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Afghan tradition allows girls to access boys’ freedom

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Afghan tradition allows girls to access boys’ freedom

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KABUL, Afghanistan – In a neighborhood in Kabul, a group of boys kick a yellow balloon around a dusty playground, their loud cries echoing through the surrounding apartment buildings.

Dressed in sweaters and jeans or the traditional Afghan men’s clothing consisting of baggy pants and a long shirt, none stand out as they scramble to score a goal. But unbeknownst to them, one is different from the others.

Not quite 8 years old, Sanam is a chic bacha: a girl who lives like a boy. One day a few months ago, the girl with the rosy cheeks and mischievous smile had her black hair cut, put on boy’s clothes, and took on a boy’s name, Omid. The move opened up a world of boys: playing football and cricket with boys, wrestling with the neighborhood butcher’s son, working to help the family make ends meet.

In the strongly patriarchal and male-dominated Afghan society, where women and girls are generally relegated to the home, chic bacha, Dari for “dressed as a boy”, is the only tradition that allows girls to enter the male world. more free.

According to practice, a girl dresses, behaves and is treated like a boy, with all the freedoms and obligations that this entails. The child can play sports, attend a madrassa or a religious school and, sometimes crucial for the family, work. But there’s a time limit: once a chic bacha hits puberty, she’s expected to revert to traditional girlish roles. The transition is not always easy.

It is unclear how this practice is viewed by the new Afghan rulers, the Taliban, who seized power in mid-August and have not made any public statements on the matter.

So far, their regime has been less draconian than when they were last in power in the 1990s, but women’s freedoms have always been severely restricted. Thousands of women have been prevented from working and girls beyond primary school age have not been able to return to public schools in most places.

With the crackdown on women’s rights, the bacha chic tradition could become even more appealing to some families. And because the practice is temporary, with children eventually reverting to female roles, the Taliban might not fix the problem at all, said Thomas Barfield, a professor of anthropology at Boston University who has written several books on the subject. Afghanistan.

“Because it’s inside the family and because it’s not a permanent status, the Taliban can stay out (of that),” Barfield said.

It is not known where the practice came from or how long it was, and it is impossible to know how widespread it could be. A somewhat similar tradition exists in Albania, another deeply patriarchal society, although it is limited to adults. According to the Albanian tradition of “sworn virgins”, a woman took an oath of celibacy and declared herself a man, after which she could inherit property, work and serve on a village council – which would have been prohibited for a woman.

In Afghanistan, the bacha chic tradition is “one of the least studied subjects” in terms of gender issues, said Barfield, who spent about two years in the 1970s living with an Afghan nomadic family that included a bacha chic. “Precisely because the girls come back to the female role, they get married, it kind of disappears.”

Girls chosen as bacha chic are usually the most boisterous and confident girls. “The role fits so well that sometimes even outside the family people are not aware that it exists,” he said.

“It’s almost so invisible that it’s one of the few gender issues that doesn’t come across as a political or social issue,” Barfield noted.

The reasons parents might want a chic bacha vary. Since sons are traditionally more popular than daughters, this practice usually occurs in families without a boy. Some see it as a status symbol, and some believe it will bring good luck to the next child who will be born a boy.

But for others, like Sanam’s family, the choice was a necessity. Last year, with the collapse of the Afghan economy, construction work dried up. Sanam’s father, already injured in his back, lost his job as a plumber. He turned to selling coronavirus masks on the streets, earning the equivalent of $ 1 to $ 2 a day. But he needed an assistant.

The family have four daughters and a son, but their 11-year-old son does not have full use of his hands following an injury. So the parents said they decided to make Sanam a chic bacha.

“We had to do it because of the poverty,” said Sanam’s mother, Fahima. “We don’t have a son to work for us, and his father has no one to help him. So I will consider her as my son until she becomes a teenager.

Yet Fahima calls Sanam “my daughter”. In their native language, Dari, pronouns are not a problem since a pronoun is used for “he” and “she”.

Sanam says she prefers to live like a boy.

“It’s better to be a boy… I wear (Afghan men’s clothes), jeans and jackets, and I go with my dad and I work,” she said. She enjoys playing in the park with her brother’s friends and playing cricket and soccer.

Once she grows up, says Sanam, she wants to be a doctor, commander, or soldier, or work with her father. And she will be a girl again.

“When I grow up I will grow my hair out and wear girlish clothes,” she said.

The transition is not always easy.

“When I put on girlish clothes I thought I was in jail,” said Najieh, who grew up as a chic bacha, even though she went to school as a girl. One of the seven sisters, her boy’s name was Assadollah.

At 34, married and mother of four, she mourns the freedom of the male world that she has lost.

“In Afghanistan boys are more valuable,” she said. “There is no oppression for them, and no limits. But being a girl is different. She is forced to marry at a young age.

Young women cannot leave the house or allow strangers to see their faces, Najieh said. And after the Taliban took power, she lost her job as a teacher because she taught boys.

“To be a man is better than to be a woman,” she said, wiping the tears from her eyes. “It’s very hard for me. … If I were a man, I could be a teacher in a school.

“I wish I could be a man, not a woman. To stop this suffering.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.

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