By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Member, Wallace E. Boston School of Business
Recently, CNN published a story called “Tradition of Afghan girls who live as boys may be threatened.” In this article, reporter Lisa Davis described an Afghan practice called “bacha posh,” where girls live as boys for the purposes of access to education, jobs and other social benefits. However, this facet of Afghanistan’s society may be endangered by the recent withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country and the ascension of the Taliban to power as the ruling regime.
To provide the necessary context, the Taliban is a Muslim fundamentalist/extremist coalition in Afghanistan that promotes the caliphate and orthodox interpretations of the Qu’ran. Insofar as it is relevant to the subject at hand, the Taliban views women as property and second-class citizens.
Under traditional Taliban views, women are not permitted to go to school or work. Also, they may not even be seen out in public without both a full burka (the Muslim garment which conceals the female body from head to toe) and the presence of a male companion.
The US Encouraged Afghanistan to Build a Modern Government, But Eventually Withdrew Its Military Forces
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, United States military forces invaded Afghanistan and occupied the country for 20 years. America worked hard to try to suppress extremism and build a modern, civilized government capable of standing on its own in maintaining law and order and promoting civil rights for all people in Afghanistan.
However, after nearly two decades of occupation, it became clear that this nation-building mission simply could not be achieved. As a result, the United States began a rapid withdrawal of all of its forces this summer. This withdrawal created a power vacuum within Afghanistan that was immediately filled by the Taliban, which had rebelled against U.S. forces from the country’s rural and mountainous regions during the occupation.
The Taliban Promised to Protect Women’s Rights, but These Promises Are Hard for Many to Believe
To be fair, the Taliban’s current leaders have made public promises to protect women’s rights “within the limits of Islam.” However, experts and the Afghan people themselves have little to no faith that these promises will mean any material departure from the draconian policies of the Taliban’s regime prior to the U.S. occupation.
Bacha Posh and the Future of Females in Afghanistan
Women have historically lived under oppressive social rules in Afghanistan. Failure to comply with these rules has been met with severe penalties that include public beatings and even executions.
To avoid harsh consequences, young females in Afghanistan who wish to attend school or get a job – or simply go outside without an escort – sometimes change their appearance to look like boys in a practice known as “bacha posh.” This behavior predates the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and is a survival strategy commonly used by families trying to either give their daughters a better life or simply survive financially. When the daughter enters puberty, she is then expected to revert back to a female with all of the social limitations that involves.
Under U.S. control, it was obviously much safer for women to speak out, stand up for themselves and pursue activities that furthered their own interests. But many families still continued the practice of bacha posh during the U.S. occupation for fear of reprisal from the ever-present Taliban and its loyalists in Afghan society. Others were emboldened to brazenly exercise their civil rights without male protection.
However, now that the Taliban has returned to power, the women who unabashedly attended school and entered the working world over the last two decades are now having to make difficult choices about their futures. Given the surprising speed that the Taliban seized control of Afghan society after the U.S. evacuation, it is likely that Taliban officials and militants will severely crack down on any women who do not conform with their standards for proper conduct.
Could affected women simply return to the practice of bacha posh in order to continue their activities incognito? Possibly, but this practice may prove too dangerous.
Bacha posh has a long history but it is in no way recognized or accepted by the Taliban, and any women caught impersonating men in public risk severe punishments. So a large portion of girls in Afghanistan may be forced to discontinue their bacha posh activities altogether for fear of physical harm if they persist.
Afghan Women and Mental Health
The situation in Afghanistan – past, present, and future – obviously creates an environment that could involve psychological health ailments for Afghan females, including stress, anxiety, and dissociative identity disorders to the extent that such conditions can be impacted by environmental conditions or epigenetics.
We can speculate about what forced practices like bacha posh might mean for healthy mental development and expression. A society that imposes oppressive circumstances that compel women to endlessly conceal themselves and hide behind the guise of a gender that does not reflect their true identity is not likely to produce women with good psychological health over the long term.
It’s possible that the women who grow up in such a restrictive society will be as psychologically stunted as the men of the extremist Taliban regime who force these social policies upon them. We, the people of the world looking on, must have the courage to condemn barbarism when we see it. Remember: The only thing necessary for evil to triumph, is that good people do nothing.