Students gathered for a lecture by Jenny Nordberg
Photography By: Colleen Claggett

By: Nick Santangelo

"My purpose here today is to blow your minds a little bit and to ask questions," journalist Jenny Nordberg told College of Liberal Arts Intellectual Heritage students Oct. 1 in the Howard Gittis Student Center.

Nordberg was "fascinated" that all Temple University undergraduates take Intellectual Heritage courses. She thinks "we all need that" in our lives. As it happened, Nordberg was on campus to share her account of a particular bit of Afghanistan heritage known as bacha posh, when parents dress and treat their daughters as if they were their sons.

Wondering why parents would do that? Then you're in the same mind space as Nordberg when she found out a family with three daughters and one son she was visiting in Afghanistan was actually a family with four daughters. Actually, Nordberg's first reaction was to laugh, thinking the family was playing some strange joke on her. Once she realized they were serious, her intellectual curiosity was piqued.

Man of the House

Nordberg was there, after all, to study why women had so few rights and whether or not the ongoing war and simultaneous reconstruction efforts were doing anything to improve life for Afghanis.

The mother of the family was a member of parliament. The children attended private school. This seemed to be a relatively successful family, but they had a secret. "You know we dress our youngest as a boy, right?" the mother asked a bemused Nordberg.

This wasn't a case of transgenderism. Rather, the father in the family was humiliated and mocked for not having a son.

"If you don't have a son in the family, it means you are actually weak because the girls will move away from your family and be married," explained an enlightened Nordberg. "But only a son can take care of a family when you get old."

Afghanistan has no social safety net. Health insurance, Social Security, Medicare and the likes are foreign concepts. And since daughters are all eventually married off and can't bring income back to the family, sons serve a vital role. It's hoped that they'll grow up and make enough money to take care of parents in their old age, a concept that isn't so strange to Americans, even if the need for it is exacerbated in Afghanistan.

You know we dress our youngest as a boy, right?

Afghanistan is also a violent country. The father is the primary protector until his sons come of age, but sons support fathers in keeping a family's mother and daughters safe. Even when they are only young children, sons escort their mothers outside the house.

Being asked by your parents if you'd like to pretend to be a boy can sound pretty attractive to young girls in this society. They're allowed to be outside more, sit in the car's front seat, ride a bike—it's viewed as obscene for girls to lift their legs—and to speak openly and with more authority. For the family, having a "pretend" son is also seen as increasing their future chances of giving birth to a cisgender boy.

"It's kind of like a compromise," said Nordberg. "It's like a creative solution to a problem where you still raise the status of a family."

Return to Womanhood

Close friends and family members know when a daughter suddenly becomes a "son," but it's otherwise kept hidden through clothing, haircuts and behavior until they reach puberty.

Nordberg wanted to know what happens then. She wondered if all bacha posh girls willingly reverted to living like a girl. Finding out was difficult given how secretive families are about bacha posh.

But after much searching and convincing, Nordberg found a family that was willing to talk with her about their teenage bacha posh girl. Fifteen-year-old Zara was raised as a boy and acted like it. For example, she was forthright in conversation and looked people directly in the eye. Because the onus for being impregnated, sexually assaulted or raped falls entirely on the woman in Afghanistan, these traits aren't found in women. They're instead taught be almost invisible in public.

It's all in your behavior and your dress

Zara, as you might imagine, was not in any hurry to transition back into womanhood and to surrender the rights she had as a boy.

"I see how girls are treated here," she told Nordberg. "Why would I want to be like that?"

Elsewhere, the journalist also tracked down a woman with three children working as an anesthesiologist. She also grew up as a boy via bacha posh, but she went back to being a woman in her 20s when her family wanted to marry her off. She actually found the transition to be easy.

"It's all in how you act," she explained to Nordberg. "It's all in how you dress. It's all in your behavior and your dress."

Nature Versus Nurture

In her book, The Underground Girls of Kabul, Nordberg explores whether bacha posh is good or bad or if it's merely a sad and tragic but necessary response to the state of Afghanistan. A student asked her to elaborate on girls' feelings about going back to being boys. Some women found it difficult to learn for the first time as an adult how to behave the way Afghan society demands of women. They felt a tendency to act more like a man, to be more explosive and to talk more about war and politics and less about cooking and family.

"Where does that come from?" Nordberg asked rhetorically. "Did she develop that? Did she always have that in her? I don't know."

It's a classic nature versus nurture argument, one complicated by progressive Western values toward transgenderism. Nordberg mused that perhaps girls should be allowed to remain boys if they wish. Maybe that's the gender they truly identify as. At the same time, however, she wondered if they only identify that way because of Afghan society. Would they want to revert to being girls if they lived in the West?

It's an open question. To explore it more, Nordberg says a sense of humility is needed. By putting aside smugness, she was able to ask basic questions and get closer to this cultural phenomenon. For students with a similarly piqued curiosity, she recommends taking the same approach. They just might learn something about intellectual heritage if they do.