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KABUL, Afghanistan Six year old Mehran Rafaat is like many girls her age. She likes to be the center of attention. She is often frustrated when things do not go her way. Like her three older sisters, she is eager to discover the world outside the family’s apartment in their middle class neighborhood of Kabul.

But when their mother, Azita Rafaat, a member of Parliament, dresses the children for school in the morning, there is one important difference. Mehran’s sisters put on black dresses and head scarves, tied tightly over their ponytails. For Mehran, it’s green pants, a white shirt and a necktie, then a pat from her mother over her spiky, short black hair. After that, her daughter is out the door as an Afghan boy.

There are no statistics about how many Afghan girls masquerade as boys. But when asked, Afghans of several generations can often tell a story of a female relative, friend, neighbor or co worker who grew up disguised as a boy. To those who know, these children are often referred to as neither “daughter” nor “son” in conversation, but as “bacha posh,” which literally means “dressed up as a boy” in Dari.

Through dozens of interviews conducted over several months, where many people wanted to remain anonymous or to use only first names for fear of exposing their families, it was possible to trace a practice that has remained mostly obscured to outsiders. Yet it cuts across class, education, ethnicity and geography, and has endured even through Afghanistan’s many wars and governments.

Afghan families have many reasons for pretending their girls are boys, including economic need, social pressure to have sons, and in some cases, a superstition that doing so can lead to the birth of a real boy. Lacking a son, the parents decide to make one up, usually by cutting the hair of a daughter and dressing her in typical Afghan men’s clothing. There are no specific legal or religious proscriptions against the practice. In most cases, a return to womanhood takes place when the child enters puberty. The parents almost always make that decision.

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In a land where sons are more highly valued, since in the tribal culture usually only they can inherit the father’s wealth and pass down a name, families without boys are the objects of pity and contempt. Even a made up son increases the family’s standing, at least for a few years. A bacha posh can also more easily receive an education, work outside the home, even escort her sisters in public, allowing freedoms that are unheard of for girls in a society that strictly segregates men and women.

But for some, the change can be disorienting as well as liberating, stranding the women in a limbo between the sexes. Shukria Siddiqui, raised as a boy but then abruptly plunged into an arranged marriage, struggled to adapt, tripping over the confining burqa and straining to talk to other women.

The practice may stretch back centuries. Nancy Dupree, an 83 year old American who has spent most of her life as a historian working in Afghanistan, said she had not heard of the phenomenon, but recalled a photograph from the early 1900s belonging to the private collection of a member of the Afghan royal family.

It featured women dressed in men’s clothing standing guard at King Habibullah’s harem. The reason: the harem’s women could not be protected by men, who might pose a threat to the women, but they could not be watched over by women either.

“Segregation calls for creativity,” Mrs. Dupree said. “These people have the most amazing coping ability.”

It is a commonly held belief among less educated Afghans that the mother can determine the sex of her unborn child, so she is blamed if she gives birth to a daughter. Several Afghan doctors and health care workers from around the country said that they had witnessed the despair of women when they gave birth to daughters, and that the pressure to produce a son fueled the practice.

“Yes, this is not normal for you,” Mrs. Rafaat said in sometimes imperfect English, during one of many interviews over several weeks. “And I know it’s very hard for you to believe why one mother is doing these things to their youngest daughter. But I want to say for you, that some things are happening in Afghanistan that are really not imaginable for you as a Western people.”

Pressure to Have a Boy

From that fateful day she first became a mother Feb. 7, 1999 Mrs. Rafaat knew she had failed,
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she said, but she was too exhausted to speak, shivering on the cold floor of the family’s small house in Badghis Province.

She had just given birth twice to Mehran’s older sisters, Benafsha and Beheshta. The first twin had been born after almost 72 hours of labor, one month prematurely. The girl weighed only 2.6 pounds and was not breathing at first. Her sister arrived 10 minutes later. She, too, was unconscious.

When her mother in law began to cry, Mrs. Rafaat knew it was not from fear whether her infant granddaughters would survive. The old woman was disappointed. “Why,” she cried, according to Mrs. Rafaat, “are we getting more girls in the family?”

Mrs. Rafaat had grown up in Kabul, where she was a top student, speaking six languages and nurturing high flying dreams of becoming a doctor. But once her father forced her to become the second wife of her first cousin, she had to submit to being an illiterate farmer’s wife, in a rural house without running water and electricity, where the widowed mother in law ruled, and where she was expected to help care for the cows, sheep and chickens. She did not do well.

Conflicts with her mother in law began immediately, as the new Mrs. Rafaat insisted on better hygiene and more contact with the men in the house. She also asked her mother in law to stop beating her husband’s first wife with her walking stick. When Mrs. Rafaat finally snapped the stick in protest, the older woman demanded that her son, Ezatullah, control his new wife.

He did so with a wooden stick or a metal wire. “On the body, on the face,” she recalled. “I tried to stop him. I asked him to stop. Sometimes I didn’t.”

Soon, she was pregnant. The family treated her slightly better as she grew bigger. “They were hoping for a son this time,” she explained. Ezatullah Rafaat’s first wife had given birth to two daughters, one of whom had died as an infant, and she could no longer conceive. Azita Rafaat delivered two daughters, double the disappointment.

Mrs. Rafaat faced constant pressure to try again, and she did, through two more pregnancies, when she had two more daughters Mehrangis, now 9, and finally Mehran, the 6 year old.

Asked if she ever considered leaving her husband, she reacted with complete surprise.

“I thought of dying,” she said. “But I never thought of divorce. If I had separated from my husband, I would have lost my children, and they would have had no rights. I am not one to quit.”

Today, she is in a position of power, at least on paper. She is one of 68 women in Afghanistan’s 249 member Parliament, representing Badghis Province. Her husband is unemployed and spends most of his time at home. “He is my house husband,” she joked.

By persuading him to move away from her mother in law and by offering to contribute to the family income, she laid the groundwork for her political life. Three years into their marriage, after the fall of the Taliban in 2002, she began volunteering as a health worker for various nongovernmental organizations. Today she makes $2,000 a month as a member of Parliament.

As a politician, she works to improve women’s rights and the rule of law. She ran for re election on Sept. 18, and, based on a preliminary vote count, is optimistic about securing another term. But she could run only with her husband’s explicit permission, and the second time around, he was not easily persuaded.

He wanted to try again for a son. It would be difficult to combine pregnancy and another child with her work, she said and she knew she might have another girl in any case.

But the pressure to have a son extended beyond her husband. It was the only subject her constituents could talk about when they came to the house, she said.
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