The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is the story of Rahima, a young girl born into contemporary Afghanistan. She’s transformed into a bacha posh, which in Dari translates to “dressed as a boy.” Bacha posh is a custom that goes back at least a hundred years in Afghanistan and Pakistan, though little is known about its precise history or exact prevalence. It is interesting, however, to note that the practice began before the rise of the Taliban, the fundamentalist regime that oppressed the female population of Afghanistan.
The deceptively simple custom involves a haircut, new name and change of clothes to transform a young girl into a boy. Suddenly, he is able to run errands outside the home or work alongside his father. He is also entitled to look boys or men in the eye, to speak his mind and to play soccer with other neighborhood boys.
The bacha posh tradition is one that is born out of the perceived necessity for sons. It is a highly pragmatic solution for a family with only daughters. Many also believe that a bacha posh will bring the good fortune of a true male child. Friends, family and acquaintances accept the charade. They are complicit because the need is understandable. Some consider a family without a son to be “incomplete.”
Typically, a bacha posh is transformed back into a girl around the age of puberty. This transition back to a female is often psychologically difficult. Instantly, the bacha posh is stripped of the liberties she has enjoyed for years. She cannot look a man in the eye and is returned to her status as the meeker sex. She is suddenly not entitled to work outside the home or to play sports. There is often little place for the confidence they have gained from their time as boys.
It’s hard to miss that the practice of transforming sons into daughters enforces the tragic gender inequality between boys and girls in Afghanistan. In today’s Afghanistan, however, the climate is changing but it will be generations before we see true equality between the two sexes. Girls are attending school in substantial numbers, women are representing the Afghan people in Parliament and social dynamics are changing. As has been the case in most parts of the world throughout history, change comes first to major cities and spreads from there.
Hopefully, in the not too far off future, we can outgrow the bacha posh custom and Afghan girls will be entitled to the rights and privileges afforded to their Afghan brothers.