Mehran (right) with her sisters.
Jenny Nordberg wasn't looking for bacha posh - an Afghani term for girls who dress and live as boys - when she first stumbled upon the practice. She didn't even know such a thing existed when she first met Mehran Rafaat, a six-year-old girl from Kabul who lives as a boy, in 2009. What came next was a five-year investigation into this little known occurrence as Nordberg attempted to unravel what it means to be a girl, dressed as a boy, in a country where women suffer significant oppression every day.
MC: What is a bacha posh?
JN: It means "dressed up like a boy" in Dari [one of the country's official languages]. In Afghanistan, you can have a son, a daughter, or you can have a bacha posh ... a third kind of child. It's a made-up son. What it means in a very practical sense is that you have a daughter and instead of her having long hair and a skirt and a headscarf, you cut off her hair, you put her in a pair of pants.
MC: Why would some parents choose to raise their daughter as a bacha posh?
JN: Many of those things that little girls are not allowed to do in Afghanistan are open to a bacha posh. They can work in a store and run errands. As a girl [in Afghanistan] you are not supposed to look anyone in the eye and [you must] be very modest because you bear the honour of the family with you. So a girl who looks like a boy can move around more freely. Some of these girls actually go to school disguised as boys.
MC: What happens when they transition into adolescence?
JN: Those who [were bacha posh] for a few years at a very young age will mostly speak of it as a positive experience. It gave them the confidence to speak their minds. But then I think the closer you get to puberty, the more of the male was left and "stuck" with them. To put it in context: there's war, there's extreme insecurity, there's poverty and on top of that you're a teenager. This is the time we're supposed to form a personality and you're growing up as a gender other than your birth sex.
MC: How did you find them?
JN: It was difficult to research because few knew about it. I mean, every Afghan will know [a bacha posh]. But Afghanistan is a rather closed society in the sense that you mind your own business. After I met Azita [Rafaat, mother of Mehran], I talked to gender experts, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians specialising in Afghanistan. I got told over and over again, no that doesn't happen. No, that doesn't exist. As a reporter you have two options. Either, "I don't know what I'm doing here, I'm going down the wrong path." Or, "This is an amazing story."
MC: How many bacha posh are there?
JN: It would be impossible to gauge - we don't even have reliable population statistics for Afghanistan. Once you know what to look for and once you know what questions to ask you are able to find quite a few.
MC: What do you think we can learn about Afghanistan from the bacha posh?
JN: I see bacha posh as a window into the workings of the society there. It tells you the story of repression and extreme segregation. This is a concession to an impossible reality. Local experts said to me, no we don't do that, it's not part of our culture. So early on, it made me wonder what else we were missing. What else are we missing in this country in which we have spent billions of dollars?
The Underground Girls Of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg (Hachette, $29.99) is out September 9. Visit bachaposh.com for more information.