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Afghan Boys Are Prized, So Girls Live the Part

Mehran Rafaat, 6, left, and her twin sisters, Benafsha, center and Beheshta, near their home in Badghis Province, Afghanistan.

Jenny Nordberg, New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Six-year-old Mehran Rafaat is like many girls her age. She likes to be the center of attention. She is often frustrated when things do not go her way. Like her three older sisters, she is eager to discover the world outside the family’s apartment in their middle-class neighborhood of Kabul.

There are no statistics about how many Afghan girls masquerade as boys. But when asked, Afghans of several generations can often tell a story of a female relative, friend, neighbor or co-worker who grew up disguised as a boy. To those who know, these children are often referred to as neither “daughter” nor “son” in conversation, but as “bacha posh,” which literally means “dressed up as a boy” in Dari.

Through dozens of interviews conducted over several months, where many people wanted to remain anonymous or to use only first names for fear of exposing their families, it was possible to trace a practice that has remained mostly obscured to outsiders. Yet it cuts across class, education, ethnicity and geography, and has endured even through Afghanistan’s many wars and governments.

Afghan families have many reasons for pretending their girls are boys, including economic need, social pressure to have sons, and in some cases, a superstition that doing so can lead to the birth of a real boy. Lacking a son, the parents decide to make one up, usually by cutting the hair of a daughter and dressing her in typical Afghan men’s clothing. There are no specific legal or religious proscriptions against the practice. In most cases, a return to womanhood takes place when the child enters puberty. The parents almost always make that decision.

In a land where sons are more highly valued, since in the tribal culture usually only they can inherit the father’s wealth and pass down a name, families without boys are the objects of pity and contempt. Even a made-up son increases the family’s standing, at least for a few years. A bacha posh can also more easily receive an education, work outside the home, even escort her sisters in public, allowing freedoms that are unheard of for girls in a society that strictly segregates men and women.

But for some, the change can be disorienting as well as liberating, stranding the women in a limbo between the sexes. Shukria Siddiqui, raised as a boy but then abruptly plunged into an arranged marriage, struggled to adapt, tripping over the confining burqa and straining to talk to other women.

It is a commonly held belief among less educated Afghans that the mother can determine the sex of her unborn child, so she is blamed if she gives birth to a daughter. Several Afghan doctors and health care workers from around the country said that they had witnessed the despair of women when they gave birth to daughters, and that the pressure to produce a son fueled the practice.

“Yes, this is not normal for you,” Mrs. Rafaat said in sometimes imperfect English, during one of many interviews over several weeks. “And I know it’s very hard for you to believe why one mother is doing these things to their youngest daughter. But I want to say for you, that some things are happening in Afghanistan that are really not imaginable for you as a Western people.”

For most such girls, boyhood has an inevitable end. After being raised as a boy, with whatever privileges or burdens it may entail, they switch back once they become teenagers. When their bodies begin to change and they approach marrying age, parents consider it too risky for them to be around boys anymore.

Mrs. Rafaat said she hoped the effects on Mehran’s psyche and personality would be an advantage, rather than a limitation.

She noted that speaking out may draw criticism from others, but argued that it was important to reveal a practice most women in her country wished did not have to exist. “This is the reality of Afghanistan,” she said.

As a woman and as a politician, she said it worried her that despite great efforts and investments from the outside world to help Afghan women, she has seen very little change, and an unwillingness to focus on what matters.

“They think it’s all about the burqa,” she said. “I’m ready to wear two burqas if my government can provide security and a rule of law. That’s O.K. with me. If that’s the only freedom I have to give up, I’m ready.”

Jenny Nordberg, New York Times

wow, women’s rights are so trampled,

that they must dress as boys to suceed?

it’s sad reality, in this human world.

spread the word,

bring equality for all, women, men, black, white, hispanic, gays, everyone.