Born in America to Afghan parents, author Nadia Hashimi grew up hearing her parents’ stories of the thriving Afghanistan they left in the 1970s. But when she finally visited decades later, she found a struggling country that bore little resemblance to their memories—especially in the way women were treated. Because of the increasing restrictions on female freedom, the custom of bacha posh, the practice of dressing a daughter as a son, has become common. Hashimi’s first novel, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, traces that modern tradition back to its possible origin, a time when women dressed as men to guard the king’s harem. Here, the author explains how these two cultural flashpoints inspired her debut.
On May 7th, 2014, the Potomac Gazette ran Peggy McEwen’s interview with Nadia as a front page story. Nothing like having great support from the local community. Fine out why the story took over 450 pages to tell…
Nadia’s Op-Ed piece in the Boston Globe ran in the Sunday, May 4th, 2014 edition. This was just two days before the release of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell.
Could something good come from Afghanistan’s bacha posh practice or is it just another indicator that the country continues to undervalue its daughters?
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.