Dressing Up Afghani Girls: When Sons are Made, Not Born

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KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 15: A girl stands next to her mother waiting in line with Afghan widows to receive their food rations from CARE international relief agency on the second day of a three day Kabul wide food distribution supplying them monthly with cooking oil, beans and other spices September 15, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan. For many years CARE has helped Afghan war widows who have little or no other income struggling to survive. Kabul remains relatively peaceful as Afghan President Hamid Karzai leads by a large margain presently in the controversial presidential polls, with partial results issued by election officials. Presently, out of 5,545,149 valid votes from 92.82 percent of the country's polling stations, Karzai has 3,009,559 and Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister, has 1,558,591, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) said.  (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

We are living in a time when for some people, in some places, gender has become a choice.

Here in my small corner of the professional middle-class United States where Generation X has raised Generation Y to take everything the Baby Boomers thought was sacred with a grain of salt, they are happily doing it.

The Second-Wave feminists of the 1970s (my mother and her peers) were nearly certain that once women were free, that illusive line between natural womanhood and the unnatural preening required of the patriarchy would be found and never crossed again.  Some sort of Natural Woman would rule, and she would be more or less androgynous, depending on whom you asked.

But in the 1980s and 1990s a revival of the Butch-Femme subculture of lesbianism (to which, in the interest of full disclosure, I belong) along with the theories of feminist scholars like Judith Butler, proved that those Second-Wave ideas were too simplistic and altogether misguided, if well-intentioned.  Gender wasn’t natural at all -— there was no line -— and rather than eliminating gender, the number of genders was multiplied from two to roughly the same number of human beings on the planet.  In theory, at least.

Now, in whatever wave of feminism we’re in, my partner, who teaches Women’s Studies at a Big Ten university, finds it a necessity of PC etiquette to ask her students for their “PGPs” -— Gen Y speak for “preferred gender pronoun.”  Sometimes it’s “he,” sometimes it’s “she.”  Sometimes it’s something else altogether.

Rather than being free from gender, a few privileged corners of the world find themselves free to play within its constructs.  In academia, we’re busy asking if a young woman who becomes a young man over the summer between junior and senior years might return to finish his degree at Smith.

Meanwhile, in a part of the world about as far-removed from the professional U.S. as you can get, Afghani mothers are engaging in gender play of their own for reasons quite a bit farther down Maslow’s hierarchy than my partner’s and her colleagues’ academic ones.  Today, the New York Times published an incredible story about the uncommon, but not entirely unique, practice of turning a daughter into a son in a household with too few boys to support a family’s needs for the things only boys and men are allowed to do.

Lacking a son, Azita Rafaat was under threat from her family for bearing nothing but girls (a pair of twins, followed by two more sisters) for her husband who had already taken her as a second wife when his first also failed to produce a son.

Rafaat’s solution was to make the youngest girl a boy according to a custom that is accepted, if somewhat shamefully, by Afghan culture at large.  Dressing a daughter as a boy and giving her a boy’s name allows her the freedom to go out and shop, work for money, play sports (on boys’ teams), fight, curse, and everything else girls are not allowed to do in a society strictly regulated by gender differences.

The irony, of course, is that at some point a strict belief in the rigid line between male and female doubles back on itself.  Although they know he was born a girl, Azita Rafaat’s husband and in-laws accept the youngest child of the family as a son.  For now, Rafaat is off the hook of endless attempts to bear a boy and -- with her freedom from that pressure -- has entered the Afghani parliament.

Others interviewed for the Times story were made boys to give companionship to only brothers, to help out by working for extra money for the family or even simply to help their fathers with the shopping -— something girls cannot do alone.

The pitfalls for these girls-turned-boys seem, according to the Times, to mainly be the difficulty that comes with having to cross over to womanhood when puberty hits and parents decide to arrange marriages for their son-daughters.  Such women miss the freedom of boyhood and lack the cultural knowledge to embrace womanhood.  They don’t know how to cook, they trip over their burkas, they sit and walk and gesture and speak in the “wrong” way.  Having grown up on the male side of a strict male/female divide, they don’t know how to talk to the women who surround them in adulthood -— the only people besides their husbands and children with whom they are allowed to talk at all.

Judith Butler, it seems, was right-on about gender being constructed.  But where in our first-world society, that construction is subconscious and not even something we choose according to theorists, in a place where the line between male and female is bright and clear, everyone is aware of the excessive -— often quite conscious -— effort it takes to police it.

I am not an expert on Afghanistan.  I am loathe to transfer the assumptions of my own culture -— let alone my own tiny cultural niche -— to one so different.  But it seems safe to say that Afghani girls would be better off if they could be girls and still do shopping runs and work odd jobs for their families.  Maybe they’d like to let the boys they’ve beat in soccer know that it was a girl who did it, too.  And the odd Afghani girl who still wants to be a boy, all questions of rights and privileges aside?  We haven’t met him yet, but I can only imagine it will be a better day when we do.

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