Imagine you spent your life thinking, acting and socializing as a boy, only to find out that you were in fact, a girl. Not only that, but soon after your gender identity was completely altered, you had to get married to another boy. Such is the case for many adolescents in Afghanistan.
The New York Times has probed into this unique aspect of Afghan culture which has gone unrecognized by the majority of the world. This idea of changing gender, which may seem unbelievable to people in Western Cultures is something that has gone on in Afghanistan, maybe for centuries. Practices like these allow us to stand back and ask, well what is gender, anyway? We are used to thinking of it as something that defines everything in our identities, right down to the hats we wear and the toys we play with as newborn children. Despite the major emphasis on gender differences in western cultures, however, there is still relative equality. In Afghanistan, however, society is structured so that men are still valued more and have more freedoms than women.
To deal with this reality, in an exhibit of what historian Nancy Dupree calls “creativity,” families will often dress up their young daughters as boys. If they do this, their “boys” will be allowed to leave the house and shop in markets freely. They will also give their families greater social standing within their communities because they have sons. Girls will assume these identities throughout their childhood and then oftentimes abruptly resume their female identities before marriage. This means that they can no longer leave the house as freely, that they must make all female friends and that they must get permission from their husbands for most things. This is a huge shock after the autonomy they had as children!
While people do not often suspect girls of masquerading as boys, this practice is not a rare occurrence in Afghanistan. Barakat’s own schools are no stranger to this phenomenon. Our Program Director, Arti Pandey wrote about this occurrence in the Boston Globe after observing it in a Barakat school in Qurghan District, Afghanistan. Arti’s recap of Azaad’s story showed how this practice was used during the terror reign of the Taliban.
Now that people outside Afghanistan are starting to learn about it, it creates a new conversation about gender segregation and identity shifts. Is this a unique cultural facet that will allow the heavy restrictions on women in Afghanistan to stay in place, or is this a provisional practice that may allow for greater opportunities for Afghan women so that they may empower themselves in their youth and grow up with knowledge of greater freedoms? The fact is that this practice has been going on for so long (many of the mothers of girls masked as boys had done the same thing as children), but as more women are becoming educated and taking jobs in political, social and medical sectors, this could signal a shift that allows for greater freedoms for young women. Either way, the discussion about global views of gender won’t end here.
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