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KABUL, Afghanistan: In a neighborhood of Kabul, a gang of boys kick a yellow ball around a dusty playground, their loud cries echoing through surrounding buildings.
Dressed in sweaters and jeans or the traditional male Afghan attire of baggy pants and long shirts, neither stand out when jostling to score a goal. But unbeknownst to them, one is different from the others.
At 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 got her black hair cut, changed into 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 heavily patriarchal and male-dominated Afghan society, where women and girls are generally relegated to the home, bacha chic, Dari for “dressed as a boy”, is the only tradition allowing girls access to the male world. more free.
According to the practice, a girl dresses, behaves and is treated like a boy, with all the freedoms and obligations that entails. The child may play sports, attend a madrassa or a religious school and, sometimes crucial for the family, work. But there’s a time limit: once a bacha chic hits puberty, she’s expected to revert to traditional gender roles for girls. The transition is not always easy.
It is unclear how this practice is viewed by Afghanistan’s new rulers, the Taliban, who took power in mid-August and have made no public statement on the matter.
Their rule so far has been less draconian than when they were last in power in the 1990s, but women’s freedoms have still been severely curtailed. Thousands of women were prevented from working and girls below primary school age were barred from returning to public schools in most places.
With a crackdown on women’s rights, the posh bacha tradition could become even more appealing to some families. And since the practice is temporary, with children eventually reverting to female roles, the Taliban may not address the issue at all, said Thomas Barfield, a Boston University anthropology professor who has written several books. on Afghanistan.
“Because it’s inside the family and because it’s not a permanent status, the Taliban can stay out,” Barfield said.
It is not known where this practice originated or how old it is, and it is impossible to know how widespread it is. A somewhat similar tradition exists in Albania, another deeply patriarchal society, although it is reserved for adults. According to the Albanian tradition of the “sworn virgin”, a woman would take an oath of celibacy and declare herself a man, after which she could inherit property, work and sit on a village council – something a woman would have been prohibited from doing.
In Afghanistan, the bacha chic tradition is “one of the least researched topics” in terms of gender issues, said Barfield, who spent about two years in the 1970s living with a nomadic Afghan family that included a bacha. chic. “Precisely because the girls return to the female role, they get married, it kind of disappears.”
The girls chosen as bacha chic are usually the loudest and most self-confident girls. “The role fits so well that sometimes even outside of the family people aren’t aware it exists,” he said.
“It’s almost so invisible that it’s one of the few gender issues that doesn’t present itself as a political or social issue,” Barfield noted.
The reasons why parents might want a bacha chic vary. Since sons are traditionally more valued than daughters, the practice usually occurs in families without a boy. Some consider it a status symbol, and some believe it will bring good luck to the next child who is 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 the back, lost his job as a plumber. He turned to selling coronavirus face masks on the streets, earning the equivalent of $1-2 a day. But he needed help.
The family has four daughters and a son, but their 11-year-old son does not have full use of his hands due to an injury. So the parents said they decided to make Sanam a bacha chic.
“We had to do this because of 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. I will therefore consider her as my son until she becomes a teenager.
Yet Fahima refers to Sanam as “my daughter”. In their native Dari language, pronouns are not a problem since one pronoun is used for “he” and “she”.
Sanam says she prefers to live as 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 work,” she said. She enjoys playing in the park with her brother’s friends and playing cricket and football.
When she grows up, Sanam says, she wants to be a doctor, commander or soldier, or work with her father. And she will become a girl again.
“When I grow up, I’ll let my hair grow out and wear girl’s clothes,” she said.
The transition is not always easy.
“When I put on girls’ clothes, I thought I was in jail,” said Najieh, who grew up a chic bacha even though she went to school as a girl. One of seven sisters, her boy’s name was Assadollah.
Now 34, married with four children, she mourns the freedom from 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 into marriage at a young age.
Young women cannot leave the house or allow strangers to see their faces, Najieh said. And after the Taliban took over, she lost her job as a teacher because she was teaching boys.
“Being a man is better than being 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 would like to be a man, not a woman. To stop this suffering.