The Girl Named Osama

by Joshua Foust on 9/23/2010 · 8 comments

A number of years ago, I saw this movie. I thought it was really well done, if a bit sentimental.

I need to revise that opinion. This week in The New York Times runs an amazing story about girls whose families dress them as boys to survive and cope:

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.

Beyond the details of how these girls “pass” as boys, and in particular the disturbing accounts of how they try to cope with reintegrating themselves as girls who must learn submission and purdah for the husbands their parents found them, was a small, very fascinating detail.

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.

She, along with her husband Louis, have literally written the books on how to understand Afghanistan. That Ms. Dupree has never heard of it is, frankly, surprising, though I believe she spent most of the Taliban era in Peshawar, and not Kabul. She never studied culture or society per se, but I find that ignorance really surprising. Not that I knew any better (let’s be real), but I’ve also not lived there since the 1950s.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Ian September 23, 2010 at 10:41 am

It brings to mind the “third gender” or “honorary man” status that a lot of Western women adopt or have bestowed on them when they visit very conservative Muslim societies. Cf. Sarah Chayes. I’m brainstorming here, but maybe Nancy Dupree, because of her honorary male status, would never have had access to the poor rural woman’s world enough to observe this sort of thing.

fakhrunissa September 23, 2010 at 1:05 pm

I have discussed this article with several friends and nobody has ever heard of that. Journalists have started contacting me here in Paris.
I did have extensive access to poor rural women since the 1970s, I was never treated as a honorary male but as a Muslim woman and I never heard of this sort of thing. Perhaps it is because I mostly traveled in Pashtun areas in the South.

Shannon September 23, 2010 at 1:57 pm

The NYT did a similar story in 2008 about women in Albania who become “sworn virgins” and live as men.

Anonymous September 23, 2010 at 4:31 pm

There are a couple of Iranian films, produced during the Khatami years, that depict young an Iranian or Afghani refugee woman posing as men based upon financial hardship. But I have no personal recollection of such, whatsover.

By comparison, I have seen many women pose as males here in the US, based purely upon an inner, personal awareness and social perceptions.

Caleb Kavon September 23, 2010 at 11:29 pm

Wow…I finally figured out why the Afghans smile with a strange knowing look at me everytime..I tell them “wow, that little boy looks like a girl” Another Question is …”why is that guy dressing like a girl and dancing in front of all those men?” Just another day in Afghanistan…lots going on, we do not know about..It might be a good idea to keep Lady Gaga out of this…

CostofWAr September 24, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Please don’t over do this. I think you are falling for some of the journalistic exaggerations that are quite frustrating.
Ms. Dupree’s reaction is spot on, and it shows the exaggeration of this whole situation. I am amazed that Josh would give an unknown nyt writer– for the life of me, i can’t find any background on JENNY NORDBERG– the benefit of doubt over Nancy Dupree. It beats me how Josh made that judgment and still went on to call the nyt article amazing.
There were many things about the nyt article that frustrated me. First, this is a piece of anthropological writing that was presented like breaking news on the frontpage. Now, you might say that nyt publishes such pieces often. but remember the context: every other story you read on afghanistan is how they are screwing up, how they are corrupt, how it is hopeless. to sandwich this in there:nobody will read it as anthroplogical, informative piece. but rather as afghans f-ing up again.
The reason I say this is anthropological writing is that that the article presents three reasons for why boys dress up as girls. The one reason that pertains to current events– the financial side of the argument, that if they dress up they can get jobs– is extremely exaggerated. I have lived in Afghanistan most of my life. I did not encounter that even once. This is a mostly fabricated narrative that people just run with and keep believing. I am not saying it doesn’t happen. It is extremely extremely rare.
The other two– the superstition that if a family dresses up their girl as a boy God will give them a boy, and that girls are more valued than boys– there is truth to both of these. But none is breaking news. This has been true about the afghan society for a long time– dare i say centuries. but when presented on the front page of the nyt, it makes it as if this is a new phenomenon. Just read some of the reader’s reactions to the article and you will see what I mean by this.
I have been meaning to write on this in my blog. But everything I had to say, I said it here 🙂 besides, there is another film/woman related issue that has caught my attention. I am finishing up an entry on that:

Caleb Kavon September 24, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Cost….Actually I do not think it is a big deal, I have never asked about this facet of Afghan culture, but I will sometime. The guys dancing as girls is pretty well known. There was a TV show on the Herat Channel that was just cancelled that was doing this. The little girls dressed as boys I have never seen, but I will ask sometime…and yes..and then we have our own rarities also…so it was just an interesting side note to our usual study of war and violence and terrorism and insurgency and COIN etc…Nothing wrong with the article…something to learn about…

Jenny Nordberg September 27, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Hi all,
Thank you for your interest in my NYT story on Afghan girls who dress as boys. I am happy to respond to inquiries about the article if you contact me at Thanks / Jenny Nordberg.

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