Of Girls and Boys

Musings on backa posh, refugees, and culture.

Afghan Girls Dressed as Boys, Recipe for Gender Dysphoria?

All parents can learn from the Afghan bacha posh practice.

In Afghanistan, there exists a custom wherein some families without sons will transform a young daughter into a boy by altering her appearance and giving her a male name. Their new “son” is a bacha posh which literally means dressed as a boy. In Afghanistan, being a boy is very different from being a girl, especially in some parts of the country. Thus, these children learn to live by a new set of rules when they take on the male gender

The bacha posh, as a son, brings honor to the family, previously deemed incomplete by the more traditionally minded folks around them. He can play in the neighborhood or work alongside his father outside the home. He can sit cross-legged in a room of men and look them in the eye while they speak. All the while, just beneath the boyish veneer, the bacha posh is biologically female and normal physiology makes the clock tick on the masquerade.

Eventually, the bacha posh is transformed again into a young woman, typically when she reaches adolescence. She must now unlearn her gender-defined identity. Her speech, her walk, her mobility outside the homeall of that changes as she slips back into her modest clothing and lets her hair grow out. It’s a practice that goes back generations though its origins are not easily traced nor is its prevalence known. Anecdotal reports tell us that many girls relish their time as a boy, likely for the freedoms they were afforded during those years.

Emotionally, the transition can be quite traumatic as it is essentially imposing an identity crisis on a young psyche. The adjustment period can be difficult. Some former bacha poshs want nothing to do with men or marriage, perhaps resentful of the subservient role they may have to assume. There are some who wish they could stay a boy and even some who have refused to transition back.

To look at the effects this practice can have on girls, we can examine their reactions through the lens of the Diagnositic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5). The DSM is the guiding classification system that categorizes and lists criteria for the full spectrum of mental illness. In the DSM-5, Gender Dysphoria is diagnosed when there is “a marked difference between the individual’s expressed/experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her, and it must continue for at least six months. In children, the desire to be of the other gender must be present and verbalized. This condition causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” According to the manual, gender dysphoria can manifest in different ways, including strong desires to be treated as a member of a different sex

Reading this description, it seems the bacha posh tradition could very easily induce a secondary gender dysphoria of sorts. But the gender dysphoria resulting from the bacha posh tradition hints at a larger problem. The vast gender gap in Afghanistan and other countries could cause many women or girls to desire to be treated as a member of the opposite gender. Why be a girl when you could be so much more as a boy? Again, the effects this practice has on young Afghan women can only be surmised from the collection of anecdotes from bacha poshs but it does seem that many reflect on their time as a boy wistfully and lament being returned to the female gender.

There is, however, the possibility of a silver lining given the context.  While this can practice can undoubtedly cause duress on the young girl’s psyche, they may glean some benefit from tasting the honor and confidence that come with the male gender as they grow in Afghanistan. Several notable former bacha poshs have gone on to become public figures, parliamentarians, health care professionals. Their sense of entitlement just might be partially attributable to their years as a boy. 

But, beyond shaking our heads at the injustices women face “over there,” what can a parent in America take away from this practice? While the United States is fortunately a much more equitable society to women, there is still much room for improvement as evidenced by ongoing battles to prevent or prosecute instances of sexual assault or push for equal pay. We can make a conscious effort not to perpetuate gender gaps that might cause a daughter to wish she were a son. We can encourage her to participate in sports and pursue technical fields like engineering. We can pass over books that tell her she, the princess, should wait for prince charming to “save” her. We can teach her how to ask for a raise at work. We can empower her to be in command of her own body. 

We can teach our sons the same. Teach them that men and women both deserve to be heard and respected. Teach them that men and women can be leaders. Teach them to respect boundaries and not to confuse physical strength with authority. 

Gender is an experience and we are becoming more apt at understanding that the experience and biology do not necessarily follow hand in hand for every individual. We can best serve our children by guiding their development as human beings, and not impose glass ceilings on their dreams.

Nadia Hashimi, M.D., is a pediatrician in the Washington D.C. area. 

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