She could mistakenly touch them or be touched by them, and be seen as a loose and impure girl by those who know her secret. It could ruin her chances of getting married, and she would be seen as a tarnished offering. The entire family’s reputation could be sullied. For that reason, and because the bacha posh I spoke to were minors, some names and details have been changed in the story that follows.
Mehran seems to have adapted well to her new role. She takes every opportunity to tell those around her that she is a boy. She will refuse sewing and doll play in favor of cycling, soccer, and running. According to Miss Momand, Mehran has fully become a boy, and neither her exterior nor her behavior is distinguishable from another boy’s. All the teachers play along and help protect her secret by letting her change clothes in a separate room when necessary.
“So is this all normal to you? Common, even?” I ask Miss Momand.
“Not exactly. But it is not a problem.”
The rules are clear: dresses for girls, pants for boys. There are no other cross-dressers attending school. But the school has other things to worry about, such as how many armed guards are needed by the front gate. The teacher expresses some solidarity with Azita: “Mehran’s mother is in parliament. She is a good woman. We do what we must.”
“We women, or we Afghans?”
As for academic skills, Mehran is “intelligent, but a little lazy,” according to her teacher. A few years after leaving Mahnoush behind, Mehran’s personality has grown louder. She spends breaks floating in and out of the boys’ soccer games and other outdoor activities, depending on where the action seems to be at the moment. Mehran is well aware she is a girl, according to the teachers. Since Mehran was a girl for several years before she was remade into a boy, there should be little confusion for her in that regard. But she always introduces herself as a boy to newcomers.
Sigmund Freud claimed that children are not even aware of genital differences until around the age of 4 or 5, but in the 1980s, the psychoanalysts Eleanor Galenson and Herman Roiphe proved that children’s understanding of a sexual identity begins much earlier. According to their findings, a child can be aware of his or her birth sex as early as 15 months.
Yet in Afghanistan, there is a certain interest in keeping children in the dark, or at least blurring the lines about boys and girls. Specifics about anatomical differences are purposely not explained by many parents, in order to keep the minds of children—and especially those of little girls—“pure” for as long as possible before they marry.
It reminds me of a story my mother once told me about how she, as a 10-year-old in a more conservative version of Sweden of the 1950s, proclaimed to her mother that she intended to become a boy when she grew up. My mother had only one sister and a dim view of differences between men and women, never having seen her father or any other men without clothes. My grandmother scoffed at her daughter and called her stupid but did not offer any explanation for why the plan wasn’t feasible.
At Mehran’s school, children are absolutely forbidden from seeing the opposite sex naked. The headmaster tells me that at this stage, she is certain that to most students, what sets little boys and girls apart is all exterior: pants versus skirts.
That, and the knowledge that those with pants always come first.
It is simple math—if she is caught, no one eats. And every day she fears discovery. All that Niima is ordered to do, she does very quickly. She climbs to fetch store offerings from the top shelf. She dives under stacked crates of imported Pakistani oranges to pull out boxes of tea. She squeezes her small, flexible body between tightly packed bags of flour behind the counter. She tries never to look directly at customers. If they looked into her eyes, she imagines, they would see she is not a real boy.
With her short hair and gray tunic, 10-year-old Niima plays her part perfectly. But her soft voice gives her away. That’s why she rarely speaks when she is Abdul Mateen, as she is mostly known outside the mud wall of her home in one of Kabul’s poorest neighborhoods, where an open sewer runs alongside cinder-block houses. Niima attends school for two hours each morning in a dress and a head scarf. Then she returns to the house, changes into work clothes, and goes to work as a shop assistant in a small grocery store near the family’s house. On an average day, she brings home the equivalent of $1.30. It supports her Pashtun family of eight sisters and their mother.
Niima poses as a boy purely for the survival of her family. Niima’s father is an unemployed mason who is often away and spends most of his money on drugs, says Niima’s mother. Niima could never work in the store as a girl, nor could her mother, even if she wanted to. It would be impossible for a Pashtun woman, according to the family’s rules.
Their daughter displays no enthusiasm for being a boy. To her, it is hard work, with little upside. She would rather look like a girl. Her mother consoles her, saying it will only be a few more years before she can change back into being a girl again.
The family’s future survival is already mapped out: When Niima gets too old for working in the shop, her younger sister will take her place. And after that, the next sister.
Shubnum’s too-early transition to become a girl has already begun. The eight-year-old’s hair is being allowed to grow out. It was not supposed to happen until she turned 13, but her manner, her fits of giggles, and her long, fluttery lashes made it impossible for her to pass any longer. When she was found out in the boys’ school she attended together with her older brother, the teachers did not object. But Shubnum had to endure plenty of teasing in class after the others guessed she was a girl.
When I visit her mother, Nahid, in her two-room apartment close to Kabul University, Jack Bauer of 24 is torturing a suspected Muslim terrorist with the electrical current from a broken lamp on the grainy television. Shubnum and her brother watch intently. Their older sister, in a head scarf with a shy smile, stays in a corner, mostly looking down at her hands.
Although Nahid has one son, circumstances dictated that she needed another one. When her abusive husband of 17 years asked her to cover herself completely and stay at home, Nahid chose to walk away with nothing. Her father struck a very unusual and costly deal with her husband at the time of the separation: Their family money would go to him in exchange for the children. Husbands otherwise have an absolute right to the children, which is why the divorce rate is close to zero in Afghanistan. With support from her family, Nahid moved to another part of the city and began her life anew. She found a job and an apartment. But as a single mother of three—which is almost unheard of in Kabul—she had to balance her family with an extra son, in order for them all to feel safer.
As a divorcée, she was seen as a loose, available woman, risking threats and violent approaches by men, as well as plenty of direct and indirect condemnation by other women. As a woman with two sons, however, she is considered a slightly more respectable creature.
It would have worked out well had Shubnum not been so reluctant and not so terminally girly. Each time she was taken to the barber for a haircut, she cried. Afterward, she would tug at her short hair to make it grow out faster, and at home, she would obsessively try on her older sister’s dresses.
Eventually, Nahid gave up. She blames herself—perhaps she did not make being a boy alluring enough for Shubnum.
When asked which gender she prefers, Shubnum is unhesitant. “A girl,” she responds, with a big smile and cocked head. She glances over at the television, now showing an intense performance of Indian bhangra dance. “So I can wear jewelry and dance.”
Her wish will be granted. At her future wedding, if not before.
No one knows how many bacha posh children there are in Afghanistan.
They are a minority, but it is not uncommon to see them in the villages throughout the country. There are usually one or two in a school, and often one as a helper in a small store. The health workers I’ve spoken to have all witnessed the practice and agree that every family with only daughters will consider switching one to a boy. In their view, it is mostly to the girl’s advantage to live a few years as a boy, before her other, more difficult life of childrearing of her own begins.
In neighboring countries such as India, where sons are similarly much preferred over daughters, ultrasound machines are among the most sought-after equipment by doctors and patients. According to the author Mara Hvistendahl in Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, 160 million female fetuses have already been aborted throughout Asia, skewing the demographic for generations to come and creating acute problems for societies lacking women. Although both ultrasound screenings and secret late-term abortions are available in Kabul for those who can pay, most rural parts of Afghanistan are not there yet. Women in these areas just hope to avoid bringing too many daughters into this world.
Both Western and Eastern history are filled with Mehrans and Niimas and Shubnums. In almost every era, there have been women who took on the role of men when being a woman was made impossible. Many of those whose existences are remembered were warriors, since wars are a manly business deemed worthy of recording.
In the first century, Triaria of Rome joined her emperor husband in war, wearing men’s armor. Zenobia was a third-century queen in Syria who grew up as a boy and went on to fight the Roman Empire on horseback. Around the same time in China, Hua Mulan took her father’s place in battle, wearing his clothes. Joan of Arc was famously said to have seen an archangel in 1424, causing her to adopt the look of a male soldier and help fight France’s war against England.
The Catholic Church seemed to not only accept women dressing as men but also to admire and reward those who showed bravery and displayed other male traits. In a study of medieval Europe, professor Valerie Hotchkiss of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign described the phenomenon of cross-dressing women as revolving around avoiding marriage, renouncing sexuality, and forever remaining virgins. Both Scivias, a 12th-century collection of religious texts by Hildegard von Bingen, and Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas mention how women dressing in male clothing may be permitted in circumstances of necessity. In other words: war.
Dutch historians Lotte C. van de Pol and Rudolf M. Dekker also documented more than a hundred women who lived as men between the 16th and 19th centuries. Many were discovered to be women only when their bodies were carried off the battlefield. These women “existed throughout Europe,” mostly as sailors and soldiers, and likely there were many more who will never be known.
They took on a male identity for reasons similar to the bacha posh in Afghanistan today: Some needed to support themselves and their families. Others needed to disguise themselves to travel or to escape a forced marriage. Some managed to disguise themselves to study, since higher education was closed to women. A few who were found out faced prosecution, but there is evidence indicating some leniency was given to those who had fought for their countries.
By the 19th century in Europe, the frequency of women who dressed as men seemed to diminish. Historians attribute it to an increasingly organized society where various forms of civil registration such as border controls and mandatory medical examinations for soldiers made it more difficult for women to pass as men. A more dysfunctional, primitive society works in favor of those who want to disguise themselves; the fewer papers or checks of any kind, the better—circumstances still true for much of Afghanistan today.
Perhaps this decline also speaks to how much women pretending to be men really is one of the clearest symptoms of a segregated society so dysfunctional that it inevitably must change. That practices very similar to bacha posh have existed over the centuries in countries around the world speaks to the universal and historical need for them in strict, patriarchal societies.
When I asked Afghans to describe to me the difference between men and women, over the years interesting responses came back. While Afghan men often begin to describe women as more sensitive, caring, and less physically capable than men, Afghan women, whether rich or poor, educated or illiterate, often describe the difference between men and women in just one word: freedom.
As in: Men have it, women do not.
The Western definition of “freedom” may be different, and it changes with each generation. The current war in Afghanistan, for instance, is named “Operation Enduring Freedom” to indicate something worth fighting a 13-year war over. But freedom as we know it today is yet another evolutionary luxury, American author Robin Morgan says when I tell her about the bacha posh. “[Birth] sex is a reality; gender and freedom are ideas.”
The Afghan women I have met, some of whom have little education but a lifetime of experience of being counted as less than a full human being, have a distinct view of what exactly freedom is. To them, freedom would be to avoid an unwanted marriage and to be able to leave the house. It would be to have some control over one’s own body and to have a choice of when and how to become pregnant. Or to study and have a profession.
Given this, who would not walk out the door in disguise—if the alternative was to live as a prisoner or slave? Who would really care about long hair or short, pants or skirt, feminine or masculine, if renouncing one’s gender gave one access to the world? A great many people in this world would be willing to throw out their gender in a second if it could be traded for freedom.
The real story of Mehran, Shubnum, Niima, and other women who live as men in Afghanistan is not so much about how they break gender norms or what they have become by doing that. Rather, it is about this: Between gender and freedom, freedom is the bigger and more important idea—in Afghanistan as well as globally. Defining one’s gender becomes a concern only after freedom is achieved. Then a person can begin to fill the word "freedom" with new meaning.
This article has been adapted from Jenny Nordberg ’s forthcoming book The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan.