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Hidden Afghanistan: Junior gender benders in the heart of the Muslim world.


Afghanistan's bacha posh are evidence of the daily struggle women face in a world that continues to oppress them just because of their gender. Bacha posh, which is from the Dari language, translates as dressed like a boy," and refers to cross-dressing girls. In Afghanistan, the country that the U.N. consistently ranks as the worst place in the world to be a woman, and where a woman's life expectancy is 44 years, the bacha posh are a discrete population of girls who live as boys until they reach puberty.

As boys, these girls subvert long-standing traditions that restrict the movement and liberty of female bodies. In a country with virtually no gender parity, the bacha posh get to go to school, they get to play soccer with friends (heck, they are allowed to have friends), and they are able to move about the world without fear of harm or harassment from men on the street. More than just having the privileges afforded to male bodies, the bacha posh actually feel safe in a very dangerous, militantly conservative Muslim nation where the physical oppression of women is all too real.

More often than not, it's the parents of these young girls who recommend cross-dressing as the way to live out their childhood. If a family has more than one daughter, usually the youngest is given the opportunity to live as a boy, especially since in Afghan culture male children are thought to be more valuable than female children. Where there is a male child, the whole family is held in higher esteem, so parents without sons are quietly proud to have a bacha posh.

Everyone knows that the bacha posh exist as an identity for girls cross-dressing as boys, but no one talks about it--it's like the Afghan version of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The bacha posh are as old as Afghan culture itself, even though they have had no recorded history. Well, not until now. Over a five-year period, the award-winning journalist Jenny Nordberg has recorded dozens of bacha posh stories and recounts them in her new book, The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan.




From 6-year-old Mehran, who takes great pleasure in running around as a boy, to 15-year-old Zahra, who is loathe to turn back into a girl and get married, Nordberg delivers an astounding piece of anthropological journalism. Each story is unique; she interviews current bacha posh, like Mehran, and fully grown women who used to be bacha posh but have lost their temporary entitlements and are now mothers themselves. Many bacha posh, it is no surprise, do not want to give up the freedoms and pleasures of being male. Some, too, including Zahra, no longer identify with the female gender. "When I grow up, I will go to the West," she tells Nordberg, "where nobody gets involved in your business. My will is very strong, and I will refuse my parents. Nobody can force me to do anything ... I am not a girl."

In Afghanistan, any discussion of sex and sexuality is virulently prohibited, and Nordberg does not attempt to transgress into that discursive territory, except to explore briefly, in Chapter 14, the extent to which sex and sexuality are taboo subjects. In an interview with Curve, Nordberg is adamant that "there is no direct correlation between hiding your gender, as in bacha posh, or passing, and homosexuality in adult age."

Without a doubt, the greatest form of oppression in the history of the world is gender oppression. Society oppresses what is visible, and gender--not sexuality--is that which is visible to the eye. Nordberg's research focuses solely on cross-dressing.

"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 writes. Indeed, if anything, the bacha posh are living proof that not only can assimilation be a subversive act--more importantly, it is a vital necessity to ensure one's health and safety, (

Caption: Jenny Nordberg
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Title Annotation:The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan
Author:Bianco, Marcie
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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