As a little girl in Kabul, I loved playing football (soccer), biking, and jumping off our home's ten foot high wall into a pile of snow. The two countries where I spent most of my childhood, India and Afghanistan, boys had freedoms that girls could only dream about. Perhaps that is why I decided to take on a boyish persona. Without any labels or criticism, my Afghan parents accepted my eccentracities and accomodated my request for short hair and boyish clothes.
Baba and I, 1977 Kabul, Afghanistan
Now, my eldest daugther has the same tendencies. Perhaps the tomboy gene was passed on to her. While fellow moms in San Francisco congratulate me on how I handle this "situation", I delight in her obsession with building a skate board as opposed to shopping for makeup.
It was last year when I first learned about the popularity of a practice called "bacha posh", dresses like a boy. The director of Love In Afghanistan, asked me for cultural advice on the unique play she was directing for the Arena Theatre. The play is a love story, if you didn't already guess it, between an African American rap artist and an Afghan girl who is a bacha posh.
Prior to this call, I was familiar with the term but I thought it was something that came about during the time of Taliban, when women were imprisoned in their homes and needed a man to represent them in the outside world.
It turns out that Dan Rather's popular documentry, "A Family Secret", brought families dressing their daugthers in boys' clothes is a widely practiced, ancient custom in Afghanistan. My family and I are not convinced that the practic of bacha posh is "widely" practiced, as the documentry claims.
However, it's a subject that has caught the imagination of the Western Media. Since 2010, there has been shows, articles, interviews and now a book by Nadia Hashimi, THE PEARL THAT BROKE'S IT'S SHELL.
I am thrilled to see an Afghan write about this subject. Nadia's book delves into the world of Rahima, who becomes Rahim while guided by stories of her great aunt Shekiba, who was also a bacha posh.
The book helps the reader get into the story immediately. Within the first couple of chapters, the reader experiences the family's struggle and the mother's desperation, which forces her into the decision of turning her daugther into a boy.
Rahima, relucatant about the transformation to Rahim, quickly embraces his new life as he delves into freedoms betowed on boys. He covets the higher status in his family and exemption from girl chores. He is the one who rights the wrong of the mother with a cursed womb which can only carry girls.
Rahim eventually has to face going back to being a girl, once he reaches puberty. He has to give up his freedom to freely go outside, save his sister's honor and help his desperate mother, when the propect of marriage to settle a family debt enters his reality.
I hope this introduction whets your appetite, and inspires you to pick up this book for your summer reading. When my family left Kabul in 1979, I left my boyish persona behind and re-invented myself as a girl, when we reached the United States. Unfortunately not all women have the luxury to freely cross the gender divide as I did at age thirteen.
Nadia Hashimi was born and raised in New York and New Jersey. Both her parents were born in Afghanistan and left in the early 1970s, before the Soviet invasion. Her mother, granddaughter of a notable Afghan poet, went to Europe to obtain a Master’s degree in civil engineering and her father came to the United States, where he worked hard to fulfill his American dream and build a new, brighter life for his immediate and extended family. Nadia was fortunate to be surrounded by a large family of aunts, uncles and cousins, keeping the Afghan culture an important part of their daily lives. She and her husband are the beaming parents of two curious, rock star children and an African Grey parrot.
Humaira Ghilzai of Afghan Culture Unveiled speaks to Nadia Hashimi about her book, lessons learned and Nadia's challenges as a vegetarian Afghan.
Humaira: How did you get interested in the practice of bacha posh?