Meet the girl forced by her parents to live as a boy

Meet the girl forced by her parents to live as a boy

Even in highly developed and forward-thinking countries, it is not uncommon for men to want a son over a daughter. In more traditional, patriarchal countries, this desire to continue a dynasty via a son is even more prevalent - and manifests itself in some unusual ways.

Mangal Karimy, from Afghanistan's Herat province, looks like a normal 13-year-old boy. He dutifully helps his parents with physical tasks which, owning a wheat and dairy farm as they do, is a great help. However, until he was two years old, Mangal was Madina. One of seven daughters, Madina was chosen to live as a boy.

In certain parts of the Middle East, it is not uncommon for a daughter to be chosen to live as a son. This phenomenon is mainly confined to Afghanistan and is known as "bacha posh". A Dari term, it literally translates to "dressed as a boy".

Families without a son may be seen by others in the community as incomplete. It is therefore generally accepted that sons in some families were born as girls. As Chief Editor of the Afghanistan Women News Agency (AWNA) Sodaba Ehrari explains, the women here "cannot earn money to support their families [and] they cannot live alone.” Ehrari, who believes that women are seen as a burden, adds “so many reasons (like this) lead them in this patriarchal society to practice bacha posh".

In an earlier form of this trend, during the reign of Habibullah Khan in the early 1900s, women dressed as men to guard the king's harem. Officially, the harem could be guarded by neither men nor women. "Segregation calls for creativity," historian Nancy Dupree said of the situation. "These people have the most amazing coping capability."

Today, children like Mangal are living proof that bacha posh is still alive and well. Being bacha posh affords girls certain privileges usually reserved only for boys. However, it is mainly for the benefit of the parents. "I made my daughter like a boy to serve me food and water when I am working in the desert," Mangal’s father Khoda told CNN.

In Dari, there are no gender pronouns "he" and "she". Translated into English, however, his parents favour “her” and use the two names interchangeably: "I love all my daughters but I love Madina more as I ask her to do work like 'go take care of the cattle' or 'bring something to a neighbour’," says Khoda. "Otherwise there is no difference between them."

Proud of their heritage, the local people of Herat province are resistant to outside influences. Furthermore, it is a practical way to receive help from a child without flouting strict customs on what women are and aren’t allowed to do. "We made her like a son to help her father," said Mangal’s mother Amena.

"I would like to go back to being a girl when I grow up," admits Mangal, although he prefers male pronouns for the time being. In many cases, a bacha posh boy will return to being a girl when they hit puberty or, as is the case with Mangal, if his parents have a boy in the meantime.

A similar but far darker local trend is that of “bacha bazi” whereby boys are presented as female and either made to perform as dancers or prostitute themselves. With horror stories of young boys being snatched up and sold into the sex trade, it is a phenomenon which has - at times - bordered on folklore.

It has been reported that those sleeping with the boys are often local police officers. This created much tension between US soldiers and the Afghan Local Police (ALP) during the War in Afghanistan. In fact, the former acting chief of police says in a 2013 Vice Media film that the bacha boys “like being there and giving their asses at night".

Arguing with an American military advisor over a young boy who was shot in the leg after trying to escape a police barrack, he continued: "If [my commanders] don't f*ck the asses of those boys, what should they f*ck? The p*ssies of their own Grandmothers?"

Credit: Getty

In 2011, ALP commander Abdul Rahman laughed and confessed to the rape of a 12-year-old boy. It is claimed that the boy was chained to a bed and sexually abused for two weeks. Rahman was consequently severely beaten by two US Special Forces soldiers and removed from the base.

The two soldiers voluntarily left the military but were reinstated following a lengthy legal case which also saw the creation of the "Mandating America's Responsibility to Limit Abuse, Negligence and Depravity", or "Martland Act" - named after Special Forces Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland. Prior to this, certain servicemen and women had been told to ignore child sexual abuse by allied security forces, except "when rape is being used as a weapon of war".

There were concerns that bacha bazi was escalating following the retreat of the Taliban who had ruled that bacha bazi was homosexual and therefore punishable by death. Interestingly, however, it is thought that bacha posh - where young girls live as boys - may have increased with a resurgence of Taliban control.

Credit: Getty

Between 60 and 70 per cent of Afghanistan is contested or controlled by the Islamist militant group. According to Nadia Hashimi, an Afghan-American paediatrician and author bacha posh novel The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, gender inequality will prevail as long as the Taliban does.

Meanwhile in the west, we too promote the idea that gender is fluid. But this is a relatively new concept here. In many parts of Afghanistan, this is not new at all. However, it appears to be used more for the benefit of one’s parents rather than oneself. Sadly, what many bacha posh boys eagerly anticipate as a pubescent rebirth could very well precede a gender identity crisis.


Some images are used for illustration purposes only