Have you ever had to pretend to be something you’re not in order to have the freedoms others take for granted? Had to “butch it up” or “don’t ask, don’t tell?” Had to “talk white?” Had to “go along to get along?”
I’ve been reading a book called “The Underground Girls of Kabul” about an open secret in Afghanistan: girls who are dressed by their families as boys so that they may enjoy the freedoms denied to women in that gender-segregated culture. Women’s lives in Afghanistan are strictly limited because of their gender. So the question becomes, “Who would not walk out the door in disguise if the only alternative was living as a prisoner or a slave?”
While Jenny Nordberg was in Kabul to investigate the changes in women’s right in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, she discovered the undiscussed but not invisible tradition of “bacha posh” which means “dressed up like a boy.” In a society where girls can’t move freely outside the home, a bacha posh sometimes provides an economic benefit–another pair of hands that can work to feed the family. In some cases, a third or fourth daughter might be dressed as a boy to fool the world into thinking that the family has produced a boy in order to meet societal expectations. Once the girl child nears puberty, she is switched back to presenting as a girl and re-enters the constrained life of being an Afghan woman. But what freedom has she experienced while living on the other side? She could look people in the eye, play in the sun, raise her hand in school.
Nordberg’s story of her search for bacha posh, current and former, engaged me and got me thinking about other forms of “passing.” Like Jewish chidren who were hidden in German families. Or gay soldiers in the age of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Light-skinned black Americans who passed over to the other side of Jim Crow laws.
In those cases, discovery led to serious repercussions. Death and dishonor. When you are in a life or death situation, “passing” may be the only way to save yourself. But if it’s that easy to blur the line that has been used to divide people, how valid is the line? What struck me about the bacha posh in Afghanistan is that the practice seemed much less dangerous and in some cases was a manner of honor. Everyone knows that’s not really a boy, so why continue to value boys over girls if it’s that easy to fake it?
Here’s how the author puts it: “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.” It’s subversive to say, “Fine. If only boys are worth anything, I’ll be a boy. There. I’m a boy.” Will that subversion of the system eventually lead people to scrap the bias against women? I doubt it. Bacha posh tradition predates Islam in Afghanistan.
What do you think? Does “passing” reinforce the culture by playing along by its rules? Or does it erode the bias by showing that the rule was arbitrary from the start?
Join From Left to Write on September 16th as we discuss The Underground Girls of Kabul. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.