Passing For a Boy

kabulHave 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.

11 thoughts on “Passing For a Boy

  1. Pingback: Book Club Discussion: The Underground Girls of Kabul - From Left to Write

  2. kcourt40

    First, I have also pretended to be a lesbian in a skanky bar. Huh. I thought I was the only one to pull this trick out of the hat when faced with a creepy come-on. It should be noted that I was also hit on by a woman in the same bar. And she was way less creepy. Guess I’m a good pretender 🙂

    Second – I’ve added this book to my “want to read” list on Goodreads. It sounds fascinating!

    Your post made me think of a number of close friends who happen to be gay. I worked with a great bunch of people at Disney when I was in my 20s. This was also during the Clinton years and the era of don’t ask, don’t tell. At the time, that seemed to be a good solution, didn’t it? Many of my gay friends conformed to how society thought they *should* behave so they could be promoted into leadership positions. Others stayed true to who they were and did not fare as well in the job market, unfortunately. On the national stage, as more and more gay people in the military came forward, spoke out and served with bravery and dignity alongside their straight counterparts, things slowly began to shift. It’s not a perfect system, to be sure. But it’s better than it was.

    I realize this is like night and day when compared to the plight of women in many Middle Eastern countries. To answer your question, I don’t think it does anything to erode the bias inherent in the culture – at least not initially. But using the example above, I wonder about what their situation may be like years from now. The Grand Canyon didn’t form overnight but rather over years of the constant flow of water slowly, deliberately carving out something beautiful that wasn’t there before. I’d like to believe that the extraordinary bravery shown by these young women NOW is making some small difference. Despite the fact that this tradition, as you note above, predates Islam in Afghanistan.

    Thanks for a great post that really made me think.

    1. Support

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kim! I agree that the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell example is a valid parallel to this situation. After so many years of accepting that those soldiers were just as capable of soldiering, the bias crumbled from the evidence. I don’t have the same hopes for this one, but maybe with enough time.

  3. Kate

    I think we all pass as something at some point in time. I’m not sure it’s conforming to or challenging culture so much as it exploring the boundaries of how we define ourselves. I’m grateful I live in a place where I can regularly test and challenge boundaries!

  4. alison abbott

    I think in this case it is helping the situation. Once girls see what is on the other side, they will perhaps press for more rights. Like Azita demonstrates, it is a very slow process.

  5. Alicia S

    It’s a difficult question to answer. As I was reading the book and hearing about how Zahra doesn’t want to go back to being a girl and she’s fighting it, even at the abuse of her parents and others it made me stop to think that that is where it all starts, in seeing and living a change. If her parents had not made her pass as a boy would Zahra have known what freedom was or would she just have continued to perpetuate the given…that women are worthless and should do what they are told?

  6. mamawolfeto2

    For me, the older I get, the less interested I am in living my life without authenticity. I think it’s a challenge in today’s world to stay true to ourselves, but I’ve realized that when I do that I’m most happy. Thanks for an interesting perspective!


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