To Western eyes, the contradiction is mind-boggling.
In Afghanistan, a society in which women's lives were so constricted under the Taliban that they couldn't even walk unescorted down the street, some young girls enjoyed unprecedented freedom by posing as boys.
The tradition of bacha posh exists to this day. These girls wear male clothes, adopt boys' names, roughhouse with boys and enjoy privileges accorded to boys. What's more, they do it at the behest of their families and with the tacit consent of the entire community — at least until they reach puberty, when they're expected to change back.
That gender-bending, cross-dressing tradition is at the heart of "The Pearl That Broke Its Shell," the debut novel by Nadia Hashimi, an Afghan-American, pediatrician, Maryland resident and mother of three.
"Basically every Afghan knows of a bacha posh, either within the family or within the community," Hashimi, 37, says over the phone from her home in Potomac. "Mobility-wise, a young boy has different access to the world than a young girl has. He can work outside the home."
The book weaves together two stories separated by 100 years. One plot, set in the early 20th century, tells the story of Shekiba, who becomes a pariah after suffering a disfiguring accident as a young girl. Shekiba toils as a servant until she is presented to the king, who uses women dressed as men to guard his harem.
The second story takes place in 2007, when the Taliban no longer were in power but still exerted enormous influence over the lives of women. It follows Shekiba's great-great-granddaughter, Rahima, who becomes a bacha posh so she can barter at market, attend school and perform other activities that keep her nearly all-female family afloat. But Rahima's days of freedom are numbered when the brutal warlord who runs the village takes a shine to the 13-year-old.
Hashimi will discuss bacha posh and other Afghan customs when she appears Wednesday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. An edited conversation with the author appears below.
Where does the title come from?
The title was my agent's moment of genius. It's a line from a poem by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi: "Seawater begs the pearl to break its shell." I thought it was a perfect fit for a story about a girl breaking out of her shell and constraints and realizing the pearl that she is.
You were born in the U.S. and have only visited Afghanistan once. Did you do much research for this novel?
As an Afghan girl living in the United States, my experience has been very different from a lot of girls my age who grew up in Afghanistan. I wanted to talk about what gender means today in Afghanistan and what it has meant in the last 100 years, so I decided to write a dual storyline.
My husband's family has two women who dressed as boys when they were younger. I talked to them for the contemporary sections. I also have extended-family members who still live in Afghanistan, and I did a lot of reading.
For the historical parts, I dug up black-and-white photographs and other texts. An anthropologist named Louis Dupree has done a lot of work in Afghanistan. He and his wife have a research center in Kabul that's put together a lot of information on Afghan history and the regime changes.
What's so striking about the bacha posh custom is the way that Afghan society silently and collectively turns a blind eye to behavior it couldn't otherwise condone.
The biggest reason that bacha posh is done today is that people believe it will bring good luck to the family and that they will actually have a son.
By being such a patriarchal society, Afghanistan has created this problem where families who don't have a son are thought of as lacking and are pitied. We've created this problem as a society, so then the society goes along and devises a solution for it.
People go along with the charade because they can understand so clearly why a family would want to do that to one of their daughters. I think that the bacha posh custom is probably going to die out as women take on a different role in society and it becomes less needed. But that will take a while.
What came first: being a physician or being a novelist?
I grew up loving stories. I wanted to write books and to read them from the time I was very young.
Then, as I went through high school, it became pretty clear to me that I had an affinity for the sciences and that I enjoyed working with people. When I was in college, I volunteered at a camp for families that had someone suffering from HIV. It was an amazing experience.
I really adore being around children. They're so resilient, and they can make you laugh even when they're as ill as can be. I naturally fell first into medicine, and then into pediatrics.
After we moved to Maryland, my husband said, "You really have a passion for writing and for books. Why not try it?" I was pregnant with my daughter, who is 3 years old now, and I cut my hours back a little bit and began writing. I'm really glad I did, because it's been such a fun ride.
You're an untested author who has just written your first novel, and you promptly land a book contract with a major publisher. You make it sound easy.
I went online and Googled it and found out what the publishing process was. I sent queries to a bunch of agents and got interest from one based in Toronto. She loved the novel and decided to take it to a publisher she knew.
I'm definitely aware of how relatively easy this whole process has been for me, and how fortunate I am that I found the right people to get me in the right place.
What's the situation for women in Afghanistan today?
There's been a huge amount of progress since the Taliban fell from power. We're seeing a lot more girls attending schools and earning professional degrees and becoming physicians or being involved in the government. We actually had women in the last election who were running for vice president.
But there's definitely still a long way to go before we can say that women in Afghanistan have equal footing with men.
About the book
"The Pearl That Broke Its Shell: A Novel" was released by William Morrow and Company. 464 pages, $25.99.
If you go
Author Nadia Hashimi will read from "The Pearl That Broke Its Shell" at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. Free. Call 410-396-5430 or go to prattlibrary.org.