People are socialized based on their sex from an early age. Girls are dressed in pink and are given dolls to play with, while boys are dressed in blue and expected to play with trucks. A gender is assigned to us based on our sex. Females are raised as girls and taught to become women, and males are raised as boys and taught to become men.

But this isn’t quite the story in Afghanistan, where the pressure to have male children has led to an intriguing experiment in gender fluidity. When a family has no sons, they sometimes choose to raise female children as boys. These children, called bacha posh, get their hair cut short, dress like boys, and often change their name to a boy’s name.

Having a male child is important in Afghanistan, where women and men are treated very differently. When a family can’t have a male child, friends and acquaintances pity them. Giving the appearance of having a boy benefits families socially. In some poor families, girls dress as boys out of necessity instead of for social reasons. Boys can get work that isn’t available to girls. Thus, Bacha posh are in many ways preferable to typical daughters — they are given many male freedoms and privileges, including education and work opportunities.

After living as boys for years, most bacha posh must switch back. They typically stop acting and dressing as boys once they become teenagers and hit puberty. What effect does this have on someone who was raised as a boy? It turns out, some of them are unhappy switching back and want to continue living their lives as boys.

Zahra, a 15-year-old bacha posh, said that she would prefer never to go back to living as a girl. “Nothing in me feels like a girl,” she explained. Shukria Siddiqui, a 36-year-old married mother, lived as a boy until she was 20. She refers to the time where she lived as a boy as “my best time” and had difficulties socializing as a woman once she switched back for marriage.

So what does this strange cultural practice tell us about gender identity? It seems too coincidental that all these people just so happened to be transgender. Rather, it appears that many people would be perfectly happy living as a different gender if they were socialized as that gender. Perhaps, for most people, their strongest sense of gender comes from how they were raised.

The fact that bacha posh can happily live as boys simply because their parents decided they should act like boys suggests that for many people, gender isn’t so rigid. The gender fluidity of Afghan bacha posh can serve as a commentary on people around the world. If gender is fluid for children in Afghan, gender may be just as fluid for people everywhere — but society forces people into a rigid gender binary.

Photo credit: isafmedia

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