Raising daughters as sons in Afghanistan
“Why do we need to give a girl a boy’s face to give her freedom?”
That is the question asked by Azita Rafhat, a former member of the Afghan parliament, who opted for a radical decision to raise one of her four daughters as a boy.
Although clearly well-educated with a career and political influence, she has nevertheless had to succumb to the prevailing social perception which dictates that, until you bear a son, you are a nobody.
Rafhat is one of the few people who agreed to participate in the short documentary The Trouble With Girls, produced by BBC Persian, which looks at the long-standing but rarely discussed tradition of Bacha Posh – disguising girls as boys.
These girls are dressed as boys; they are given a masculine haircut and an appropriate name. They are sent to boys’ schools, allowed to play outside and generally are awarded all of the freedoms that girls and women are so often denied in patriarchal Afghan society.
The mullahs appear to turn a blind eye to the practice and families seem to accept this state of collective suspended reality. So deeply entrenched is the desire to have a son that even a temporary optical illusion seems to be acceptable.
But what about the girls?
Most of them have to stop living as a boy when they reach puberty, although some parents continue raising them as boys until they are fully grown adults.
Some contributors to the film, including a women’s rights activist, claimed that being raised as a boy increased their confidence and allowed them to become independent women with jobs and fulfilling lives.
However, The Trouble With Girls offers only glimpses of the psychological damage caused by this sort of an upbringing.
“If my parents force me to get married, I will compensate for the sorrows of Afghan women and beat my husband so badly that he will take me to court every day,” says Elaha.
She lived as a boy for 20 years and only reverted to her own sex when she had to go to university to study law. She, just like the daughter of the MP, comes from a well-educated family of doctors.
The audience at London’s Frontline Club where the documentary was screened on Tuesday, picked up on the uneasy feeling about what was left unsaid.
The Q&A session with the author Tahir Qadiry revealed a far more sinister story than the film implied.
“Many things we needed to leave out. The lady in the film [the ex Afghan MP] is her husband’s second wife. He didn’t have a son with his first wife, so he married her.
“They only had four daughters, so he was planning to get married for the third time. That’s why she forced to do this, otherwise her husband would leave her,” explained Qadiry.
“She may be a breadwinner and educated, but she feels that, if she doesn’t have a husband her life will be a nightmare. And her daughter is the victim of that situation.”
Qadiry said that despite being Afghani, he found it very difficult to find contributors willing to talk to him on camera even though the practice is widespread and accepted in Afghan society. Himself a father of a little girl, he found the subject matter difficult.
“I found it quite disturbing. Giving girls all of the freedoms and then taking them away is very challenging.
“I asked my contributor – don’t you think this is enough? Why don’t you fight with your husband about this? She said that was impossible, that is how things are in the Afghan society. You are more privileged if you have a son.”
However, despite all of the difficulties facing women in Afghanistan, it is not all doom and gloom.
In the film we were able to see younger women escaping the shackles of traditional roles – they study, work, protest. Increasingly they are joined by men who understand that equality can only be good for society as whole.
“The younger generations are changing,” says Qadiry, “they are on Facebook for example, Young Afghans for Change, they are saying that men and women are equal. They are taking steps to fight injustices, but it will take time.
“They are saying that we have to give equal rights to men and women through our constitution, not though the creation of fake identities.”
However, even to be in a position to protest, to understand what that means, to be able to write slogans on placards and use the internet, you must belong to a small minority of privileged women whose families believe that education is for all of their children.
In Afghanistan only about 12 per cent of women are literate and human rights groups estimate that 86 per cent have suffered from sexual, physical or psychological violence.
Without basic education a large proportion of victims are unable to seek help, understand their rights or how the legal and court systems work.
Even if they do, the odds are stacked against them and many end up in prison for the “crime” of fleeing their matrimonial home.
Possibly because of these obstacles, some women in the film talked very positively about the liberating and confidence-building experiences of being raised as boys.
Qadiry suspects that “maybe they were not telling the full truth.
“They don’t want to tell you the negative side of it. They may worry you would make fun of them or disapprove of their family.
“Still, a more liberal generation is on the rise, which raises their daughters differently, giving them all of the opportunities without pretending that they are boys.
“But those families exist in cities and we need to understand that Afghanistan is not only Kabul or Herat, but many other provinces too.”