Today I watched the documentary “She is my son: Afghanistan Bacha Posh, when girls become boys” and learned about the consequences of a deep-rooted belief, in Afghanistan patriarchal society, that “Every woman must have a husband beside her. If not a husband, a son will do.”
And what happens when a couple has only daughters and no sons? The daughter will do, as long as she dresses in male clothing, has her hair cut short and uses a male name. By doing so, she is allowed outside the house by herself, and she can start working to help the family make money. These girls are known as “Bacha Posh“, which means “dressed up as a boy“.
It’s a documentary directed by Alexander Avilov, which is available on YouTube and the RTD documentary channel. To those interested, I’d say: Stop reading this post, press play and watch it now. It is worth it.
In less than half an hour, you’ll have a glance at the lives of four girls: Fazilya, Asiya, Najla and Amena. My head starting spinning from the very first minute. I was, above all, interested in what the girls themselves had to say, how they felt and how they coped with the imposed gender-swap, so I typed the words of a couple of them here (mixed with the voice-over of the narrator for context).
Asiya likes the freedom that her boys’ clothes bring her. A privilege that her female friends can’t enjoy.
In Afghanistan, people don’t have the same rights. In other countries, men and women are equal, but that’s not the case here. Maybe that’s why I became a Bacha Posh. Women aren’t able to do what men are. Even sports! A man can play sports, but if a woman does, people say it’s a disgrace. A woman must stay at home and take care of children. People don’t want women to work like men. At school, they don’t let me be.
Even though I’m a girl, I must become a boy. I want to do something good for my family, for my father, that’s why I’m a Bacha Posh.
Dressed in boys clothes, Amena goes to the center 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 is a girl. (She is bullied in the streets).
Two years ago, there was some hope to Amena’s parents. Mohammed’s wife gave birth to a boy. The family of modest means had only two months to celebrate the heir before he tragically died. Amena’s mother can’t have more children now, meaning that she will have to remain a boy for a few more years.
The person behind the camera asks Amena’s father:
How long do you want Amena to stay a Bacha Posh?
Until her sister grows up to the age of 11. Then I’ll make her a Bacha Posh and Amena will be able to continue her education.
Narrator (talking about Najla):
Girls dressed as boys is an Afghanistan 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. It’s a rare exception who refuses to start a family and have children. She wants freedom. And in Afghanistan, only the men have that.
So many questions in what is now my very dizzy head. The biggest of all, being: “Why?“
Thankfully, the book is carefully and proudly shelved in a special section of my library, which allowed me to find the passages I was looking for quickly:
Simone de Beauvoir:
In truth, to go for a walk with one’s eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different. Perhaps these differences are superficial, perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that they do most obviously exist.
If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?
Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being.