She is My Son: Afghanistan’s Bacha Posh, When Girls Become Boys

Our visit to Mohammed caused quite a lot of trouble
after the foreigners had left, he and his large family had to move
to his brother’s house to get away from the neighbours’ questions
Mohammed doesn’t want anyone to know why the journalists had come to film
at a poor Kabul resident’s house
Mohammed will never let on that behind his back,
his neighbours call him a mada-posht
one who has only daughters
In traditional Afghan society, it’s hard to find a more shameful nickname to give a man
Having seven daughters and no sons in a patriarchal society is quite a social stigma
10-year old Amena was given no choice
Her father made her become a bacha posh
Every Afghan woman must have a man beside her
if not a husband, a son will do
Abos asked for a ball for his birthday
He’ll soon turn 9
And football is his favourite game
Abos is her name outside of the home
within the family, her name is Fazilya
Their mother dresses the younger sister as a boy too
Abos and her grandfather are the only members of the family
who can venture freely outside their backyard
This time the mother has sent her daughter to the local hairdresser
because the family has been invited to a neighbour’s wedding
Girls like Asiya are called “bad boys”
She’s a troubled teenager
in the girls’ school in Kabul, both teachers and fellow students complain about her
she behaves like a boy and only has to cover her head like all the other girls when she’s in class
Asiya is a rare type of bacha posh
it was her own decision to dress like a boy
she has a brother so her family isn’t lacking an heir
Asiya likes the freedom that boy’s clothes give her
Freedom that her female friends can’t enjoy
20-year old Najla works as a secretary at a firm selling anti-cellulite products
Out of respect for her boss and colleagues, she covers her head in the office
But just after the daily call to prayer, she finishes her work day
Changes to her usual clothes
which passersby find shocking
and hurries to the other end of Kabul
to a place everyone knows her as Coach Tofan
Afghanistan’s only Taekwondo school for girls is covertly hidden away in a basement
and doesn’t ever advertise itself.
When the training session ends, close to sunset
Tofan covers her head again
and goes to night school.
Girls dressing as boys is an Afghan tradition
It’s concealed but not taboo
but when bacha-posh girls come of age
they go back to dressing as girls
and their parents try to marry them off usually to a relative
Tofan is a rare exception who refuses to start a family and have children
She wants freedom
and in Afghanistan, only the men have that
We arranged to meet Najla at her home the next morning
but as we reached her doorstep, she called to say she didn’t want to be filmed anymore
The foreigners visiting her work place had alerted the firm’s owner
from whom Najla keeps her second name and double life a secret.
The brave taekwondo fighter was afraid
Abos only went to school for a year before the family ran out of money
Now the bacha-posh can only attend the madrasah, a religious school
After school, there’ll be a party
Abos is turning 9
For her birthday, she receives the long-awaited ball
The neighbours’ children, boys and girls are all invited
Dressed in a boy’s shalwar kameez
Amena goes to the city every day to sell water
Outside of her father’s hearing, she confesses that she hates the job
It’s hard to hide from passersby that she’s actually a girl
Two years ago there was some hope for Amena’s parents
Mohammed’s wife gave birth to a boy
The family of modest means had only two months to celebrate the birth of an heir
before tragically the baby died.
Amena’s mother can’t have more children now
meaning that the girl will have to remain a boy for a few more years.
Asiya and her friend visits Kabul’s most western and fashionable shopping centre to buy clothes
Passersby might easily think they’re brother and sister
maybe even a couple
Places where no one asks Asiya if she’s a boy or a girl are few and far between
Asiya is fully aware she is defying the ultra conservative Afghan social norms
She also knows her protest would not have been possible without her parents’ approval
Near the end of our visit, Asiya invites us to her home
She promised to introduce us to her parents.
Asiya had tried to trick us
We later learnt it was because of her parents
They refused point-blank to be filmed and forbade her
But because she’s a bacha-posh
She can decide for herself
and choose her own destiny

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