Mehran Rafaat, left, and her sisters Benafsha and Beheshta
Image by Adam Ferguson for the New York Times
When you think of Afghanistan, you probably think of the war being waged there and how Osama bin Laden is supposed to be hiding out in the mountains. Maybe you remember the Taliban and the images of burqa-clad women moving through the streets. One thing that probably doesn’t come to mind is cross-dressing – but that’s exactly what some girls have been doing for over a hundred years.
A recent New York Times article shed light on the fact that in some Afghan families, girls are disguised as boys during their childhood. There are several reasons for this practice. In some cases, economic necessity forces girls to dress as boys so they can work and bring home wages. For other families, choosing to pass a girl off as a boy helps dispel the stigma of having too many girl children. But these gender swaps aren’t all mercenary – some families recognize that dressing girls as boys is a way to ensure that their child has better opportunities for education and more freedom.
It’s interesting that in a society the West often views as oppressive and violently patriarchal, families have found subtle ways to empower girls. In contrast to countries where females are selectively aborted and newborn girls are left for dead, Afghan families seem to be admitting that girls are just as smart and valuable as boys – they just can’t look like other girls.
It’s refreshing, too, that this practice is an accepted as a part of the Afghan culture. Americans, on the other hand, can get pretty nervous about children and gender. Many people are uncomfortable with boys who reach for dolls instead of trucks, and girls with short haircuts are sometimes ridiculed (just pick up a tabloid and see the reactions to Shiloh Jolie-Pitt). Many of the children interviewed for this article say they feel more comfortable as a boy, and their parents seem to be okay with that.
So maybe it’s time to reexamine our stereotypes about Afghanistan – maybe we can learn something from their society.
- Miriam Musco
Girl Museum, Inc.