I just finished reading a fascinating book by Jenny Nordberg, The Underground Girls of Kabul. This was one of those rare books that makes your heart ache when you come to the end of it, hoping against hope for a happy ending, but knowing that the reality is probably a lot bleaker.
Nordberg stumbled across the phenomenon of Afghanistan’s bacha posh by accident. These are girls that are dressed up and passed off as boys, sometimes as an act of rebellion by their family, sometimes out of necessity in a patriarchal country where the demand for a male child is absolute and all consuming, and sometimes for the magical properties that having even a pretend son can instill – after a streak of girls, a pretend son is thought to induce an actual son to be born.
The book was often hard to read, and it made me reflect on all the parallels I experienced growing up in a patriarchal society.
Let me start by saying that Pakistan is nowhere near as bad as Afghanistan when it comes to this sort of thing, but it is still pretty bad. I am one of four girls. I spent my childhood watching people commiserate with my parents. “Four girls?,” they would say, genuinely upset for us “Don’t lose heart. The next one might be a boy.” It’s only by sheer good luck that I was born into a family that invested in its female children and cared about their future to the point that they made the extremely difficult decision to move to the UK just so that we would have a fair shot at an education and a career.
In doing so my father sacrificed his own career and position as a professor of surgery at a respected medical school – literally a lifetime’s effort – and it’s a decision I am grateful for every time I walk out of the front door without a second thought.
Growing up in an extremely patriarchal society is not easy if you have been born into the wrong gender. Boys in Pakistan are prized above all else. Even extremely educated women will not rest until they have a son. It’s their one and only goal in life. When a boy is born, much celebration goes on. Sweets are distributed and the mother is smothered with love, attention and praise.
When a girl is born, absolutely none of this occurs. Children are extremely perceptive, and I was aware from very early on that I didn’t belong to the ‘better’ gender. I saw it in the faces of the new mothers we would visit in hospital, sitting morose next to their unwanted female children. It made me angry. I heard it in the condolences to my parents about only having female children. I saw it in the little boys who were trained from the moment of their birth to have an enormous sense of entitlement. No matter how much of a front I put on, it used to burn me to my core when I’d hear them chide “You can’t do that, you’re just a girl.” Their obnoxious and inflated egos were fueled and encouraged by their obsessed mothers.
In turn, the girls were groomed from early on to be pliable and manageable future wives. Their personalities were squashed and smothered, not allowed to develop. They were not allowed to have opinions, laugh loudly, shout or fight. They were to be presented to the world as blank canvases. Needless to say, they were very boring.
As a child I have memories of sobbing my heart out at the weddings of vivacious cousins I was particularly fond of, knowing I was about to lose them. I knew the drill well enough. Very few of them came back out on the other side of marriage with their personalities intact. The majority did what they had to to survive the marital home and joint family system and disappeared into a featureless mask of neutral emotions and expressions.
The injustice of the system used to drive me to fits of rage. It didn’t matter that I was a wanted child by my family. Society had made it clear that I would always be second best.
The bacha posh of Afghanistan existed in Pakistan too. From time to time, you would come across a female child dressed as a boy and encouraged to have male mannerisms. Here’s a secret I never shared with another soul until I put Nordberg’s book down yesterday:
“Do you know,” I said to my husband “That until I was around seven or eight, I thought I would grow up to be a boy?” I used to use that thought to console myself. Don’t get me wrong, being a natural born drama queen, I was quite fond of all the trimmings that came with being a girl.
But I also hated being reminded of my weakness as a female. So I used to think to myself that it was okay, because one day I would be a boy and then I’d get to see what it was like on the other side. The realisation that this wouldn’t happen wasn’t gradual. It was sudden. One day, just like that, I realised the notion was ridiculous, impossible, and then it felt even more unfair that I was born a girl.
Coming from that sort of society to the UK was positively paradise. It was also hard. When the opposite gender are gradually separated from you, you learn very little of them. I was 14 when we moved to the UK and went to a co-ed school after my convent-run all girl’s school.
On my first day, the teacher searched the class for a spare seat and found one next to a boy. I crammed myself into my chair as far as I physically could to put as much distance between the two of us as I could – heaven forbid we should touch. I was mortified and on the brink of tears when a girl offered a spare seat next to herself, which I gratefully accepted. Those types of reactions make me realise what a sick and messed up system it is to segregate genders so severely that when you finally meet, it’s so upsetting you freak out.
In a segregated society like Pakistan, where girls and boys are kept so strictly apart, strange things can happen. On one of my trips back when I was 17, I met up with my old school friends in their college. They were updating me on their lives, and showing me pictures of a recent stage show the college had put on. Each class had to present something. Several of my friends had dressed up as the Backstreet Boys. We laughed over the pictures of them in men’s clothes, the exaggerated poses and the goaties drawn on with kohl pencils.
One of my friends then told me that during the show, some of the other girls had become obsessed with her. They wrote her love notes and sent her presents, asked her to pose in photos with them while she was in costume with her arms around them. It seems that where the natural teenage impulse to meet and flirt with the opposite sex is so heavily repressed, even a fake teenage boy is better than no teenage boy at which to direct these feelings. This friend continued to receive notes and presents well after the show.
When I read Nordberg’s book, I realised that beyond a certain age I had never stepped out of the house alone. I had grown up subconsciously trained to avert my eyes, walk less tall and shrink my form. I automatically and seamlessly slip into this mode on visits to Pakistan. I even do it outside of Pakistan every time I walk past a group of young men. Don’t attract attention, eyes down, head down. It happens without me even thinking, and at 32, I wonder if I can train myself out of it.
Moving freely in the world is a privilege and a gift you aren’t aware of unless you have not had it before. Moving away for university was ridiculously exciting, and I still remember my first unaccompanied train journey. I knew that it was the thinnest of turns in destiny that separated me from my present life and the alternative.
As I have grown, however, I’ve once again began to feel the weight of my gender. As a woman, I can expect to be paid less and my opinions not given as much weight in my professional life. I can be expected to put my career on the back burner while I raise a family. I will get asked about my childcare arrangements at job interviews – it happens every time. Nordberg very eloquently points out that even in the West, women in the arena of men must dress, act and talk like men. She must wipe out her femininity to succeed.
Finishing the book was hard. It’s one of those books that you can’t walk away from. It will be on my mind for days and weeks as I wonder about the protagonists. Meanwhile, the world over, little girls are being born and tears of sorrow are being shed at their arrival. I have two sons of my own now and I am raising them as best as I can to consider all people, male and female, as equals. One day I may have a daughter. I wonder if she too will still be pondering these same issues further down the line?
UPDATE: I tweeted this blog post to Jenny Nordberg, author or Underground Girls of Kabul and she tweeted back! She has forwarded my story to the main character of her book, Azita. I am so touched that she reached out to me and shared my story on her own twitter feed. Please drop by www.bachaposh.com to learn more.