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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