The Trouble With Girls – raising daughters as sons in Afghanistan

By Ivana Davidovic

“Why do we need to give a girl a boy’s face to give her freedom?”


That is the question asked by Azita Rafhat, a former member of the Afghan parliament, who opted for a radical decision to raise one of her four daughters as a boy, having succumbed to the still prevailing social perceptions which dictate that until you bear a son you are a nobody. Taunted by family members and excluded by the wider society.


Tahir Qadiry’s short documentary The Trouble With Girls, produced for BBC Persian, looks at the long-standing but rarely discussed tradition of Bacha Posh – disguising girls as boys.


These girls are dressed as boys, given a masculine haircut and an appropriate name. They are sent to boys’ schools, allowed to play outside and generally are awarded all of the freedoms that girls and women are so often denied in the patriarchal Afghan society.


The mullahs appear to turn a blind eye to the practice and families seem to be contended with this state of collective suspended reality. So deeply entrenched is the desire to have a son that even a temporary optical illusion seems to soothe the tensions.


But what about the girls involved? Most of them have to stop being a boy when they reach puberty, although some parents continue raising them as such until they are fully grown adults. Some contributors, including a women’s rights activist, claimed that being raised as a boy increased their confidence and allowed them to become independent women with jobs and fulfilling lives.


However, The Trouble With Girls offers only glimpses of the psychological damage caused by this sort of an upbringing:

"If my parents force me to get married, I will compensate for the sorrows of Afghan women and beat my husband so badly that he will take me to court every day," says Elaha, who had lived as a boy for 20 years and only reverted to her own gender when she had to go to university.


There was a feeling that a lot was left unsaid and the audience at the screening certainly picked up on that. What emerged was an even more sinister story than the documentary itself implied:

 “This practice is still seen as a taboo and not many people want to talk about it. Having access to a family like that is very difficult. However, I was surspised how widespread it was" Qadiry noted.

“Many things we needed to leave out. The lady in the film [Azita Rafhat] is her husband’s second wife. He didn’t have a son with his first wife, so he married her. They only had four daughters, so he was planning to get rid of her and marry for the third time. That’s why she was forced to do this, otherwise her husband would leave her. She may be a breadwinner and educated, but she feels that, if she doesn’t have a husband her life will be a nightmare. And her daughter is the victim of that situation.”


The audience were keen to know how the author find this practice on a personal level:

“I found it quite disturbing. Giving girls all of the freedoms and then taking them away is very challenging. I asked my contributor – ‘don’t you think this is enough? Why don’t you fight with your husband about this?’ She said that was impossible, that is how things are in the Afghan society. You are more privileged if you have a son.”


However, despite all of the difficulties facing women in Afghanistan, it is not all doom and gloom. In the film we were able to see younger women escaping the shackles of traditional roles – they study, work and protest. Increasingly they are joined by men who understand that equality can only be good for the society as whole:

“The younger generations are changing,” says Qadiry, “they are on Facebook for example, Young Afghans for Change, they are saying that men and women are equal. They are taking steps to fight injustices, but it will take time.”

“They are saying that we have to give equal rights to men and women through our constitution, not though the creation of fake identities.”


However, some women in the film talked very positively about their experiences of being raised as boys.

Qadiry said that:

“Maybe they were not telling the full truth, they don’t want to tell you the negative side of it. They may worry you would make fun of them, or disapprove of their family.”

“A more liberal generation is on the rise, which raises their daughters differently, giving them all of the opportunities without pretending that they are boys. Those families exist in cities, and we need to understand that Afghanistan is not only Kabul or Herat, but many other provinces too.”