Women, Childbirth, Boy-Magic and Bacha Posh

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This book is amazing. It’s one of those books that did not turn out the way I expected – and it was a very happy surprise.

While the individuals interviewed and profiled are all located in Afghanistan, the author traveled all over the world and found ‘Bacha Posh‘, or girls living as boys, in many regions where women are oppressed and living lives defined by the requirement to give birth to boys.

The author makes the following comment:

“The way I have come to see it now is that bacha posh is a missing piece in the history of women…We have an idea of how patriarchy was formed. But back then, a resistance was also born. Bacha posh is both historical and present-day rejection of patriarchy by those who refuse to accept the ruling order for themselves and their daughters.”

After reading the book, I fully agree with her. I also agree with many comments made by individuals interviewed who expressed frustration over government and NGOs who fly into Afghanistan and proceed to lecture local women about the nature of gender and the changes they should be making without ever taking the time to learn about the people, culture, history and (most importantly) needs and objectives of those trying to carve out lives in a war-torn region of the world.

From the description and the cover, I thought I was going to be reading about an underground society in the western-sense. Teenagers and young adults meeting in clandestine places and taking risks to express themselves or attempting to achieve goals not commonly allowed by society or family. While there were elements of these things, they were a very small part of the book as a whole.

This journalistic investigation is an examination of both an aspect of Afghan culture AND western perspectives on gender, human rights and women’s equality. It is as much an examination of our own misconceptions as it is an exploration of a tradition and a concept that is inherently foreign to people living in present-day western society.

It’s an excellent read. I highly recommend it.

To provide a sense of the cultural background that defines the lives of the bacha posh, here are a few quotes about women, childbirth, boys and magic:

“Having at least one son is mandatory for good standing and reputation here. A family is not only incomplete without one; in a country lacking rule of law, it is also seen as weak and vulnerable. So it is incumbent upon every married woman to quickly bear a son–it is her absolute purpose in life, and if she does not fulfill it, there is clearly something wrong with her in the eyes of others. She could be dismissed as a dokhtar zai, or “she who only brings daughters.”

“The literacy rate is no more than 10 percent in most areas, and many unfounded truths swirl around without being challenged. Among them is the commonly held belief that a woman can choose the sex of her unborn baby simply by making up her mind about it. As a consequence, a woman’s inability to bear sons does not elicit much sympathy.”

“Esmaeel came to the family through divine intervention, she explains. When her sixth daughter was born, this desperate mother decided that the child should be presented to the world as a son…Her mother had been told by friends and neighbors that if she were to turn her girl into a boy, it would bring her good luck. Good luck, in this case, was a real son…Telling her story of giving birth to a son after dressing a daughter as a boy for two years, the mother looks immensely pleased. Her sixth daughter, who had been a bacha posh, died shortly after her third birthday, but she had fulfilled a greater purpose.”

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg

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