I recently wrote a piece on the bacha posh custom for Foreign Affairs. The photographs included in the piece are quite stunning. While it is intriguing to see young girls dressed as boys, it is very remarkable to see an adult woman dressed as a man, cooly walking through Afghanistan’s streets.
On March 19th, 2015 the streets of Kabul ran red with Farkhunda’s blood.
She lived a pious life. They called her a heretic.
She loved the Quran. They claimed she burned it.
She tried to speak in her own defense. They silenced her.
She wanted to dress modestly. They tore off her hijab.
She wanted to live. They took her life.
Farkhunda was a daughter, a sister, a friend. She was a teacher, a Muslim, a citizen of Afghanistan. She was a twenty-seven year old woman with a full life ahead. We should rage in her name, not because she was Afghanistan’s daughter but because she was a human being and deserved to live out her life.
The videos of the gruesome lynching chronicle the obliteration of this woman. To watch it causes such a visceral, gut-wrenching reaction. To watch it makes one mourn not only Farkhunda, but also the humanity that was utterly lost on that street.
But let’s not allow our grief distract us from our rage. And there are so many reasons to rage.
Armed with a rumor that Farkhunda had burned a page of the venerated Quran, a frenzied mob attacked her. This was mob violence in broad daylight on a busy Kabul street. Armed police officers watched. What does this mean? If Kabul’s police officers do not rise to the defense of their city’s citizens, what hope is there for a civil society? How are any of Kabul’s citizens to feel safe?
The mob passed judgment on this woman without bothering to question whether or not she had committed the crime. Why? Because they felt righteous in their cause. They were defending the honor of their beloved Quran. Herein lies the faulty thinking of the mob: Why should the Quran or the Almighty need their defense? How arrogant each assailant is to think that Allah should require the help of a mortal? Why do these people not believe in protecting God’s creations (Farkhunda) as equally as they would protect His words? Religious teaching has failed somewhere along the way. The people have overstepped their authority in a deadly way and fail to see the hypocrisy of their actions.
A woman attending Farkhunda’s funeral cried out that when she looked out at the sea of men’s faces, they all looked to her like Farkhunda’s killers. That’s because Farkhunda’s killers were not hooded militants. They were young and old. They wore pants, tunics and sweatshirts as any everyday person wears. They were ordinary citizens. The women of Kabul took to the streets chanting: “Today it is her, tomorrow it is us.” Couple this with what they must surely be thinking when they look at the men around them: Yesterday it was them, today it could be him.
The Afghan government has taken important first steps. Arrests have been made. Some of the attackers and some of the police officers who failed to intervene are in custody. They have the privilege of due process, a privilege Farkhunda did not have. The respected mullah who condoned and even justified her murder has since fumbled his way through a back-peddle but he is alive and well and walking about freely. This is a reason to rage.
Niazi, the Kabul mullah, is just one example of the self-proclaimed religious authorities that poison Afghanistan’s minds. In a country that is physically, psychologically and economically devastated by thirty plus years of war, there is little education. Violence and despair are commonplace. Enter the hardline mullahs, the parasites who feast on such opportunity to inflate themselves. We know who they are. They are on television, on the radio and haughtily presiding over their mosques. We all know what they talk about. They find justifications for the sexual abuse of children (aka child marriage). They encourage the subjugation of women. They suppress the intellectual development of the nation by pushing religion over everything else. They tell people to focus on the next life while this one is spent in a state of misery and abuse.
Where was Niazi when a five year old girl was raped in a masjid? Where was he when army commanders boasted about sexually abusing hundreds of children? Conveniently and blasphemously silent. Shame on these men who have brought such disgrace to a religion that begins and ends with “peace be upon you.” They are Afghanistan’s boogie men. Against them, we should rage.
I see hints of Kabul’s shifting attitudes. For the first time, women hoisted a coffin on their shoulders and carried Farkhunda’s to her final resting place. Men formed a circle of support and protection around the female pallbearers. The mullah Niazi was turned away from Farkhunda’s funeral because he had, just days ago, applauded those who would so valiantly defend the Quran.
Farkhunda has inspired Afghan women to speak out. She has inspired calls for justice. She has inspired men to champion their sisters, their wives, their mothers. She has, at least for this moment in history, galvanized those in Afghanistan who refuse to let their streets be ruled by mobs and those who are thirsty for humanity and civil society after decades of war and destruction.
People of Afghanistan – it is time to reclaim your country. You have given the bullish mullahs authority by listening to them. You can just as easily take their authority away. They are not appointed by the government. Many do not have a basic education, let alone credible religious accreditation. They hold no divine authority. They do not speak for God. They do not walk on water. They do not glow with ethereal light.
Lest some misinterpret my words – there are certainly some religious figureheads who are enlightened and righteous and guide their disciples to a life of grace. But others are corrupt and psychopathic. Some fall somewhere in between, just like all people. It is the responsibility of the community and the believers to think about what kind of mullah they are choosing to nod their heads to.
The masjid is the house of God and should be reclaimed in the name of Islam.
Let us on the outside looking in share our rage and hope that our anger will keep the world’s attention on Afghanistan. Let us keep the pressure on for this tragedy to be a catalyst for change. The people of Afghanistan continue to take to the streets in rage and for good reason. Let the streets run red with anger before they run red again with the blood of another innocent and a society lost.
Raising Gender Atypical Children – Tips From A Pediatrician
I couldn’t be more pleased to have my second novel, When The Moon Is Low, coming out July 21, 2015. You can pre-order the e-book or hardcover now and have at least one book ready for your summer reading.
When the Moon Is Low is the story of an Afghan family beset by tragedy as Kabul comes under brutal Taliban control. Fereiba finds herself the responsible for her family’s survival and makes the painful and perilous decision to escape Afghanistan with her three children. As the family traverses unwelcome borders and inches across Europe, Fereiba’s adolescent son becomes separated from them. As they struggle to reunite, they float through the dark world of Europe’s undocumented refugees, murky immigration laws, and human trafficking.
Migrants make up a substantial percentage of the world’s population. Most nations are ill equipped to handle the masses arriving on their shores. It’s created an ethical and logistical dilemma around the world. I’ve found it intriguing and enlightening to think not only on what to do with migrants, but also to consider what these individuals have left behind and what they’ve lost along the way.
A narrow miss for Afghan victims of domestic violence. Last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai took an important step in the right direction. He decided to veto proposed legislation that would have prohibited relatives of those accused of domestic violence from testifying against their family members. This dangerous provision, which passed through the parliament, would have made it next to impossible to convict any perpetrator of domestic violence since the majority of these abuses happen within the confines of the home.
In the United States, where there is much more progressive legislation safeguarding women’s rights and criminalizing domestic violence, it is still difficult to have women come forward and successfully prosecute their attackers. Imagine what it must feel like to be a battered woman in a country where the laws are made to protect the aggressor?
The proposed legislation had spurred protests within Afghanistan and drew criticism from international organizations for being a step backwards and further committing victims of domestic violence to no hope of justice. Already, too few women are stepping forward. The recent uptick in women reporting violence sadly hasn’t correlated with an increase in prosecutions.
What is disturbing is that the proposed legislation passed through the parliament and sat on the president’s desk with the very real potential of bolstering a system that already fails its women. In 2009, the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) act was passed in the country which criminalized domestic violence, underage or forced marriages, the practice of “baad” or giving girls in marriage to settle debts or disputes. Some strides have been made since the law was instituted but the rights of Afghan women seem to teeter on the edge, always close to being stripped away again.
The following questions were created for book clubs and discussion groups. To invite Nadia Hashimi to virtually appear at your book club gathering, please visit the Contact page.
Rahima says that Khala Shaima’s story about Bibi Shekiba transformed her, and indeed, this is a novel about transformation. In what ways, besides dressing as males, do Rahima and Shekiba transform themselves?
When we first meet Khala Shaima, we see that men frequently mock or insult her because of her crooked spine, but her nieces and sister don’t seem to pity her. Does Khala Shaima’s disability work to her advantage?
Rahima loves being bacha posh for the freedoms it brings; being able to work in the market, play soccer, and go to school. What are the disadvantages of her newfound freedoms and what are the consequences for Rahima and her family?
“It is up to you to find a way to make things easier for yourself,” Shekiba’s aunt tells her. How do the different women characters in this novel find ways to make things easier for themselves? What about Rahima’s mother? Bobo Shagul? Abdul Khaliq’s wives? The women of the king’s harem?
Rahima says of her sister Parwin: “In some ways, I think she was the bravest of all. She, my meek and timid sister, was the one who acted in the end. She was the one who showed those around her that she’d had enough of their abuse. As Khala Shaima said, everyone needed a way to escape.” Do you agree?
Shekiba envies the women of the harem: “At least they belonged to someone. At least they had someone to care for them, to look after them.” Do you think the King’s concubines live an enviable life? Are they better or worse off than women who live outside the palace walls?
The word naseeb, or destiny, comes up often in The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, as each woman is repeatedly told that she must accept her fate. When Rahima asks Khala Shaima “Wouldn’t people say that is blasphemous? To change the naseeb that Allah has for us?” her aunt responds “…you tell me which of those people who say such a thing have spoken with Allah to know what the true naseeb is.” When do Shekiba and Rahima accept their naseeb and when do they rebel against it? Do you believe in the concept of naseeb in your life?
What do you make of Shekiba and Rahima’s experiences with their husbands’ other wives? Are they helped or harmed by them? Could you adapt to that kind of married life?
When Bibi Gulalai opens up to Rahima about her own abusive mother-in-law, Rahima thinks “In other circumstances, I might have told Bibi Gulalai that I understood, that I could sympathize with her.” Does Bibi Gulalai’s revelation change the way you see her? What inspires or empowers the cruelty of older women like her and Shekiba’s grandmother, Bobo Shahgul?
How do Rahima’s years as a bacha posh ultimately help her escape her marriage to Abdul Khaliq?
Do you believe that Rahima and Shekiba’s stories end happily? What do you think became of them in the years after this book ends?
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is the story of Rahima, a young girl born into contemporary Afghanistan. She’s transformed into a bacha posh, which in Dari translates to “dressed as a boy.” Bacha posh is a custom that goes back at least a hundred years in Afghanistan and Pakistan, though little is known about its precise history or exact prevalence. It is interesting, however, to note that the practice began before the rise of the Taliban, the fundamentalist regime that oppressed the female population of Afghanistan.
The deceptively simple custom involves a haircut, new name and change of clothes to transform a young girl into a boy. Suddenly, he is able to run errands outside the home or work alongside his father. He is also entitled to look boys or men in the eye, to speak his mind and to play soccer with other neighborhood boys.
The bacha posh tradition is one that is born out of the perceived necessity for sons. It is a highly pragmatic solution for a family with only daughters. Many also believe that a bacha posh will bring the good fortune of a true male child. Friends, family and acquaintances accept the charade. They are complicit because the need is understandable. Some consider a family without a son to be “incomplete.”
Typically, a bacha posh is transformed back into a girl around the age of puberty. This transition back to a female is often psychologically difficult. Instantly, the bacha posh is stripped of the liberties she has enjoyed for years. She cannot look a man in the eye and is returned to her status as the meeker sex. She is suddenly not entitled to work outside the home or to play sports. There is often little place for the confidence they have gained from their time as boys.
It’s hard to miss that the practice of transforming sons into daughters enforces the tragic gender inequality between boys and girls in Afghanistan. In today’s Afghanistan, however, the climate is changing but it will be generations before we see true equality between the two sexes. Girls are attending school in substantial numbers, women are representing the Afghan people in Parliament and social dynamics are changing. As has been the case in most parts of the world throughout history, change comes first to major cities and spreads from there.
Hopefully, in the not too far off future, we can outgrow the bacha posh custom and Afghan girls will be entitled to the rights and privileges afforded to their Afghan brothers.