Bacha posh is a cultural practice or third gender, similar to burrneshas, in which Afghanistan families without sons will pick a daughter to live as and play the role of a man. This practice is still prevelant in modern day, as Afghanistan is still rather conservative, specifically when it comes to feminism and womens' rights.
The custom is documented at least one century ago, but is likely to be much older, and is still practiced today. It may have started with women disguising themselves as men to fight, or to be protected, during periods of wartime.
Historian Nancy Dupree told a reporter from The New York Times that she recalled a photograph dating back to the early 1900s during the reign of Habibullah Khan in which women dressed as men guarded the king's harem because officially, the harem could be guarded by neither women nor men. "Segregation calls for creativity," she said, "These people have the most amazing coping capability."
Struggles with gender identity
In many cases, bacha posh individuals struggle with their gender identity, especially when they identify as woman, as they are pressured and demanded by their parents to take up masculine traits and a masculine personality. Many bacha posh enjoy living as a boy when they are young since they are allowed to play soccer and cricket and do other things women are not allowed to do. However, upon growing up, most find it hard to socialize again with girls because they have become comfortable with socializing with boys since that is what they grew up doing.
An example of this is seen by an individual named Elaha, who was a bacha posh for twenty years, but switched back to being a girl when she entered university. She told the BBC that she switched back only because of traditions of society. The reason it is so hard for a bacha posh to switch back to living as a girl is that they behave as a boy when they are supposed to be developing their personalities, so they develop more stereotypical masculine personality traits because that is what they are taught. Some bacha posh feel as if they have lost essential childhood memories and their identities as girls. Others feel that it was good they got to experience the freedoms that they would not have had if they had been normal girls growing up in Afghanistan. The change itself can also be very hard as most if not all, rights and privileges of the "boys" are taken away when they are transitioned back into a women's role. Many bacha posh do not want to go back to being a woman once they have experienced freedom as a boy.
The heart of the controversy over this practice is whether the practice of bacha posh empowers women and helps them succeed or if the practice is psychologically damaging. Many of the women who have gone through the process say they feel that the experience was empowering as well as smothering. The true problem, activists say, is not the practice itself, but women’s rights in that society.
The cultural practice of bacha posh was originally non-publicized outside of the Middle East. However, as a result of media productions bacha posh and their role in society is slowly being revealed. There are no statistics on how many families have daughters who live as bacha posh, due to the somewhat secretive nature of the practice. Only the main family, family friends, and necessary health and education officials know the bacha posh's biological sex. It is tolerated and acknowledged by society in the main, and seen as a practical solution for those without an heir or accompanying male figure. Although it is tolerated, a bacha posh can be bullied and teased for not conforming to religious beliefs and social norms once discovered to be female.
Re-entry to living as a woman
When a bacha posh becomes of marrying age (commonly at 15-17 years old) or when their feminine forms become more pronounced, in most cases the father will decide that the bacha posh is to become his daughter. This is a struggle for them, as a majority of bacha posh spent all their prepubescent years in a male role, so many skipped learning the necessary skills acquired to be an ideal attentive soft-spoken domestic wife. This means that many experience untoward anxiety over the transition to womanhood.