Inside the Lives of Girls Dressed as Boys in Afghanistan

A cultural practice called "bacha posh" encourages parents dress their daughters as sons for a better future. But often, it only makes life harder.

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Fourteen-year-old Ali was raised as a boy in a practice known in Afghanistan as bacha posh. Ali's sisters stand behind her in the room they share.

There are girls in Afghanistan who enjoy the same freedom as boys.

Throughout history, women have disguised themselves as men to navigate entrenched social roles. They have dressed as men to fight wars, join religious orders, or prosper professionally. In Afghanistan, some families raise their daughters as sons to provide them with a better life.

“When one gender is so important and the other is unwanted, there will always be those who try to pass over to the other side,” says Najia Nasim, the Afghanistan country director for U.S.-based Women for Afghan Women.

In Afghanistan’s patriarchal society, economic dependency on men and social stigma put parents in a difficult spot. Daughters are often considered as a burden, while a son will earn money, carry on the family legacy and stay home to care for their aging parents. To counter this, some reassign their daughter’s gender at birth in a practice known as “bacha posh.” There’s even a rumor that a bacha posh daughter will lead to a son in the next pregnancy.

“This tradition allows the family to avoid the...

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