Dressing girls as boys, as in the case “bacha posh” — a cross-dressing cultural practice in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan — may not be a catalyst for women empowerment.
This was the general consensus at a discussion on Wednesday at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) office in Islamabad. The discussion followed the screening of the 2001 Iranian film Baran.
Set on the outskirts of Tehran, the film explores the Afghan cross dressing cultural practice through Baran, who is the daughter of an Afghan refugee family. Because of an injury to her father, Baran has to dress up as a boy and take his place at work.
During the discussion, Rabbia Aslam, a teacher and researcher at the Quaid-i-Azam University’s (QAU) Centre of Excellence for Gender Studies, said gender is a socio-cultural construction and in Pakistan there are set standards of femininity and masculinity.
Gender is something society constructs and humans constantly perform it through gestures and action, said Andrea Fleschenberg citing philosopher Judith Butler.
Fleschenberg, a long-time guest professor at QAU, explained that the bacha posh practice enables some girls, who are otherwise not allowed outside, to work and study. The custom is mostly practiced by families without sons. She said it is not a deceptive practice, which means communities know the true identities of such girls.
But Fleschenberg said it is problematic to equate this so-called freedom with women empowerment because girls are subjected to dress as boys by their parents. The cross-dressing girls also have to change back to being normal girls at some point in their lives, sometimes after years of living as boys, she said.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 6th, 2012.