A daughter being the ‘son the family never had’. She dresses up like a boy, is included in the freedoms he enjoys, and works similar tasks he is usually assigned. This is Bacha Posh - a tribal tradition in Afghanistan that may be wiped out with the takeover of the Taliban.
Bacha Posh has historically been a tradition or way for some girls to live as boys before puberty. Literally meaning a “female dressed up as a guy" in Dari, it is an ancient pre-Taliban ritual in which a family designates a girl to live as a boy. This might either grant her a boy’s freedoms — such as schooling, athletics, and the right to be alone outside — or put a boy’s duties on her, such as working.
Despite the Taliban’s desperation to appear moderate and attain the approval of the international community for a successful regime in the country, their promises on giving women freedom and safety are already wearing thin. There are reports of women being shot for wearing tight clothes, females being smuggled into the sex trade, and her daily freedoms and rights - such as working, going out in public - being curbed like never before. The situation predicts a future where even Bacha Posh - albeit a tradition rooted in inequality but providing freedom for some girls - may be eliminated.
Here’s a deeper look into the custom:
Bacha posh is a practice in Afghanistan and portions of Pakistan in which certain households who do not have sons would choose a daughter to live and behave like a boy. This allows the youngster to act more freely, such as attending school, accompanying her sisters in public, and working.
The custom has been documented for at least a century, but it is likely much older, and it is still observed today.
During times of conflict, women may have disguised themselves as men in order to fight or be protected. Historian Nancy Dupree told a New York Times reporter that she remembered a photograph from the early 1900s under the reign of Habibullah Khan in which women dressed as men guarded the king’s harem since the harem could not be guarded by either women or men. “Segregation necessitates creativity," she explained, “and these people have incredible coping abilities."
There is societal pressure in Afghanistan for families to have a boy to carry on the family name and inherit the father’s possessions. In the absence of a boy, families may dress one of their girls as a male, with some believing that having a bacha posh will increase the likelihood of a mother having a son in a subsequent pregnancy.
What Does a Bacha Posh look Like?
A girl who is living as a boy will dress in typical male attire, get her hair cut short, and use a male name.
The technique is not intended to deceive, and many others, such as teachers or family friends, will be aware that the child is truly a female. She will be considered as neither a daughter nor a full-fledged son in her family, but she will not be required to cook or clean like other girls. As a bacha posh, a girl is more easily able to attend school, run errands, travel openly in public, accompany her sisters in locations where they would be unable to do so without a male companion, play sports, and obtain work.
When a girl reaches adolescence, her status as a bacha posh normally ends. Women reared as bacha posh have a tough time transitioning from life as a male to adjusting to the traditional limits put on women in Afghan society.
Azita Rafaat, a politician elected to Afghanistan’s National Assembly to represent Badghis Province, had no sons and raised one of her daughters as a bacha posh. “It’s extremely difficult for you to imagine why one mother is doing these things to their youngest daughter," she said, adding that “things are happening in Afghanistan that are simply not imaginable for you as a Western people."
‘I Never Think I’m a Girl’
In 2018, the news agency AFP released a piece about one such bacha posh, Sitara Wafadar, who had to live like a boy in Afghanistan while caring for her family.
Sitara Wafadar, aged 18, laboured six days a week as bonded labour with her elderly father at a brick kiln to repay money borrowed from the owner and support the family.
“I never think that I am a girl," Sitara told AFP at the brick factory. “My father always says ‘Sitara is like my eldest son’. Sometimes… I attend funerals as his eldest son" — something she would never be allowed to do as a girl.
“If they realised that an 18-year-old girl was working morning to evening in a brick factory then I would encounter many problems. I could even be kidnapped," she had told AFP.