There are girls in Afghanistan who enjoy the same freedom as boys.
Throughout history, women have disguised themselves as men to navigate entrenched social roles. They have dressed as men to fight wars, join religious orders, or prosper professionally. In Afghanistan, some families raise their daughters as sons to provide them with a better life.
“When one gender is so important and the other is unwanted, there will always be those who try to pass over to the other side,” says Najia Nasim, the Afghanistan country director for U.S.-based Women for Afghan Women.
Siblings Setar and Ali talk back to the kids who call them names and comment on their appearance outside the schoolgates. "People come up to me and ask why I dress like a boy," says Setar.
In Afghanistan’s patriarchal society, economic dependency on men and social stigma put parents in a difficult spot. Daughters are often considered as a burden, while a son will earn money, carry on the family legacy and stay home to care for their aging parents. To counter this, some reassign their daughter’s gender at birth in a practice known as “bacha posh.” There’s even a rumor that a bacha posh daughter will lead to a son in the next pregnancy.
“This tradition allows the family to avoid the social stigma associated with not having any male children. [Bacha posh girls] may go outside for shopping alone, bring their sisters from school, get a job, play a sport and play any other roles of a boy in society,” Nasim says. The origins of the practice are still unknown, but it’s become increasingly well-known.
In the summer of 2017, Swedish photographer Loulou d’Aki traveled to Afghanistan to document bacha posh. She had read The Underground Girls of Kabul, a book by journalist Jenny Nordberg about the secretive practice of dressing girls as boys. Nordberg was the first to document it, and d’Aki was fascinated by the dual identities of these girls.
Through a local translator, she met a family in which two of six daughters were being raised as boys. One day after Setareh was born—the third girl in a row—her parents decided to raise her as Setar, a boy. Two years later, Ali was born and she too was raised as a boy. When their first and only brother was born next, both continued life as boys.
Now Setar is a 16-year-old who plays football and has a girlfriend who doesn’t care about gender. Her sister Ali, 14, has a box of love letters written by female admirers. At home, neither get up to help when their sisters and mother make meals and tea.
“Boys have a higher status. Everyone wants a boy,” says d’Aki. Particularly in lower income families, she adds, “if you have a lot of girls and no boys it’s normal thing to do.”
But as they get older and puberty reveals their biological gender, life becomes more difficult—and dangerous. The family has moved the family multiple times to avoid the harassment. On the street, people yell that they’re anti-Islamic and call them transsexual. Their father drives Ali to school so she gets there safely, and Setar stopped going “because she got fed up with being called names,” says d’Aki.
Both parents now want them to start dressing and behaving like girls, but neither Ali nor Setar want to. “It’s really hard to be a woman in Afghanistan, and you don’t have a lot of options. Even in these cases you haven’t decided this for yourself, someone else has decided for you,” says d’Aki. “These girls have had a little bit of freedom and then all of a sudden they have to go back to being women in a country where women have no possibilities.”
D’Aki met others spending their lives as boys: Zara, an orphan whose uncle brought her up as bacha posh so “she’d have a better chance to stand on her feet.” She’s doing well—apparently eight men have proposed marriage. “They see her as this really strong women,” says d’Aki. A single mom she met raised her two young daughters as boys to protect the family.
Women for Afghan Women sees at least two cases of bacha posh a year in the women’s shelter they run in Kabul. The case workers find them particularly challenging, Nasim says. The girls suffer harassment, humiliation, and separation from the community, but often they don’t want to start living as women. Gendered cultural restrictions are difficult to adopt later in life: they must learn how to live under a burqa, cook for their families, and lower their gaze among strangers.
“When she becomes mature and older she learns that it is not possible for her to be a boy and nobody accepts her as a girl,” says Nasim. “This is a repression: ignoring girls’ ability and talent and rights. Denying the religious and Islamic rights of a girl is, in fact, an insult to the sex of a girl.”