Province of Men: In Afghanistan, girls are disguised and raised as boys

Rafia Zakaria in The New York Times:

ZakIn August 2010, Time magazine published a picture of a mutilated Afghan girl on its cover — along with a warning to its readers. The image was “distressing” and “scary,” cautioned Richard Stengel, then the magazine’s managing editor, but it would “confront readers with the Taliban’s treatment of women” and allow them to decide “what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.” He wrote that he had shown the image of the noseless girl to his own sons, aged 9 and 12. Both of them “immediately felt sorry for Aisha.” Sympathy and the moral righteousness borne of the project of liberating girls like Aisha from the Taliban were then, and are today, dominant frames in how Westerners view Afghan women. The details of Afghan lives that do not fit easily into the plot of pity or the fantasy of freedom are almost always ignored. It is in this realm of overlooked narratives and hidden details that Jenny Nordberg, a journalist who contributed to a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in The New York Times in 2005, sets her investigation into the lives of Afghan women. Her book, “The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan,” delves into the practice of “bacha posh,” in which prepubescent Afghan girls are dressed and passed off as boys in families, schools and communities. Through extensive interviews with former bacha posh, observation of present ones and conversations with doctors and teachers, Nordberg unearths details of a dynamic that one suspects will be news to the armies of aid workers and gender experts in post-invasion Afghanistan.

The central character of Nordberg’s story is a woman named Azita, a member of Parliament from Badghis Province in rural Afghanistan. “She personified the new American plan for Afghanistan,” says Nord­berg, who also wrote about Azita’s family and bacha posh in a 2010 Times article. With the new Afghan Constitution mandating women’s representation at 25 percent, Azita, the wife of a poor farmer, borrows money from a friend, contests elections and wins. There is just one problem with this sudden rise to public life: Azita has four daughters and no sons, signaling a lack of strength. To fix the situation, Azita and her husband make their youngest daughter into a son. The creation of “Mehran,” as the new son is called, solves many problems. A visible male heir bolsters Azita’s public power — and her private power as well, since she is not only the family’s breadwinner but also the only one of her husband’s two wives to produce a son.

More here.