For as long as she can remember Rafiqa Sayed has been dressed like a boy by her parents, she even went to a boy's school in Peshawar. She had grown to like being a boy, but last week when she turned 10, Rafiqa suddenly had to be a girl.
She is among many young girls known as bacha posh (girl in boy's clothes) whom parents dress up as boys just so they can move about more freely and go to school in the conservative culture of this arid and rugged border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"I used to get angry when people would call me a girl," the 10-year-old Rafiqa told a visitor, "I would start beating and fighting them."
Bacha posh wear boy's clothing and enjoy all the freedom that boys have in society and girls don't: from going to a boy's school to playing sports. Like any Pakistani boy, Rafiqa still speaks loudly and makes direct eye contact when she talks. She says she enjoys the freedoms she was granted as a boy.
Under Pashtun culture, sons are valued more than daughters and only sons can inherit their father's wealth and pass down the family name. While some families disguise their daughters as boys so that they can easily work on the streets, Rafiqa's father Rahman had other reasons.
With nine daughters, he also badly wanted to have a boy. "Some people dress up their daughters as boys because of poverty, but I dress my daughters as boys because I don't have a son. I think of her as my son and that makes me happy," he says.
But after six years of being a boy in disguise, Rafiqa is dressing like a girl again because her father is worried he will have a difficult time getting her married. So now it's Rafiqa's 4-year-old sister Nasreen's turn to be a boy.
"I enjoy wearing a boy's outfit and sitting with male guests at home," says Nasreen. "My mother tells me that I will have a brother soon if I dress up like a boy."
The bacha posh tradition has existed in Pakistan for centuries. It is believed to have started when Pakistan had to fight their invaders and women needed to be disguised as men so they could also fight, or so they could be protected.
But for many the key question is: will there be a day when Pakistani girls get as much freedom and respect as boys? Taj-ud-Din, an expert on Pashtun history and culture is critical of the tradition.
"We're showing that we're far behind the civilised world where men and women should have equal rights and treated equally," he says, "the practice also has negative psychological impact on young girls."
Rafiqa is having her own adjustment problems being a girl again and misses her freedom. After being a boy for so long, the feeling of being somehow inferior is now ingrained in her mind.
Say Taj-ud-Din: "It's like showing them that men are more superior to women, and it's the parents who are making the lives of these girls miserable."
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