Dressing Afghan Girls As Boys Sets Them Free — For A While

In Afghanistan, families sometimes dress their daughters as boys to increase their freedom and social value. The stories of these children are both disturbing and inspiring.

Jenny Nordberg's fascinating piece in the Times profiles several families who have used this form of cross-dressing. For some, it can be a way of improving social standing — Azita Rafaat faced criticism and embarrassment for having only daughters, until she began dressing her youngest as a boy. Now, writes Nordberg, "the appearance of a son before guests and acquaintances is just enough to keep the family functioning." But more than that, dressing as a boy allows Rafaat's daughter Mehran (born Manoush) freedoms she'd never have if she wore girls' clothes. Says her mom, "the girls — we can't send them outside. And if we changed Mehran to a boy we would get more space and freedom in society for her. And we can send her outside for shopping and to help the father."

Zahra, a fifteen-year-old girl who has been living as a boy as far back as she can remember, spells out the advantages of the practice:

People use bad words for girls. They scream at them on the streets. When I see that, I don't want to be a girl. When I am a boy, they don't speak to me like that.

While girls in Afghanistan can face some unique limitations — several families noted that female members couldn't work or move freely outside the house — people use bad words for girls everywhere. And there's something tempting about the idea of simply opting out, quitting the fight for gender equality by joining the winning side. It's not quite that simple for the girls Nordberg profiles, though. Most have to switch back to their birth gender when they start puberty, because "when their bodies begin to change and they approach marrying age, parents consider it too risky for them to be around boys anymore." Shukria Siddiqui lived as a boy until she was twenty, when her parents arranged her marriage. She still thinks of her years as a boy as "my best time," but says, "for me, it would have been better to grow up as a girl, since I had to become a woman in the end."

For many of the girls and women in the article, life as a boy seems like an all-too-brief reprieve from the strictures they'll have to face in the rest of their lives. But near the end of the piece, Azita Rafaat, Mehran's mother, reveals that "for some years I also been a boy." Now she's a member of Afghanistan's Parliament, and she thinks her years as a boy were key to her success. She says, "I think it made me more energetic. It made me more strong."

It's sad that she couldn't learn that strength growing up as a girl — and once again, Afghanistan isn't the only country where girls' are prevented from developing and demonstrating their true strengths by a variety of limitations. Obviously dressing up all girls as boys isn't the solution to sexism the world over, but it's interesting how, in many societies, a few women have found ways around the boundaries of their gender. From Albania's sworn virgins to jazz musician Billy Tipton, living as a man has long been a way for some to circumvent the limitations imposed by their birth sex. And while this tactic may not help those who still identify as girls and women, there's something triumphant about those who have managed to escape — at least for a time — the pernicious effects of gender discrimination. Says Zahra, "I've been in fights with boys. If they tell me two bad words, I will tell them three. If they slap me once, I will slap them twice." Her mom has tried to get her to change back, but she says, "For always, I want to be a boy and a boy and a boy."

Afghan Boys Are Prized, So Girls Live The Part [NYT]

Image via NYT