Afghani author and warrior Ukmina Manoori tells their unique story in I am a Bacha Posh: My Life as a Woman Living as a Man in Afghanistan. When they were a child, Manoori’s parents decided they needed another son. But whether due to genetics or medical situations, this didn’t happen. So, they followed an Afghan custom and designated one of their young daughters, Ukmina, to be a boy. This is the story of Ukmina’s life.
As the book progresses, Manoori uses both male and female pronouns, so I’ll use the broader they and their pronouns. I couldn’t honestly determine which pronoun Manoori prefers, and they never state it outright.
Manoori loves being male, mostly because it gives them access to things a female wouldn’t have. The primary reason why families designate daughters as Bacha Posh is because they need the extra money. It simply comes down to that. If they farm, they need more hands. Or they need a boy to go into the nearest town and work in a tea shop, because farming isn’t always profitable. Even the pittance wages a child makes are vital for these families.
And when puberty strikes, the Bacha Posh child reverts back to living as a girl. But Manoori refused to live as a girl. They kept being a boy, even persuading their father to send them to school for a short while. They preferred the rights and privileges that males have in a closed society such as Afghanistan.
The times were rocky—Manoori came of age as the Russians invaded Afghanistan. So, they worked for the resistance, using their position as a shepherd to act as a scout for Afghan fighters. Then the Taliban came, and things got even more dicey for a woman living as a man. They hid for some time, but also found ways to be accepted as the American forces started to dominate.
This book is just 176 pages long. I listened as a 4-hour audiobook. So, if I say much more, you’ll know the whole story. Suffice it to say, Manoori’s story is fascinating. I had no idea this tradition existed. And if not for this book, I still wouldn’t.
As Manoori tries to get some education, I thought a lot about Malala Yousafzai. Malala is considerably more famous, plus she is literate. Manoori never achieves either, but in my view tells an important story. Also, they are from completely different generations. Manoori doesn’t know their exact birth date, but it’s closer to 1970. Malala is much younger, essentially growing up under the Taliban.
As I read, I also compared this book with memoirs and novels about the trans experience set here in the U.S. Part of what intrigued me was the similarities of being trans and Manoori’s refusal to return to the female life. While the experiences aren’t exactly aligned, plenty of parallels exist between each.
Manoori hammers home the oppression that women of all ages experience in a culture like Afghanistan. I read about it a few years ago in Khaled Hosseini’s excellent book, A Thousand Splendid Suns. And, of course I then thought about those all-too-plausible fictional women as I listened to Manoori’s story.
If you’re looking for a thought-provoking, short, and culturally singular memoir, please give this little book a try. It’s in the Audible Plus catalog, and I also found it on Hoopla, which is connected to my local library. You won’t be disappointed!