Guest blogger Kate Tuttle: One of the most astonishing newspaper articles I've read this year was in the New York Times last week, wherein Jenny Nordberg wrote about girls in Afghanistan who live as boys, mostly due to the intense social preference for boys and the pressure on families to produce sons.
Afghani girls who are dressed as boys are allowed to run freely, play sports, work jobs after school and interact with men and women in public in ways that other girls in Afghani culture are simply forbidden to do. For the most part, though, the arrangement ends when a girl begins to go through puberty -- at which point, tragically, marriage is generally right around the corner (typically to a grown man chosen by the girl's parents).
The transition from little girl to little boy seems to be fairly easy (with only one exception, the children Nordberg spoke to for the story were all delighted with the freedom their "boy" identities gave them). But going back to being a girl again -- a girl expected to don a burka, marry a much-older man and begin a semi-cloistered life -- brings intense anguish and pain.
The reasons for putting one's daughter undercover as a son spring from both sexism and superstition. Traditional Afghan culture prizes sons and merely tolerates daughters. There's no one-child policy (which would lead to infanticide or sex-selective abortion, as it has in China), but boys play a role in society that girls are denied. It's especially critical for poor families in Afghanistan to have at least one son, because the boy's labor can add to the family income.
According to the Times article, most Afghanis believe that the mother somehow chooses the sex of her baby, so that women who bear daughters, not sons, attract not only pity but disgrace. It's no surprise, then, that so many mothers are complicit in the girl-to-boy arrangement, which tends to be a fairly open secret. Neighbors, teachers and others will know that these "sons" are really girls, but it's become an accepted part of the culture.
"Yes, this is not normal for you," an Afghani mother told Nordberg, "and I know it's very hard for you to believe why one mother is doing these things to their youngest daughter. But I want to say for you, that some things are happening in Afghanistan that are really not imaginable for you as a Western people."
The part that amazes me about this story is how clear the girls are that a) they are not boys, and b) it sure is good to have the freedom boys have. It reminds me of a big fight I had in college with a professor. We were reading "Madame Bovary" and he advanced the idea that Emma Bovary, the philandering heroine, clearly wanted to be a man. I said that I disagreed, that I felt she didn't want to be a man, she just wanted to be able to make the same choices a man could make and have the power a man had in her society. The professor literally could not understand my point, or how my point was different from his. It was then that I resolved to take more classes from female professors!
This one's for you, Professor Atkins. Read it, and learn that in a culture that doles out freedom and autonomy in unfair ways, jumping into the shoes of "the other" doesn't always represent pathology. Sometimes it's just a reflection of a healthy desire to free oneself.