‘They are called bacha posh, literally “girls dressed as boys.” At birth, their parents decided this: that their daughter will change appearance, name, and identity. She becomes, in the eyes of everyone, the son of the family. It’s an old Afghan tradition that effectively permits families without a son to cross-dress one of their daughters to preserve the honor of the family.’ (Manoori, 2013, Loc 35).1)Manoori, U. (2013). I Am a Bacha Posh: My Life as a Woman Living as a Man in Afghanistan [Kindle version].
I Am a Bacha Posh: My Life as a Woman Living as a Man in Afghanistan by Ukmina Manoori
The Underground Girls Of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys by Jenny Nordberg
I had never heard of Bacha Posh (بچه پوش) until I spied the beautiful cover of Ukmina Manoori’s book in an airport bookshelf in 2015. Manoori’s autobiography is a first hand account on what life is like as a boy in a country where girls are the shame of the family. She is one of few bacha poshs that remained in disguise and unmarried after puberty. Recounting the political and social changes in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War (Dec. 1979 – Feb. 1989) and the American War in Afghanistan (2001 – 2014), Manoori struggled to keep her masculine identity and to fight to protect her family. Manoori witnessed the rise of the Taliban and experienced the war between those unbalanced men and America. As a member of the newly formed female council, Manoori took to the mantel of wise woman/man to protect young girls and mitigate disputes. She travelled to the U.S. to tell, not only her remarkable story as a permanent bacha posh, but the plight of all her people.
Jenny Nordberg’s journalism during her travels in Afghanistan is transformed into an extensive and fascinating documentary on the lives of several former, current and future bacha poshs. Nordberg fills the knowledge gaps by providing a glimpse into the history, religion and social strife’s that have affected Afghanistan, ‘the Graveyard of Empires,’ as it adopted new religions and traditions from its ancient conquerors. We follow the lives of girls who develop gender identity problems, those who struggled to transform back into girls and how they parented their daughters in turn. Nordberg accounts are phenomenal and well rounded, giving the reader insight into the mindset of the husbands and fathers of bacha poshs along the way.
In both books, women in Afghanistan are solely responsible for creating sons, with few in a society of only 10% literacy understanding that gender is chosen biologically by men. These desperate mothers go to incredible lengths to change their unborn child into a boy. Even though magic is forbidden in Islam, magical practices are ignored if they result in a son.
‘Esmaeel came to the family through divine intervention, she explains. When her sixth daughter was born, this desperate mother decided that the child should be presented to the world as a son. She told everyone her new little girl was, in fact, her firstborn son. The made-up baby boy held no practical purpose for the family as an infant. But she held a magical one. Her mother had been told by friends and neighbours that if she were to turn her girl into a boy, it would bring her good luck.’ (Nordberg, 2014, pg. 68.)2)Nordberg, J. (2014), The Underground Girls of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys [Kindle version].
Both Manoori and Nordberg conclude their books with hope and strength emanating from the lives they touched, leaving the reader with a sense of understanding that the world is in need of much more compassion and a willingness to listen to all sides.
‘THE BACHA POSH parallels throughout countries where women lack rights are neither Islamic nor un-Islamic. It is a human phenomenon, and it exists throughout our history, in vastly different places, with different religions and in many languages. Posing as someone, or something, else is the story of many women and men who have experienced repression and made a bid for freedom.
It is the story of a gay U.S. Marine who had to pretend he was straight. It is the story of a Jewish family in Nazi Germany posing as Protestants. It is the story of a black South African who tried to make his skin lighter under apartheid. Disguising oneself as a member of the recognized and approved group is at the same time a subversive act of infiltration and a concession to an impossible racist, sexist, or otherwise segregating system.’ (Nordberg, 2014, pg. 222.)
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