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Why Some Afghan Girls Dress As Boys Until Puberty Hits––It's Called 'Bacha Posh'

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Society tells us, even as young girls, that boys have it easier. But fundamentally, here in America, boys and girls have equal access to education, work, and sports (mostly). We may not all have equity, but many of us have access, and that means something. For the boys and girls in Afghanistan, life is very different. Because of tradition or safety, girls and women in Afghanistan often dress as boys.

With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the war-torn country last month, fear has grown internationally for the people of Afghanistan, especially for women. According to the nonprofit International Rescue Committee, 1.4 million women and girls in Afghanistan live in a constant state of restriction, and their rights are virtually nonexistent. The injustices Afghan women endure make me want to vomit. They are beacons of hope and light in a country led by men who often try to uphold ancient tradition and irrational laws that have no place today — not in Afghan society or any other.

For some women, the only way they can protect their bodies and their minds is by dressing as boys or men. Why is this important to understand? Because it’s something that has been happening for a long time, whether we’ve been aware or not. In Afghan culture, some families choose for their daughters to live life in what is called “bacha posh” — living as boys.

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For some families who haven’t been able to conceive a male child, they designate a daughter to dress as a boy to help save the family from shame. A male child is seen, culturally, as a help to the family and an additional breadwinner, a concept that plays out through adulthood; men are to provide financially for their families, wives, and children.

This gives girls abilities they wouldn’t have otherwise, opening doors for them that would have normally be closed: the ability to get an education without fear of being murdered, the ability to get a job, play sports, or something as simple as going outside alone, even to the market.

When a girl reaches puberty and has been living as a boy, they often return to living as a girl – one who will be married off and cannot continue with education.

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When the United States went to war with the Taliban in 2000, it helped to create a reality for women that they’d not known before. As the war progressed, new opportunities opened up for women — like in the classroom, where obtaining an education meant something to them and for their country. Women began to hold careers that were otherwise closed off to them before the invasion by the United States. Increasingly, women became doctors and politicians. According to the World Bank, between 2000-2012, the number of girls attending school rose from nearly 0 to 85% of girls attending school by 2012. Things were changing for girls and women.

But these opportunities have experienced a major backslide, and will continue to do so now that the Taliban is in control of the country. When a girl chooses to get an education in Afghanistan, she may very well be choosing death. In 2018, 60% of the 3.7 million children in Afghanistan were girls who were not getting an education. Three months before the United States pulled troops out of Afghanistan, more than 90 girls were killed by a car bomb set off at their school — a reminder that girls are not safe anywhere. And given the country’s current situation, the outlook is increasingly bleak.

In a recent interview with CNN, Jenny Nordberg, author of “The Underground Girls of Kabul,” shed some light on the struggles women and girls still face in Afghanistan today. She helps us to better understand the culture of “bacha posh,” noting, “It’s an ancient tradition and custom that is a sign basically of a deeply dysfunctional, segregated society where women and girls are second-class citizens. If girls had rights, there would be no need to pretend to be the more privileged gender. This is a society where boys and men have almost all the rights. In an extremely segregated society, there will always be those who try to get over to the other side.”

I am someone who values tradition, but this is a tradition mired in ancient times that no longer exist. Progress is important and that’s what needs to happen in Afghanistan to get to a point of recognizing that girls and women deserve to be treated justly, with respect, and should feel safe to walk around in their homeland. If it’s a basic human right for boys, it damn well should be for girls.

To help the women of Afghanistan, check out the resources here and here.

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