The Cross-Dressing Girls of Afghanistan

Life & Style is not happy with Angelina Jolie’s daughter, Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, and her boyish new look. The four-year-old’s short hair, boy’s pants and total lack of frilly summer dresses has got the tabloid crying child abuse. And as Feministing notes, this media frenzy over a young girl who dresses like a boy reminds us of our society’s continued discomfort with gender experimentation.

But if Shiloh lived in Afghanistan, she’d bring pride and social standing to the Jolie-Pitt family instead of a tabloid scandal.

According to an excellent article in The New York Times recently, Afghan families don’t have only daughters and sons. They also might have bacha poshes–literally daughters “dressed up as boys.” A bacha posh enjoys all the freedoms afforded to a boy in Afghan culture, including the right to have a job, to play sports and to travel freely. Moreover, the presence of a bacha posh increases the family’s social standing in the same way that a permanent son would. Generally, the child’s temporary cross-dressing lasts until puberty, after which the family’s daughter miraculously reemerges just in time for marriage.

To be sure, this practice underscores the gross misogyny in Afghanistan, where there is intense social pressure to have a son (only men can inherit wealth or pass down a family’s name), extreme restrictions placed on women and a culturally-ingrained devaluation of women. As one bacha posh told The New York Times:

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.

On a theoretical level, however, this practice provides an extraordinary example of gender performativity. This theory, introduced by Judith Butler in her groundbreaking 1990 book Gender Trouble, argues that gender is an inherently unstable construct that must constantly be performed–through millions of seemingly inconsequential gestures, words and actions–in order to exist. She wrote:

Consider gender as a corporeal style, an “act,” as it were, which is both intentional and performative.

Or, as Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote, “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.”

The testimonies of the bacha poshes in The New York Times articles speak to this performativity. Consider Shukria Siddiqui, who was a knife-carrying, jeans-wearing 20-year-old man when her aunt gave her a skirt and told her she was to be married. Siddiqui’s account of her transformation back to womanhood centers on relearning the gender performance:

I had to learn how to sit with women, how to talk, how to behave. …When you change back, it’s like you are born again, and you have to learn everything from the beginning.

Siddiqui didn’t know how to act as a wife. She tripped over her burqa, she didn’t know how to cook. Other bacha poshes interviewed demonstrated similarly jarring characteristics: They didn’t lower their eyes like other women in Afghanistan; they yelled, they hit their brothers. A mother of one young girl masquerading as a boy said: “My daughter adopted all the boys’ traits very soon. You’ve seen her—the attitude, the talking—she has nothing of a girl in her.”

This statement is particularly telling of the separation between sex and gender in this practice. For this mother, her daughter’s masculine attitude, voice and mannerisms are enough to override the girl’s XX chromosomes and her female sex organs. Forget sex–this practice suggests that in Afghan society gender is only skin (or pants, or eye-contact or an assertive voice) deep.

And here is where the cultural practice of bacha posh becomes disruptive. Former bacha poshes know firsthand that the traits of femininity–the very characteristics that cause the devaluation of women in many cultures (including ours, as shown by Citibank’s recent “advice” to women employees)–are learned. That is not to say that women should act “like men.” Rather, the learned-ness and malleability of gender, as demonstrated by a bacha posh, can be used to challenge a hierarchy in which men reign supreme. If society recognizes that swapping a black skirt for green pants is enough to win a young child respect and freedom, perhaps that society will begin to realize that there’s no reason to impose a gender hierarchy in the first place.

Photo from  Flickr user AfghanistanMatters under Creative Commons 2.0.

Comments

  1. S_B_Edwards says:

    I hadn't seen this NYTimes article so thank you for bringing it to my attention. I am, however, a bit troubled by the blanket statement that gender in Afghanistan is only skin deep – on a theoretical level, you're absolutely right and your employment of Butler was quite insightful (even though Butler limits her discussion to western culture). But what I do wonder about is the bacha posh's male counterpart, the bacha bazi who dress like women yet are used as prostitutes and trafficked for sex (here's the Human Trafficking link: http://humantrafficking.change.org/blog/view/bach…. Frontline also made a very good documentary which delves into the gender construction of the bacha bazi – their gender performance seems to have little or no ability to "challenge a hierarchy in which men reign supreme."

  2. I can't remember the title of the book, but a non-fiction book covered the life of a person born a male, but turned into a "female" because of a botched circumcision. The doctor believed gender was only a social construct. Though the book ends up happy (sort of), shortly after the "woman" and her brother both commit suicide.

    I agree that there are many aspects of gender are socially constructed, but there are biological mechanisms that differ between the sexes.

    Of course, I'm not arguing for the situation described in Afghanistan. It's mainly a response to the articles cited suggested that gender is created. Though perhaps the differences between gender are inflated by our society, differences do exist.

    • The book about David Reimer is entitled As Nature Made Him, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. Butler also discusses his tragic story in her book Undoing Gender. Butler’s conclusion is generous and complicated, leading more to a questioning and an unknowing of gender than towards an assertion for or against biology, social construction, or performativity as dominant modes of determining or experiencing gender.

  3. Child abuse, WTF. Are we sinking back to a time when everyone must be the same and don't think or act different. I say F*** that. I'm sick of people that see something out of the norm and feel "Well there is someone who needs psychiatric help". It just pisses me of to no extent, people scream for equality where are they to defend Jolie-Pitt's decision.

    As to the way some other countries treat their women I find that complete abhorrable. It's sad to think there are places like that.

  4. Gender, from my idiosyncratic perspective, is informed by biology and shaped by society. Society provides examples of gender ideals (male and female in western society) that roughly correspond to genetic sex. These examples pull individuals toward the poles. Not all individuals, though. Some hover in the middle, gender queer and happy to be so. Some, like me, tend to the pole opposite our genetic sex and toward our felt gender. Society couldn't make me feel like a boy.

    I imagine among this set of young woman, most will grow up to feel their gender to be female, despite being treated "like boys" when they were younger. A small few, who were predisposed to be transgendered anyway, might wistfully remember those days when they were allowed to express themselves honestly. For these transmen, I feel sadness that their society cannot accept them expressing their gender openly.

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