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.
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."
"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."
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