Last week Jenny Nordberg published a fascinating piece on the Afghan practice of Bacha Posh. Much of Afghanistan’s civil culture is close to full-blown gender apartheid. This creates serious trouble for families that have no sons. Their daughters can’t attend schools, don’t have access to most jobs, can’t leave the house without a male escort, and so are unavoidably unproductive in the family.
To deal with this problem there’s a practice called Bacha Posh, by which families can effectively re-assign the gender of one of their daughters. They can decide, one day, to start dressing up a daughter as a boy, and then everyone treats her as a boy. They can send her to boy’s schools, she can escort her sisters outside the home, and so on.
It seems clear that Bacha Posh doesn’t mitigate or undermine the incredible sexism of Afghanistan’s civil culture. In fact, Bacha Posh almost certainly supports it. Without it, the system might be unsustainable because of the unbearable burden the sexist culture places on sonless families.
Civil society in the West is much less overtly gender-coded than Afghan civil society. But it occurs to me that Bacha Posh provides a great illustration of the kind of problem feminist political philosophers like Carole Pateman are getting at in their critiques of the gender-coded distinction between the family sphere (the historical place of women) and the civil sphere (the historical place of men).
Pateman has argued (in, for example, “The Fraternal Social Contract”) that granting women access to the civil sphere isn’t nearly enough to address the problem of male domination in Western culture. This is because the public sphere is itself patriarchal, built on an historically masculine ideal of dispassionate reason. In order to thrive within civil society, women must adapt themselves to this masculine ideal– women must put on the trappings of the Man of Reason. But this doesn’t mitigate the patriarchal nature of the civil sphere, any more than Bacha Posh mitigates Afghan gender apartheid.
Unity and Diversity in Feminist Legal Theory
By Margaret Davies (July 2007)