Saturday, October 2, 2010

Dressing the part

"Do you want to look like a boy and dress like a boy, and do more fun things like boys do, like bicycling, soccer and cricket?"

Interesting proposition, right? Even as an American woman, able to dress as I please, act as I please, and do fun things like ride a bicycle and play soccer, I can see the appeal in becoming a boy. There are so many more privileges and opportunities as a male in the United States. Nevertheless, I enjoy being a woman and wouldn't change a thing about myself. But I wonder, if I were a child asked this question would I still feel the same way?

Growing up, I was afforded the same privileges and opportunities as my older brother. In fact, I feel bad for him. He was always outnumbered by my two sisters, my mother, my grandmother, and I. Although my dad could side with him, majority ruled and for the most part he lost every battle there was to be fought, including what we watched on television, what we listened to during car rides, and where we went for family vacations. So, maybe my answer would still be no.

While this question may seem a little ridiculous, believe it out not, it is a serious question often asked to young Afghan girls. In a recent NY Times article, Jenny Nordberg shed some light on the "phenomenon" of Afghan girls masquerading as boys. Families, even those with sons, take their youngest daughters, cut their hair, and dress them as typical Afghan boys. As boys these girls are afforded easier access to education, the ability to work outside the home, and the freedom to roam about the city.

It may seem obvious why families would want their daughters to "cross-dress." In a country where sons are more highly valued, especially since only sons can pass down the family name, families have offered various reasons for pretending their daughters are sons, including social pressure to have a boy, economic necessity, and the superstition that doing so can lead to the birth of a real boy. However, what is less obvious and what may seem shocking to a Western, like myself, is that pretending to be a boy may be a means of working to improve women's rights and the rule of law.

Women seeking change have learned "to play the game." Since even made-up sons can increase the family's standing, alleviate pressure from in-laws, appease husbands, and satisfy constituents, female politicians have resorted to dressing their daughters to look like sons. As Mrs. Rafaat, one of the 68 women in Afghanistan's 249-member Parliament, described:
In an effort to preserve her job and placate her husband, as well as fend off the threat of [her husband] getting a third wife, she proposed to her husband that they make their youngest daughter look like a son.
Overall this plan doesn't seem too bad. Everyone, even the young girls themselves, recognize that pretending to be a boy offers more benefits than acknowledging that they are girls.

Still, I can't help but feel sad for these girls. I recognize that sometimes we have to take what we can get, in this case, freedom until the age of 15. I also recognize that we have to pick and choose our battles, in this case, to improve women's rights women must first mitigate social pressures. But what happens to the young girl who has to become a woman again? Not only socially, but physically, emotionally, and psychologically?

These woman have to re-learn life and their experiences. They have to recognize a new social order and a new body, one which is only necessary to recognize after it has become fully developed and ready for procreation purposes. They must come to terms with the fact there is nothing inherently different in them that would even come close to suggesting that because they are female they are inferior.

Nevertheless, is it better to have lived and lost than to have never lived at all? Mrs. Rafaat claims her experience as a boy made her stronger and lead her to pursue a position in Parliament. However, the harsh return to womanhood has left others more regretful. Even women who can claim it was the best time of their lives, wish it didn't happen. As Mrs. Siddiqui, a women who claims to be lucky in finding a good husband, describes, "It would have been better to grow up as a girl, since I had to become a woman in the end."


Rebecca said...

Very interesting post. I did not grow up masquerading as a boy, but I did grow up with lots of brothers. I was a tomboy. I learned to skip rocks, climb trees, whistle loudly and even smoke a cigar. I wasn’t trying to be one of the boys; I just hated it when they told me I could not do things BECAUSE I WAS A GIRL.

So I learned to do all the boy kinds of things, most of the time before my brothers did. It was fun. My nickname as a kid was Scout-like the young narrator and Atticus Finch’s daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Being comfortable doing the things that boys did has had a positive impact on how at ease I feel with issues of power. I would safely say that it has allowed me the advantage of never feeling inferior to a man nor intimidated by one.

gtg263r said...

I read that NYT article as well.

At the risk of sounding culturally ignorant, it seems to me that regions that would place more value on male children than female children (e.g., China, Afghanistan) are probably more oriented around smaller towns and villages where patriarchal hierarchies are in place, physical labor is the norm, and sustenance is a function of labor-able children.

I would guess that more developed, industrialized, and urban areas (e.g., most of the Western world) do not have any sort bias towards preferring male or female children. This is not to say there is a parity between men's and women's positions in society, but I think that viewing this issue through the prism of economic life may provide an interesting backdrop for considering this cultural bias.

For example, in 2009 for the first time ever, more women than men earned PhD's in the United States. (See As Western society becomes more information-based, it seems unsurprising to me that both women and men would be valued for information-based occupations, given that, generally speaking, there is no preconception as to a woman's ability to handle the rigors of academic study as compared to a man's ability.

In short, I think that the nature of economic work probably has some bearing on societal attitudes towards the "value" of male and female children.

N.P. said...

This article strikes me as even more interesting if you consider how women's rights has evolved in the United States. As seen in many of the early cases, women were depicted as being the same as men. Women would look like men, act like men, and hope that they could be treated like men. Perhaps in this same way, these little girls dressing up as men is a foundational way for them to gain equality with men. This concept might be a bit of a stretch, but the idea is the same while the execution is different.

Moreover, especially in countries like India, China, and Pakistan, where women are seen to be inferior at the time of birth, pretending to be or acting like a boy may diffuse those stereotypes. While differences are not acknowledged in this context, so too were differences masked in the early movement for equal rights in the United States.