IF I WERE A BOY: 3 Books Examining Afghanistan’s Bacha Posh

One of the great joys of reading is the pleasure of constantly learning and experiencing new people, concepts and cultures. You can combine the immediacy and comfort of your own couch with not only the wonders and curiosities of the world but also the ways our different approaches and perspectives illuminate our common concerns, strengths and experiences. There is nothing more exciting than encountering an intriguing idea and being able to immerse yourself as it unfolds to offer an expanded perspective. In this way, reading is the ultimate lifelong learning experience.

Discussions of gender and identity surround us and are oft explored themes in literature and non-fiction. From balancing career, family, success and being taken seriously in a male-dominated workplace, exploring personal sexual orientation and identity, we are inundated with advice and information on how hard it is to be a woman or how different life might be as a man. However, with few exceptions, the perception of our physical sexual identity is assigned, accepted and inescapable.

In Afghan culture, there are times when gender roles are not set so firmly in stone. In a culture where it is of the utmost importance that families have a male child – as protector of the family, to interact with strangers, as a worker, and to represent the family in village politics – not the least of these reasons is the prestige and continuation of the family that a male child will bring.

It was a surprise to encounter the suspension of disbelief which allows families lacking male children to substitute one of their female children instead. In her new role, this child takes on a new name and is allowed to go forth in society with all the trappings and indeed, the privileges, offered to a male child. These include the responsibility of escorting female family members when they appear in public, but also more routine aspects of childhood which girls are denied, running, playing and study. But the dictates of the body will hardly allow this to condition permanence, so what happens when it’s time to give up the mantle of freedom and return to a more limited gender? A trio of recent books (one fiction, and two non-fiction) uniquely explore all the possibilities.

I Am A Bacha Posh: My Life as a Woman Living as a Man in Afghanistan  by Ukmina Manoori
I Am A Bacha Posh is Manoori’s memoir recounting her journey from when her mother first tells her that she will be allowed to be a boy, through the harrowing years that she (in the face of danger and disgrace) continues to live the lifestyle afforded to her by dressing and acting as a man. Her choice leads her down unimaginable roads as a warrior, and eventually as a respected statesman in her country, but it also details the considerable price, and what it means to give up her female identity.

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg Nordberg first covered Bacha Posh in an investigative report for the New York Times. She continues her research in this book, which explores the lives and families from a cross-section of Afghan society—how each of the girls initially reacts to their opportunity, and how they handle being asked to transition back to a traditional female role. The stories she shares are as poignant as they are fascinating, shedding as they do light on gender roles throughout the world, even as they examine this seemingly alien microcosm.
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (William Morrow) Hashimi’s vivid fictional page-turner explores and contrasts the experiences of a young woman who in 2007 is hoping for an education and a better life with those of her great grandmother, who also adopted the custom of Bacha Posh a century earlier.

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