LONDON (TrustLaw) - In Afghanistan’s largely conservative, male-dominated society, a son is often viewed as a family’s most valuable resource.
So important for the family’s reputation that the parents sometimes decide to raise one of their daughters as a boy.
“When you don’t have a son in Afghanistan…people question the good life that you have,” BBC Persian reporter Tahir Qadiry told TrustLaw in London this week.
Qadiry is the author of “The Trouble with Girls”, a documentary on the long-standing Afghan practice of dressing girls as boys (bacha posh).
Despite progress in women's rights since the fall of the Taliban a decade ago – and the constitution stating the two sexes are equal – women in Afghanistan are still widely treated as second-class citizens.
“Women can’t go outside, they can’t walk freely, they get raped and sexually assaulted,” said Qadiry, who was born and raised in Afghanistan.
By taking a boy’s identity, a daughter gains freedoms that are normally inaccessible to girls, such as going out, playing cricket, going to the mosque and help run their father’s business. While it is a common practice in Afghanistan, it is impossible to know how many girls are brought up as boys in the country, Qadiry said.
Qadiry had always known about this custom, but had never talked about it as it is considered a taboo, and it was only during an assignment he went on less than two years ago that he realised how widespread the practice was.
LIFE AS A BOY
Mehran, 8, has short hair and wears a suit, like every other Afghan boy. She’s the youngest of four daughters of a family from Kabul.
Her mother, a former MP in the Afghan parliament and now a women’s rights activist, decided to raise her as a boy to grant the family a respectable status in the community.
She told Qadiry that, in Afghan society, “your life is only complete if you have a son amongst your children.”
“My life was going to be misery and my husband was pushing me to have a son," Qadiry recalled her as saying.
So, in the end, she convinced herself it was a good idea to raise their last-born daughter as a boy.
In the documentary, Mehran looks happy with a male identity. She is allowed to do things her sisters can only dream about and, when asked, her siblings say they envy her freedom.
While Mehran has been told she will have to go back to being a girl eventually, this won’t happen until she’s 15 or older.
An older girl interviewed by Qadiry, who had been raised as a boy until she was 17, was struggling to cope with the sudden changes in her life.
Despite her feminine looks, she said she will never get married and that – if forced to do so – she would beat up her husband in revenge.
“She’s such a beautiful girl, she’s such a character…but then she’s completely messed up,” Qadiry said.
Some of those Qadiry spoke to cited the young woman as a positive example for other girls as she was fierce and stood up to boys at her university, who dubbed her “The Commander”.
And both Mehran’s mother, and a senior women’s rights official who appears in the documentary, said they both had been raised as boys and that the experience had helped them develop a stronger personality.
However, Qadiry said it is impossible to assess the psychological repercussions this ancient custom has on girls.
“These women have no choice,” he said. “Once they go back to living as females they have to get married or get used to being ruled by men”.
“The Trouble with Girls” was broadcasted on the BBC Persian service in January this year and triggered enthusiastic reactions from viewers, according to Qadiry.
On Facebook, people – especially Afghan youths – responded in large numbers and voiced their approval for breaking such a deeply-rooted taboo, Qadiry added.
Over the past five years, there have been positive signs, Qadiry said. As he was over there to shoot the film, he followed a demonstration against sexual harassment in the streets, an endemic problem in Afghanistan. It was the first time such an event took place in the country, he said.
Mehran’s mother said she hopes things will improve for women in Afghanistan.
“Why should a mother disguise her daughter as a son?” she asked. “Why should a boy’s face give freedom to a girl?”
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)