Dr. Mridula Kashyap teaches in the Department of English, Nowgong Girls’ College, Gauhati University, Assam. Her areas of interests are Women and Literature; Middle Eastern Literature; Islamic Feminism; Critical Theory, Art and Creative Writing.
The notion of bacha posh refers to the cross-dressing of a girl as a boy which is deployed as a way of disguising gender roles. It is a cultural practice that was widespread in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan whereby girls were raised as boys during their childhood till they attain the age of puberty so that they could have access to educational opportunity, mobility, economic and public spaces from which they were being deprived because of their gender. But can such cross-dressing truly allow girls to receive the benefits of patriarchy— the freedom that is limited only for the dominant gender? Is the disguise of gender role a means of empowerment for girls or a form of oppression? Is freedom only a kind of illusion? Keeping these questions in mind, the paper will examine the practice of bacha posh as depicted in Nadia Hashmi’s novels. One can argue that while bacha posh is practised with a purpose of liberating the girls from the codes of restriction and subjugation attached to the female body, it further complicates the subject position of the person who disguises into bacha posh. Bacha posh is never a liberating force, rather it reflects the sordid position of the female body in a socio-cultural space. This is due to the gender dysphoria experienced by the bacha posh as a result of the incongruity between biological sex and the masculine gender role that the girls have to perform.
Keywords: Bacha posh, Gender dysphoria, subjectivity, body, masculinity
Masculinity is not a fixed entity embedded in the body or personality traits of individuals. Masculinities are configurations of practice that are accomplished in social action and, therefore, can differ according to the gender relations in a particular social setting. (Connell and Messerschmidt 836)
The idea of bacha posh is one of the constructions of masculinity and the product of rigid patriarchy where there is a complex interplay between the body and the social system that eventually leads to perplexing ideas of sexuality and gender identity. Women’s body and space in Afghanistan have been caught up in the mire of the turbulent history of state-society relations, the economic situation and the discontent between religious and political status quo that has led to unequal gender relations and dominant modes of ‘hegemonic masculinity’1. These states of affairs have had their impact over women’s mobility, dress code and sexuality. The oppressive state apparatus allows men to police women’s mobility thereby constraining their space in the Afghan society. The Mujahideen regime (1992-1996) and the Taliban regime (1996-2001) have established hegemonic masculinity that legitimizes the subordination of women, specifically the latter institutionalizes gender inequality and policing of women’s mobility to the extent that they could not enter the public space without being accompanied by a mahram (male relative). Restriction of women to enter the public space also limits their economic opportunities and their ability to access public services. Masculine dominance becomes normative in every institution. In the family, the birth of a boy child becomes the most essential and women are held responsible for giving birth to boys. Associated with the importance of the birth of a boy child or the presence of a male member in the family is the question of economic productivity as girls/women are debarred from that space. Jenny Nordberb in her seminal work on bacha posh entitled The Underground Girls of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys (2014) claims that every Afghan family must have at least one son, without which the family would be considered incomplete, weak and vulnerable. So, every Afghan married woman is obliged to bear a son and it becomes her sole purpose in life, failing to do so she is stigmatized as dokhtar zai or “she who only brings daughters” and her husband, in turn, is defamed as mada post or “he whose woman will only deliver girls.” Thus, in a society where hegemonic masculinity prevails, it is the woman who always becomes accountable for the failure to bear the boy child. Against this backdrop of masculine dominance and absence of space for the woman that the custom of bacha posh develops. The notion of bacha posh refers to the cross-dressing of the girl as a boy which is deployed as a way of disguising gender roles. It is a cultural practice that was widespread in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan whereby girls were raised as boys during their childhood till they attain the age of puberty so that they could have access to educational opportunity, mobility, economic and public spaces from which they were being deprived because of their gender. But can such cross-dressing truly allow girls to receive the benefits of patriarchy— the freedom that is limited only for the dominant gender? Is the disguise of gender role a means of empowerment for girls or a form of oppression? Is freedom only a kind of illusion? Keeping these questions in mind, the paper will examine the practice of bacha posh as depicted in Nadia Hashmi’s novels. One can argue that while bacha posh is practised with a purpose of liberating the girls from the codes of restriction and subjugation attached to the female body, it further complicates the subject position of the person who disguises into bacha posh. Bacha posh is never a liberating force, rather it reflects the sordid position of the female body in a socio-cultural space. This is due to the gender dysphoria experienced by the bacha posh as a result of the incongruity between biological sex and the masculine gender role that the girls have to perform.
These issues and complexities associated with the custom of bacha posh, set against the backdrop of a perplexing Afghan history, are intricately interwoven by Nadia Hashmi in her novels One Half from the East (2016) and The Pearl that Broke its Shell (2014). In both the novels, Hashmi exposes the vulnerability of woman as a result of the rigid patriarchal structure that has constrained their lives altogether. Obayda in One Half of the East is made into a boy with the belief that she would bring good luck to the family and also render economic support because of her father’s wretched condition when he loses one of his legs in a bomb explosion. After the catastrophe, the family shifts from the city of Kabul to a small village where Obayda is compelled by her mother and her aunt to cross-dress as a boy and take up the new identity of Obayd. This new identity at the age of ten leaves her in a baffled state as she was always comfortable being a girl. She realizes that she could not fit into the straitjacket of any of the gender roles and suffers from a kind of gender dysphoria. Hence, the novel centers on Obayda’s labyrinthine quest for identity as the bacha posh identity that is thrust upon her does in no way liberate her, further it aggravates her dilemma and leads her to an abyssal position. In The Pearl that Broke its Shell, Hashmi intertwines the intergenerational tales of two Afghan women who had to change their gender roles under different circumstances. Like Obayda, Rahima is made into a boy so that she could access the benefits of patriarchy and support the family as she has no brothers and left with a father who self-medicates with opium. Rahima adores her bacha posh life as it provides her with the opportunity to relish the fruits of patriarchy which are otherwise denied to girls because of their gender. However, the freedom that Rahima enjoys is cut short when her opium-addict father arranges her marriage with an elderly and powerful warlord in exchange for a huge bride-price and the supply of opium. At once Rahima’s life metamorphoses from a carefree bacha posh to the fourth wife of Abdul Khaliq, the warlord. Hashmi juxtaposes the story of Rahima with her great-great-grandmother Shekiba, born a century ago, who had to perform the role of a boy and work in the farm after the cholera epidemic killed her mother and the other siblings. As Shekiba was Herculean build, she was also assigned the job of a guard in King Habibullah’s harem, dressed as a man. The Pearl that Broke its Shell projects how Rahima and Shekiba break up from their claustrophobic gender identities to adopt a variation that would provide them liberation, only to realize that such liberation is simply an illusion and therefore, the quest for their identities continue.
Though the body of literature produced in this area is limited, yet there are a few fiction writers apart from Hashmi, who has dealt with the practice of bacha posh in their works. Canadian writer and activist Deborah Ellis’ acclaimed novel, The Breadwinner (2001), is about an eleven-year-old girl Parvana who has to become a bacha posh in the land of Kabul where “bombs had been part of Parvana’s whole life” (11). When the Taliban militia has confiscated the land and asserted their hegemony, Parvana’s father is arrested, her education is stopped and in the absence of any male member, there is none to run the family. Under such circumstances Parvana is cross-dressed as a boy so that she could become the breadwinner of the family, “As a boy, you’ll be able to move in and out of the market, buy what we need and no one will stop you…” (27). The novel, thus, captures Parvana’s struggle not only to search her father but also to sustain her family. Ukmina Manoori’s memoir I am a Bacha Posh: My Life as a Woman Living as a Man in Afghanistan (2014) narrates her story of undaunted determination in her decision to remain a bacha posh throughout her life, resisting family and social pressures of resuming to womanhood after puberty. Once a bacha posh is on the brink of womanhood, she is expected to discard her man’s clothing and take recourse to veil and think about her marriage. Ukmina writes:
At this age, the other girls veiled themselves. Those who had, like me, lived their childhood as a boy, gave up their shalwar kameez and the freedom that it conferred, little by little. They abandoned their fields and their games to integrate into the framework of their whole life from this point forward: the walls of their home. They learned how to sew, take care of the children, help their mothers. It took a few months before they embraced their destiny as women: at twelve years old, they wore burqas and did not leave the house anymore without the presence of a man. (15)
However, Ukmina decides to deviate from such social norms and destine her life for the cause of her country by waging war against the Soviets, entering into politics and working diligently for the upliftment of the rights of the Afghan woman. Alike Ukmina, Maria Toorpakai is another valiant figure whose A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight (2016) is a sports memoir where she narrates her harrowing journey as a bacha posh to become an athlete hailing from an oppressive region of Pakistan called Waziristan, dominated by the Talibans. Toorpakai’s father always considers her to be a “different kind of daughter” (7) as he could perceive that she is a born athlete. She loathed dolls and wearing fancy dresses, instead preferred boy’s clothing and playing outside in the dirt which “in my part of the world, for a girl to venture out uncovered was haram— forbidden, a sin against God” (7). In her part of the country women playing squash or any other sports is considered haram. But squash is not simply a sport for her, but a matter of life and death: ““It’s not about playing anymore, Maria. It’s about staying alive”” her father tells her (164). It is only through adopting the role of a bacha posh or in other words, masquerading as a boy, that Maria Toorpakai was able to escape the death threats of the Talibans and flee to Canada to pursue her dream.
The word bacha posh etymologically means ‘dressed as a boy’ which is Dari origin. The transformation of the gender identity of girls is decided by the parents at a very tender age, often at birth. As decided by the parents, the girls have to perform the assigned gender role till the time of puberty which is considered to be their marriageable age. Although the community members are aware that the bacha posh children are born as girls, but they treat them according to their role-performance. As Nordberg writes: “These girls are hidden, and that is exactly the point. To everyone on the outside, they are just bachas” (48). But as they grow older and reach the age of puberty, their role-playing becomes difficult to sustain, although some bacha posh refuse to revert to their biological gender identity. The practise of bacha posh developed against the backdrop of a hegemonic masculine society where “men have all the privileges” (61). Among the various reasons discussed by Nordberg in her book The Underground Girls of Kabul for the practice of disguising girls as boys in Afghanistan are the predominantly patrilineal structure where sons are more valued than daughters, the social stigma a family has to experience for having no son and the pressure perpetuated upon families to bear at least one son. Because of such social stigma and pressure girls are masqueraded as boys soon after their birth, and the hoax sons are considered to be better than having no sons. There is also a superstitious belief that the bacha posh in the family would bring good luck to the future birth of boys in the family. As it is believed that “through visual manifestation, when a woman looks at the image of a male child every day, her body will eventually conceive a son” (69). Thus, till the birth of the actual son, the bacha posh serves the family intention. However, the intention varies as seen in the case of upper or middle-class families where girls are cross-dressed as boys to keep intact the family honour and prestige. Although the girls do not choose their enforced boyhood willingly but in many cases “they enjoy their borrowed status” (67). The bacha posh belonging to upper or middle-class families enjoy the privileges of going to school and playing outdoor games with boys, which otherwise, they have been deprived of because of their gender. But those belonging to underprivileged families need to engage in forced child labour for economic sustenance of the family. Nordberg observes:
Among street children in the merchant business, selling chewing gum, polishing shoes, or offering to wash car windows on the streets, some are actual boys, and others are girls in disguise. They are all part of Kabul’s underbelly and, to those who pass them by, mostly just invisible. (67)
Nordberg further observes that irrespective of the families being rich, poor, educated, uneducated, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara or Turkoman, what is indistinguishable amongst them is their need for a son. The made-up son supports the family as a breadwinner, plays the role of a mahram by accompanying the female members of the family to public spaces where women’s mobility is restricted, the one who can have access to education and finally facilitates the family to be complete as the lack of son makes the family incomplete. It is the clothing and the haircut that differentiates a boy from a girl and permits the bacha posh to have access to all the privileges and spaces that are otherwise restricted only to the male members in a hegemonic masculine Afghan society. In this context clothing and haircut act as a means of camouflage to conceal the female body while evoking the masculine persona.
Though a bacha posh feels empowered as a result of her entrée into the masculine domain, this phase is transitory. The dilemma of these girls when they have to revert to their feminine selves is analysed by Corboz, Gibbs and Jewkes in their essay “Bacha posh in Afghanistan: factors associated with raising a girl as a boy” (2019):
When girls raised as boys reach puberty, they are usually ‘converted’ back into girls. This often poses a dilemma for those girls who had more freedom and mobility during childhood, only to have this freedom restricted when being required to re-adopt a feminine identity and sometimes being prepared for marriage a short time after becoming a girl again. Conversion back to being a girl may be particularly difficult for those bacha posh who identify as male and want to continue living as a boy. (3)
The reversion to womanhood involves a constant struggle as years of performance makes it difficult to reappropriate the body into the feminine persona. After switching to the feminine persona, she has to unlearn the things that she has mastered as a boy and adopt the feminine body language. The overt appearance becomes easy to convert but the psychological impact left by years of performance is difficult to wipe out. Shukria, a former bacha posh narrates her experience in Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul: “With time, nurture can become nature…Becoming a man is simple. The outside is easy to change. Going back is hard. There is a feeling inside that will never change” (178). It is then that a bacha posh suffers from gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria results from the experience of gender incongruence that causes uneasiness in the bacha posh after she switches to her biological identity. Mark A. Yarhouse in his book Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture (2015) defines gender dysphoria as thus:
Gender dysphoria refers to the experience of having a psychological and emotional identity as either male or female, and that your psychological and emotional identity does not correspond to your biological sex—this perceived incongruity can be the source of deep and ongoing discomfort. Specifically, gender dysphoria is on the one hand the experience of being born male (biological sex) but feeling a psychological and emotional identity as female. Similarly, gender dysphoria is the experience of being born female (biological sex) but feeling a psychological or emotional identity as male. (19)
However, Mark A. Yarhouse’s concept of gender dysphoria is different from the kind of dysphoria experienced by a bacha posh. Yarhouse examines gender dysphoria as a transgendered concept. But the gender dysphoria that a bacha posh suffers from is not a genetic disorder as bacha posh is an imposed identity upon the girl to perform the role of maleness: “Her identity develops from a mere biological female to becoming a culturally defined boy through social interaction, within the family and outside” (Sawitri 16). The bacha posh is reared in an altogether different cultural setting where rather than the fostering of feminine qualities such as compliance and submissiveness, excessively aggressive masculine attitudes are encouraged. The momentary liberty they experience as a result of the isolation from their birth gender creates gender identity conflict in them.
Bacha posh is not a novel tradition but can be traced back to twentieth-century Afghanistan. King Habibullah Khan who reigned Afghanistan from 1901 to 1919 devised the concept of appointing women sentinels, dressed in men’s apparel to guard the king’s harem. He designated his youngest daughter to stand as the guard of the harem garbed in man’s uniform. Assigning male sentinels to watchdog the harem could be hazardous to women’s chastity and the royal bloodline. Before appointing women guards, eunuchs stood as sentries to guard the king's mistresses. But, by his novel idea, women replaced the eunuchs to stand as sentries of the harem, thereby marking the initiation of the presence of cross-dressed women in the history of the royal stratum of Afghan society. However, the presence of such cross-dressed women is not confined to Afghanistan alone. Such women could be traced in different eras of the Western and Eastern history who mostly performed the role of warriors. Nordberg cites a number of such woman warriors who dressed as men:
In the first century, Triaria of Rome joined her emperor husband in war, wearing men’s armor. Zenobia was a third-century queen in Syria who grew up as a boy and went on to fight the Roman empire on horseback. Around the same time in China, Hua Mulan took her father’s place in battle, wearing his clothes. Joan of Arc was famously said to have seen an archangel in 1424, causing her to adopt the look of a male soldier and help fight France’s war against England. (198)
Nordberg further states that the Catholic Church not only approves woman cross-dressed as a man but honours them for their bravery and demonstration of masculine traits. Valerie Hotchkiss observes that in medieval Europe, the women who cross-dressed as men preferred to remain celibate throughout their lives. One also finds references in the twelfth-century religious texts such as - Scivias by Hildegard von Bingen and Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas- about engaging such women during wars and other emergency situations. Dutch historians Lotte C. van de Pol and Rudolf M. Dekker in their research on the experiences of these women discovered that between the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries in Europe, there lived more than a hundred women who either took the profession of sailors or soldiers disguised in men’s clothing. Their gender identities were revealed only after their death when their bodies were carried off the battleground. These women adopted male identity for reasons similar to that of bacha posh in Afghanistan. Some undertook male identity to support themselves and their families, some masqueraded as men to travel or evade forced marriages, while others went for higher education as it was forbidden for women. Unfortunately, they had to face trial when their disguise was unmasked, though the punishment became lenient for those women who took part in wars for the cause of their lands. However, by the nineteenth century, the phenomenon of women cross-dressing as men gradually declined. Perhaps, it might be due to the rise of an organized society based on a civil registration system where certain measures like border controls and medical inspections were made obligatory for soldiers as a result of which it became difficult for women to disguise as men. Similar to the bacha posh practise in Afghanistan, there exists in Northern Albania and Montenegro an age-old practice known as 'sworn-virgins' as a consequence of a highly patriarchal and patrilineal tribal society “where children are thought to stem directly from the blood of the father, and the woman is considered merely a carrier” (199). Thus, the bacha posh is not an exclusively Afghan practice but exists in other parts of the world throughout the history of women.
This age-old cultural practice is the core issue upon which Nadia Hashmi has set her novels. In One Half from the East, Obayda becomes a victim of this cultural practice at the age of ten when her father has been maimed for life by the bomb blast and the family has to shift from Kabul to settle in the village. Her aunt concocts the idea of transforming Obayda into a boy assuring her mother that such a practice would herald good luck to the family.
Make Obayda into a boy. With her as a son, she will bring good luck to your home. You’ll see your husband cheer up. Then you plan for another baby in the family. Having a bacha posh at home brings boy energy into your household. The next baby that comes will be a boy. And once you have a real son, watch what happens. Your husband will come back to life. I’ve seen this work in the families around us. It’s not magic—it’s just how it is. And that’s when Obayda can go back to being a girl. (14)
The new identity imposed upon Obayda makes her world topsy-turvy. She always liked being a girl, doing “girl things” (2016:14) and had a great fascination for dancing. The bacha posh identity becomes problematic for Obayda as she has to unlearn the things that she has learned as a girl for ten years and adopt the new language and behaviour of boys. She is debarred from household chores and is expected to play outdoor games with boys and go out to the market. A sense of insecurity and the fear of being exposed looms large in her mind. Her sense of insecurity becomes more acute when she goes to school and finds herself amid boys in the school playground: “I watch the boys drift one way and the girls another. I am now in the weird place between both worlds” (2016: 24). Her bacha posh identity leads her to an awkward situation where she is neither able to assimilate with boys nor with girls. Through Obayda’s complex state of mind, Hashmi projects that the dubious identity of a bacha posh results from the fact that she has to enact masculinity with a female body. Obayda struggles hard to perform the role of Obayd but “still haven’t fully got used to it” (2016: 25). She finds that the masculine gender behaviour is indeed different from that of the female and strives to tackle the sex-gender dichotomy. However, Obayda’s struggle to appropriate herself to the masculine gender role becomes less complicated when she meets another bacha posh in her school. Rahim/Rahima tells Obayda that to perform the role of bacha posh efficiently, she must stop thinking herself as a female garbed in male clothing, but consider herself a boy: “You’re a boy, not a bacha posh, Obayd. If you get that, there is nothing else” (2016: 36). Rahima has competently adopted the masculine body language and loves her bacha posh identity as it provides her with the freedom that she has been deprived of as a female. Though ‘Rahim’ is an imposed identity, yet she has been able to naturalise her body to the masculine gender role because she has learned that “Being a boy is not all in your pants. It’s in your head” (36). The body must adjust to the mind.
Renouncing the feminine gender indeed provides Rahima and Obayda with the benefits of male privilege but they know very well that such freedom is illusory. They can enact masculinity but can never be a man since the bacha posh is socially perceived as a subordinated masculinity. The subordinated masculinity can in no way be a liberating force, rather it complicates the subject position of the body. They are both “one half from the east and one half from the west” (2016: 36) as Obayda’s mother describes them. They want to get rid of their dubious identity as it prevents them from being neither fully male nor fully female. The interplay between the body and the social process results in complex gender role leaving them in an in-between position. Rahima confesses: “That’s the problem with being half things…it’s hard if you think you’re missing something. I don’t want to be a half thing. I just want to be one whole normal me.” (2016: 55). Obayda agrees with her. With time Obayda becomes complacent in her role as a bacha posh and is unwilling to retrogress to her birth sex. She desires to take up the masculine identity in perpetuity, thereby dispelling the 'half thing' to become ‘one whole normal’ being. But she is aware that like the bacha posh identity thrust upon her, the parents would again transform her into a girl. Her sense of insecurity rises when she comes to know about her mother’s pregnancy. If it’s a girl, she would also be a victim of the tradition of bacha posh, but if it’s a boy her role as bacha posh would come to an end: “If it is a boy, I’m finished. My parents will have the son they need and my work as a bacha posh will be complete” (2016: 60). To get rid of her contradictory position, and live as unitary subject Obayda becomes possessed by the rainbow myth and heads towards the mountain range in search of the rainbow with the belief that walking under the rainbow would metamorphose her into a boy forever. Nordberg discusses in her book how the rainbow myth of gender-changing is widespread in Afghanistan:
The rainbow, a favourite element in every mythology from the Norse to the Navajo people, often symbolizes wish fulfilment. In Afghanistan, finding a rainbow promises a very special reward: It holds magical powers to turn an unborn child into a boy when a pregnant woman walks under it. Afghan girls are also told that they can become boys by walking under a rainbow, and many little girls have tried. (Nordberg 229)
Obayda’s disappearance in the quest for the rainbow causes much tension in the family and to her utter dismay, she finally learns from her mother that the rainbow is only a legend told to children. Dejected, she questions her mother: “Why would you want me to be a boy only for now? If being a boy now is good, isn’t being a boy forever even better?” (Hashmi 2016: 91). Obayda was content with her identity as a girl before the bacha posh identity had been imposed upon her. With the imposition of bacha posh identity, she begins to grow up with altogether different psychosocial expectation which in turn creates confusion about her own identity. This acute sense of discomfort results from the non-conformity between her female body and the masculine gender role that she has to enact which develops a kind of gender dysphoria in her. The experience of gender dysphoria resulting from the imposed identity triggers unease by isolating her not only from the family but also from the larger mainstream society. Thus, Hashmi demonstrates the nuances and complexities associated with the practice of bacha posh which proves problematic for girls to assimilate back into their culture as they become baffled about their identity.
Hashmi’s critical stance on the practice of bacha posh is also reflected in her novel The Pearl that Broke its Shell. When the Taliban ruled over the streets of Afghanistan asserting domination through force and noxious practices, it became difficult for Rahima and her sisters to attend school and leave the house as they had no brother but an inept father who was a narcotist. Under such circumstances, Madar-jan (a term of endearment for mother) transforms Rahima into a bacha posh as she needs help with the errands and it has seemed unfeasible for her to depend on Padar-jan for anything. “Bachem, from now on we’re going to call you Rahim instead of Rahima” Madar-jan tells her (2014: 35). Once the bacha posh identity has been thrust upon her, Rahima has to adjust her body to accommodate herself into the new gender role. To maintain the charade, she has to learn the new language and behaviour of boys like Obayda. Like most of the bacha posh, it becomes problematic for Rahima to enter into the new territory: “My instincts were to jerk back, to run away and never to look them (the boys) in the eye again” (2014: 67). Rahima has to readjust her body to a completely different psychosocial expectation and is indeed perplexed to observe the transformation in her mother's behaviour towards her. Her mother constantly orients her to acclimatize her body to the masculine gender behaviour and she is constantly apprehensive about the masquerade being exposed:
“Listen, Rahim-jan. You should be out with the boys, playing. That’s what boys do— do you understand what I’m saying?” …
… “Yes Madar-jan, but sometimes I just don’t want to. They… they push each other a lot.”
“Then push back.”
I was surprised by her advice but the look on her face told me she was serious. Here sat my mother telling me the exact opposite of what she’d always said. I would have to toughen up.” (68)
Rahima’s cross-gender identification as a result of the imposed identity altered her mother's response to facilitate her to adopt the cultural expectations of maleness. As already referred, Rahima is not the only member in the family to have adopted the practice of cross-dressing. Rahima hears from her aunt Khala Shaima the account of her great-great-grandmother who was a son to her father and worked in the farm like a boy and who also worked as a harem-guard in King Habibullah’s palace, dressed in man’s uniform. Resisting the tradition of reverting to the birth sex once a bacha posh attains the age of puberty, Rahima nevertheless continues to cross-dress as a boy till Padar-jan arranges her marriage with Abdul Khaliq, a dominant warlord. Padar-jan decides to marry off Rahima and her two sisters with Abdul Khaliq and his cousins in exchange for a large bride price and a supply of opium. Madar-jan resists but to no avail. Padar-jan is obstinate in his decision. Nordberg discusses how at this moment daughters are discernibly the cards played by Afghan fathers:
Men make alliances, and not necessarily in the best interest of their daughters. These alliances are related to the social prestige and honour of the family. But it may also be opportunism. They want to marry up to create more security— financial or physical— for the family in a time of need. (Nordberg 152)
Through the predicament of Rahima, Hashmi projects that in a hegemonic masculine society woman are repressed at every stage. Bacha posh and marriage act as restrictive mechanisms that threaten the subjectivity of women. Firstly, she is transformed into a boy by the imposition of the bacha posh practise to absolve the family from stigma and undertake the family responsibility, next, she is regressed to a girl by the imposition of marriage for the financial security of her family. Deniz Kandiyoti describes the marriages of young girls to older men as “distress sales to food or cash” (Kandiyoti 180). Rahima and her sisters become victims of such forced marriages but in case of Rahima things become more problematic because of the frequent reversal of roles imposed upon her.
At the age of thirteen, Rahima becomes the fourth wife of the warlord Abdul Khaliq. Years of performing the masculine role have left certain permanent marks in her which prevents her from accommodating wholly into her new role as Abdul Khaliq’s wife. Her marital life becomes highly dissatisfying. She loathes her husband as he dehumanizes her by inflicting violence upon her to assert his dominance:
The thought of him made me queasy. I hated the feeling of it. I hated his breath, his whiskers, his callused feet. But there would be no escape. He called for me when he pleased and made me do what he wanted. (Hashmi, 2014, p.169)
Abdul Khaliq’s oppressive nature restricts Rahima’s autonomy and space in her new environment. Ever since Rahima was converted into a bacha posh she was debarred from household chores, and now reframing her life to feminine obligations has been difficult for her. Her mother-in-law asks Abdul Khaliq’s first wife, Badriya to keep Rahima under constant surveillance so that she gets acquainted with her feminine duties and can perform appropriately the role of a wife:
“Make sure she does a good job, Badriya. This girl has a lot to learn. She was a bacha posh, don’t forget. Can you believe that? A bacha posh at this age! No wonder she has no clue how to carry herself as a woman. Look at the way she walks, her hair, her fingernails! Her mother should be ashamed of herself.” (176)
Her mother-in-law not only condemns her for lacking feminine traits and but also accuses her mother of allowing her to continue with her bacha posh identity even after puberty. Rahima’s only salvation in her miserable life is her son, Jahangir. Being able to bear a son Rahima’s position in the family becomes somewhat better as Jahangir becomes one of Abdul Khaliq’s favourites. But any reprieve for Rahima is momentary. When the new government comes to power and demands women to be members of the parliament, Abdul Khaliq promotes Badriya as one of the members to exert his influence over government affairs. As Rahima knows to read and write, she offers to help Badriya in Kabul. Though she seems uncertain to leave Jahangir behind but grabs the opportunity when Abdul Khaliq permits her to assist Badriya in Kabul. While she is in Kabul, Jahangir becomes ill and by the time she returns home, to her utter dismay he passes away. Rahima could not believe her destiny. Jahangir was her only solace in her wretched life. The demise of her son leaves her dejected and devastated. Rahima bemoans her lot:
I was a little girl and then I wasn’t.
I was a bacha posh and then I wasn’t.
I was a daughter and then I wasn’t.
I was a mother and then I wasn’t.
Just as soon as I could adjust, things changed. I changed. This last change was the worst. (2014: 384)
Life provides Rahima with such diverse ephemeral roles that each time she attempts to accommodate herself to a particular role it alters and then she is assigned to another new role. The death of her son steals the very breath of her existence. When Rahima is still not able to overcome the grief at the loss of her son, Abdul Khaliq accuses her of their son’s death: “A bacha posh. I should have known better. You still don’t know what it is to be a woman” (2014: 408). At every blow, he curses her for being an irresponsible mother. He cuts off her hair and assaults her brutally, causing Rahima to miscarry her unborn child: “Fresh tears for a new loss. I may have killed one of Abdul Khaliq’s children. But he has just killed another” (2014: 409). Nevertheless, Rahima does not abandon hope as her aunt Khala Shaima’s words ring in her ears. She often used to say her that everyone needs an ‘escape.’ Inspired by Khala Shaima’s words Rahima make plans to escape from her state of wretchedness. When she goes to Kabul with Badriya to assist her, she narrates her whole story to Hamida and Sufia, the women parliamentarians with whom she befriends and makes plans to escape by feigning sickness. Finally, she cuts off her hair, cross-dresses herself in men's attire to transform from Rahima to Rahim and escapes from her restrictive life.
Hashmi’s novels project the complexities faced by the feminine body through participating in the social practice of bacha posh. The practice of bacha posh is the outcome of a dysfunctional society and a reflection of its vulnerability. Though by feigning masculinit,y girls can have access to freedom yet such a notion of agency proves to be evanescent. Hashmi demonstrates how her characters suffer from gender dysphoria because of the imposition of bacha posh identity upon them. Both Obayda and Rahima want to get rid of the subordinated masculinity of bacha posh at it complicates their subject position and leads to complex gender relations. Their quest to initiate themselves into masculine gender roles and their despise against their birth gender grows from the subordinate position of women in the hegemonic masculine Afghan society. But they also come to terms with the fact that that by enacting masculinity through the practice of bacha posh, they can never truly liberate themselves from subjugation, rather it results in further subordination of their bodies.
- The concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ which has influenced gender studies across diverse academic fields has been discussed by Connell and Messerschmidt in their essay “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept”
Works Cited :
Connell, R. W. and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the
Concept” Gender and Society, vol. 19, no. 6, Dec. 2005, pp. 829-859.
Corboz, Julienne, Andrew Gibbs and Rachel Jewkes. “Bacha posh in Afghanistan: factors
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