Born in America to Afghani parents, author Nadia Hashimi grew up hearing her parents’ stories of the thriving Afghanistan they left in the 1970s. But when she finally visited decades later, she found a struggling country that bore little resemblance to their memories—especially in the way women were treated. Because of the increasing restrictions on female freedom, the custom of bacha posh, the practice of dressing a daughter as a son, has become common. Hashimi’s first novel, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, traces that modern tradition back to its possible origin, a time when women dressed as men to guard the king’s harem. Here, the author explains how these two cultural flashpoints inspired her debut.
In 2002, I took my first trip to Kabul, Afghanistan. I was accompanied by my parents, who had left the country in the early 1970s, a peaceful and progressive time in the nation’s tumultuous history. We reunited with family, explored conditions of local hospitals and searched through piles of rubble where a family home once stood. It was a bittersweet experience for us all, especially my parents, who often felt foreign in their own homeland. This was not the country they had left behind. The decades of war in Afghanistan set the nation back in a devastating way. My mother and her sisters all attended college and worked alongside men in the airline industry, international organizations and engineering companies. From what we have seen on the news in the last few years, it is hard to imagine such an Afghanistan ever existed.
I was raised in a family that valued education above everything else. As a woman, it’s painful for me to hear that girls were barred from attending school under the Taliban regime. It’s heartbreaking to hear that girls and women have become victims of the country’s many plagues: opium addiction, widespread corruption, poverty, domestic violence and child marriage.
These are not problems unique to Afghanistan. They are found all around the world, in developing and developed nations. But in the landscape of a country ruined by decades of war, these crises have exploded.
The custom of bacha posh allows girls to dress as boys until puberty, but does a taste of freedom make the restrictions of life as a woman harder to bear?
I happened to read a New York Times article that explored the Afghan bacha posh tradition (converting young girls into boys by cutting their hair, changing their names and donning boys’ clothing). The community accepts the charade because there is a collective understanding that a family needs sons to have honor and to have someone who can go to the market freely or work outside the home. It struck me that the bacha posh tradition was an incredibly problematic practice. It gave young girls a taste of life as a boy in a deeply patriarchal society. But what would happen when that “boy” hit puberty? That’s when these boys are converted back to girls, sent back into their homes and stripped of the liberties they enjoyed for a few years.
Is it better to have tasted that liberty, if only for a short time? Or does that make life as a woman even harder to bear?
The article also touched on a time in Afghan history when women were disguised as men to serve as guards for the king’s harem. A storyline began to form in my mind, linking two different girls, in two different times, both dressed as boys in Afghanistan. Rahima is a young bacha posh who is married off by her opium-addicted father to a local warlord. Her great-great-grandmother, Shekiba, is an orphan of the cholera epidemic who is forced to rely on her own strength and determination to survive and finds herself serving as a guard in King Habibullah’s harem. Rahima’s will is strengthened by learning her ancestor’s story. She knows she is the legacy of a formidable woman, and that knowledge helps her survive her bleakest days. Through their connection, I wanted to trace the history of women in the country.
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is a novel with two stories steeped in tragedy, but if you put your ear to the ground, you can hear the rumblings of a brighter tomorrow coming. I could not bear to tell the story if I did not believe that to be true.
Afghanistan was once a country where sisters held the same potential as their brothers. Things fell apart in the years of bloodshed, and girls have suffered unimaginably. I wanted to give a voice to those girls of Afghanistan, the ones who are bartered in marriage before their time, denied a chance to sit in a classroom and turned into mothers before they can live out their childhoods.
Change is coming, though. We have our first female pilots, generals, political leaders, performers, scientists and athletes in decades. I am hopeful that they will forge the way to a future where Rahima’s story will be a tale from Afghanistan’s darker past.