I’m really nervous about this post. It’s hella long, but I also always feel like I say things terribly and stick my foot in it with topics like this. I tried really, really hard not to… but the anxiety is there because the last thing – THE LAST THING – I want to do is offend the entire planet, or even a few people on the planet.
So… deep breath.
Here it goes.
I am about halfway into writing An Elegy for Hope. I’m past that weird starting-out portion where I am trying to find my legs. I’m in the middle chunk where everything is getting into place and I can see the clear trajectory of the story. It feels good. No, it feels great.
And I guess, because of that, I’ve decided to do a deep dive about a world-building element that is not in Seraphina’s Lament, but will play a big (huge) role in An Elegy for Hope.
I want to talk to you a bit about the bacha posh.
The first time I encountered the term “bacha posh” was when I randomly picked up this book from the library a few years ago. The author, one Jenny Nordberg, is an investigative journalist. She was in Afghanistan during, and after the war started over there. In her effort to see how the lives of women were changing, she stumbled upon, what she called, was a “third type of child.” Nordberg was, in fact, one of the first western journalists to document this rather secretive social tradition.
Let me elaborate.
Afghanistan is a very patriarchal society, and often a daughter is seen as a burden, and the birth of a son is seen as beneficial. For a family who has only had girls, not having a son does not only heaps upon them a negative social impact – often the birth of girls reflects poorly on the parents. There is gossip, and families with only daughters can even miss out on opportunities due to not having a son. But also there are problems. Women cannot leave the house alone, for example. They cannot do certain chores. They can’t work or bring in an income.
Bacha posh (literally translated as “dressed up as a boy”) is a workaround for those families. This usually happens when the girls are still small children, and they often transition back to being girls when they hit puberty. The transition back to being a girl, is, as you can imagine, difficult for many of these children.
Furthermore, some people believe that raising a daughter as “bacha posh” will increase their luck in having a son later.
One family, interviewed in this CNN article, discusses why they raised their third daughter bacha posh:
After having two girls, Mangal’s parents longed for a son. “We made her like a son to help her father,” said mother Amena. (from the linked article)
Often, children are raised bacha posh in families that have more daughters, and fewer sons, which implies that this is a very contextual cultural practice in Afghanistan. Raising a girl as a boy allows them to partake in income-generating activities, education, and more free mobility than girls can experience.
But, as you can imagine, there are risks. as I show from this quoted bit of a National Geographic article where the parents of two bacha posh teens discuss some of the difficulties their children are facing:
But as they get older and puberty reveals their biological gender, life becomes more difficult—and dangerous. The family has moved the family multiple times to avoid the harassment. On the street, people yell that they’re anti-Islamic and call them transsexual. Their father drives Ali to school so she gets there safely, and Setar stopped going “because she got fed up with being called names,” says d’Aki.
Both parents now want them to start dressing and behaving like girls, but neither Ali nor Setar want to. “It’s really hard to be a woman in Afghanistan, and you don’t have a lot of options. Even in these cases you haven’t decided this for yourself, someone else has decided for you,” says d’Aki. “These girls have had a little bit of freedom and then all of a sudden they have to go back to being women in a country where women have no possibilities.”
Also, from the same article, are some of the gender identity issues these kids may grapple with:
Now Setar is a 16-year-old who plays football and has a girlfriend who doesn’t care about gender. Her sister Ali, 14, has a box of love letters written by female admirers. At home, neither get up to help when their sisters and mother make meals and tea.
While this might sound like a recipe for gender dysphoria, Psychology Today says that:
Reading this description [of gender dysphoria], it seems the bacha posh tradition could very easily induce a secondary gender dysphoria of sorts. But the gender dysphoria resulting from the bacha posh tradition hints at a larger problem. The vast gender gap in Afghanistan and other countries could cause many women or girls to desire to be treated as a member of the opposite gender. Why be a girl when you could be so much more as a boy? Again, the effects this practice has on young Afghan women can only be surmised from the collection of anecdotes from bacha poshs but it does seem that many reflect on their time as a boy wistfully and lament being returned to the female gender.
The article continues on to say that sometimes the experiences of being a boy, often has a positive impact of making the women more assertive, more independent, and better educated, and sites the fact that several high ranking, famous Afghan women were actually raised bacha posh, and perhaps some of their assertiveness and success can be accredited to their time as a boy. Furthermore, it says, that often the issues surrounding bacha posh life point, rather than at the issue of gender dysphoria, the bigger issue of gender inequality in these societies and how it dramatically impacts individuals and family groups.
In The Underground Girls of Kabul, Nordberg goes into a lot more detail, discussing some of the psychological impacts, not just of being raised a boy and then suddenly being confined to the life of a girl again, but in identifying as either male or female, in a very black and white patriarchal society. Furthermore, imagine how it must feel for Setar, mentioned above, to exist in a world where a person who “doesn’t care about gender” can be killed for the crime of not caring about gender, or for being biologically female, and having a girlfriend.
And at this point, I can almost hear you thinking, “Cool, but what the hell does this have to do with your writing?”
An Elegy for Hope has an expanded world from Seraphina’s Lament, and part of developing this other land, has been researching social and cultural practices to color this world. I’ve always been really interested in the bacha posh system. I find it both fascinating to see how people work around dramatic gender inequalities like those faced in Afghanistan, but also how those systems can psychologically impact the individuals involved.
While Psychology Today might be correct regarding gender dysphoria in a broad sense, Nordberg, in her book, interviewed a group of individuals who had been raised bacha posh, and then, for one reason or another, just couldn’t identify as female, when they were supposed to, and/or refused to fulfill the obligations required of them as female. Some of them ran away from home, some of them were cast out of their families. They banded together and lived in a suburb in Kabul. And there has to be more out there, who live the lives expected of them, but never feel comfortable in them (and you can find a lot of interviews with individuals that fit in this category online, and in books, like Nordberg’s).
Now, to mix into this I should say that there is a long and illustrious tradition of women in Afghanistan serving as royal guards and things of that nature, so it is guessed that, while the practice of bacha posh has never been written down until recently, that perhaps the system has roots in Afghanistan’s distant history.
So, put all that together, I’ve got a point of view character (named Amara) who was raised bacha posh. Writing him (the fact that I’m using the “him” pronoun in the context of this long blog post should give you some clues) has been one of the most challenging, enlightening experiences in my writing life. I’ve got a bevy of nonbinary and gender fluid sensitivity readers helping me write this particular character and his experiences, and I will candidly say that speaking to them has been extremely illuminating.
I did end up placing my point of view character in a rather “high” role as a palace guard (see the small paragraph about palace guards above), so this individual is given more liberties than most (necessary for the plot) would find in Afghanistan, for example. Including grudging acceptance as being male-identifying, though always on kept on the “fringes” of the social structure due to that. That being said, there are moments where Amara is misgendered, or just doesn’t fit (as one of my sensitivity readers said to me, “There are times when I just don’t exist. I’m in a room with really womanly women and manly men, and I just do not exist.)
I specifically decided to refer to this character as “him” rather than “they,” which would honestly probably fit best. There are a few reasons for this. Mostly, this is due to a tweet I saw online, as odd as that sounds. I wish I could link to it, but I can’t find it anymore. Anyway, when I was noodling Amara’s creation, I saw a tweet where someone said something along the lines of (summarized, not a direct quote), “I wish English speakers would realize that not all languages have a gender-neutral pronoun available to use, so it’s either he or she. There’s no “they” alternative. That doesn’t mean I’m any less nonbinary.” And I thought, “God that would make this entire situation so much harder, so I should probably do it.” (That’s how I roll. Also, I never really realized what a luxury “they” could be until I thought about how hard it would be to be nonbinary, and not really have a word that fits you. That’s got to be a discomfort.) Also, the Red Desert is a very black and white place, and having a “they” in a world like that just doesn’t fit.
Writing Amara has required a ton of research, not just into this social tradition in Afghanistan, but it’s also involved a lot of asking people who are willing to be open about personal things, like gender dysphoria, and life as a nonbinary identifying human. And, the personal insights into this character, when they read his POV chapters, has been beyond insightful.
I will also take this time to toot the horn of sensitivity readers. Use them. Love them. You can do a ton of reading on a topic, but there are things you will never, ever know unless you speak to someone who lives it, lived it, and understands it intimately. I’ve got five sensitivity readers for this character. If this character ends up coming across as real, then it’s not because of my research, but because of my sensitivity readers who have helped educate me, and pointed out places where Amara’s experiences would be different than I imagined them to be.
I’ve learned so much (SO. MUCH.) from my sensitivity readers.
Aaannnd… wow this is long. I guess I’ll cut it here.
Awesome. These posts are great. You worry in them that you’re going on too long, but it never feels like that. This is really interesting stuff that draws you in and holds you. Thanks for posting.
Fascinating stuff! Post-puberty bacha posh difficulties, gender dysphoria, the general need most teens have to fit in SOMEwhere, the disquieting feeling that you just don’t exist if you insist on being yourself… I can see what attracted you to do so much research and present a character different from the common crowd. Thank you for this.