the difference between men and women in just one word: freedom
September 9, 2014 7:02 AM   Subscribe

posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:34 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Reading these articles, I think this would be a great thing for someone who doesn't have a strong female gender identity - but then the kicker is giving up the freedom at puberty.
posted by jb at 8:30 AM on September 9, 2014

The closing paragraphs of the Atlantic article comprise an incredibly succinct explanation of why I've never once been able to fully extricate the idea of gender from the set of practices that enable and encourage the subjugation of women based on that identification alone. Really good stuff, thank you for the links.
The Afghan women I have met, some of whom have little education but a lifetime of experience of being counted as less than a full human being, have a distinct view of what exactly freedom is. To them, freedom would be to avoid an unwanted marriage and to be able to leave the house. It would be to have some control over one's own body and to have a choice of when and how to become pregnant. Or to study and have a profession.

Given this, who would not walk out the door in disguise—if the alternative was to live as a prisoner or slave? Who would really care about long hair or short, pants or skirt, feminine or masculine, if renouncing one's gender gave one access to the world? A great many people in this world would be willing to throw out their gender in a second if it could be traded for freedom.

The real story of Mehran, Shubnum, Niima, and other women who live as men in Afghanistan is not so much about how they break gender norms or what they have become by doing that. Rather, it is about this: Between gender and freedom, freedom is the bigger and more important idea—in Afghanistan as well as globally. Defining one's gender becomes a concern only after freedom is achieved. Then a person can begin to fill the word "freedom" with new meaning.
And I'm going to print out this excerpt from the 2010 NYT link so I can hand it to people when they give me shit about being 'gender non-conforming,' which just means 'inadequately stereotypically feminine':
Zahra, who plans on becoming a journalist, and possibly a politician after that, offered her own reasons for not wanting to be an Afghan woman. They are looked down upon and harassed, she said.

"People use bad words for girls," she said. "They scream at them on the streets. When I see that, I don't want to be a girl. When I am a boy, they don't speak to me like that."
At least until you're old enough that people can peg you as a woman even when you're wearing "man" clothes, yeah, exactly. To wit: Lacy M. Johnson's I Don't Want to Be a Girl.

What would freedom look or feel like for women? How would we experience life in conditions that were decidedly less akin to being openly enslaved and warred upon? Unshackled from the myriad constraints that are placed on us, the aggressions that are implicitly and explicitly rained down on us simply because we were born as women -- what would we even imagine "womanhood" to be? There's no way for us to find out how we would map or observe the nuances of our identities under conditions of peace or safety because those conditions, as far as women are concerned, do not exist.
posted by divined by radio at 9:06 AM on September 9, 2014 [14 favorites]

Fascinating articles, and they do a good job of explaining why a family would want to do this. I'd be really interested, though, in knowing "what the neighbours think"; what's the rationale that people use to accept this practise in an otherwise strictly segregated society?
"I am very happy," he said. "When people now ask me, I say yes and they see that I have a son. So people are quiet, and I am quiet."
Why do people stay quiet when they're otherwise perfectly willing to beat people up for violating gender norms?
posted by clawsoon at 9:09 AM on September 9, 2014

divined by radio: but note that, despite all the freedom she was given, one of the girls (Shubnum) resented having to dress as a boy, and was happy when her family stopped the (not very convincing) disguise. Clearly, she was unhappy. It reminds me that some people are born with a strong sense of their own gender (as I was not). Whereas other girls and women embraced being perceived as male, and were upset to end their time as boys/men (as I would be).
posted by jb at 10:30 AM on September 9, 2014

How interesting that this practice seems to be a secret that everyone knows about and sort of turns a blind eye to ("Oh yes, your son, nice to meet him, wink wink...") and yet the social stigma against women still remains. Sort of a bizarre Clark Kent/Superman thing, oh you're a woman, well we have to treat you like shit, but put on a man's clothes and change your name from Josephine to Joe, and suddenly we're cool. Why not just, y'know, stop treating women like shit?
posted by xedrik at 11:50 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

What a great article.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:32 AM on September 10, 2014

What would freedom look or feel like for women? How would we experience life in conditions that were decidedly less akin to being openly enslaved and warred upon?

Someone asked me yesterday what freedom would be to me. I essentially said it would be that I could be myself without fearing that someone will be out to get/hurt me for doing so.

Yeah, that'll never happen.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:02 AM on September 10, 2014

"The streets of Afghanistan are full of working children. They polish shoes, they beg, they gather plastic bottles to resell. They will take on any job which will earn them some money, he says." This gives rise to Bacha Posh and equally to the obverse of the practice, Bacha Bazi, 'playing with boys'. One is a move towards freedom for girls and the other a move towards slavery for boys. You could make some aphorism about sex in the presence of warlords tending towards slavery for the less powerful gender - gender being a bit fluid even when roles are strictly enforced.

A while back (70's?) I read about a British woman who established a business importing goods from Afghanistan and she had sought out her suppliers by travelling around the country solo. She hadn't exactly disguised herself but had dressed masculine and people had taken her at face value - interesting to learn there's a cultural precedent that had perhaps smoothed her way.
posted by glasseyes at 10:06 AM on September 11, 2014

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