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Afghan Tradition Makes Room For Girls

The birth of a girl is often cause for shame, not celebration, in southern Afghanistan.
"Say three amens," shouts a bearded old man, reading from a weathered book of poetry.

"A girl was born into this world as beautiful as the moon in the sky;
Pray for her as she is a flower blossoming in the spring;
She is like a beaming light that has brightened this house;
She is an angel that has come to us from the land of fairytales."

"Say three amens," he roars again.

In reciting the words of the recently written poem, the community elder is doing more than celebrating the birth of a daughter to Ahmad Mohammadyor, a local writer. He is challenging long-entrenched patriarchal tradition in southern Afghanistan.

There, the birth of a girl is often cause for shame, not celebration. And traditional ceremonies called nashrah, which mark the birth of a child, are reserved for boys.

Mohammadyor, who authored the poem to honor his daughter's arrival, notes that in many parts of Afghanistan only boys can inherit a father's wealth and pass down the family name.

"In backward societies, women have always been considered inferior," he says. "Unfortunately, in our society they are not even treated like human beings. The international community and some of our leaders preach the rights of women, but in reality some of them don't practice this. A good example is those who talk about education, but they don't even allow their own daughters to go to school."

Breaking Tradition Of Male Domination

Through his nashrah poem, Mohammadyor hopes to help break the tradition of male domination in his home region. The ritual of nashrah goes back hundreds of years in Afghanistan, but today is primarily performed in Kandahar, in the south of the country.

The ceremony gathers dozens of family members, friends, and neighbors as they celebrate a new birth in the community. The ceremony begins with a pious member of the family reciting folkloric poetry and goodwill prayers, followed by a feast, music, and, dancing.

The poems that are read out at the ceremony honor the newborn and also contain advice for parents on how to raise the child to be a valuable member of society.

One of the poems preaches:

"It is up to you to keep this light going;
Keep it safe until it beams brighter;
Until it lights this house and the whole neighborhood;
Accept this gift and be thankful to God."

In a patriarchal society like that of Afghanistan there is significant social pressure to have sons. In some cases, this has even led Afghan families to disguise their daughters as sons.

Without a son, some families decide to invent one, typically by cutting a daughter's hair and dressing her in boys' clothing. In most cases, girls return to womanhood once they reach puberty.

The practice is driven mostly by economic necessity, social pressure, and sometimes a superstition that doing it can lead to the birth of a real boy in the future.

Age-Old Discrimination

A pretend son, called bacha posh in Dari, can improve a family's reputation. It also makes it easier for a girl to receive an education, work outside the home, and even accompany women in public, freedoms that are rare for girls in a country where men and women are strictly segregated in public life.

Mohammadyor says that such practices are often fueled by a lack of knowledge and traditional prejudices against women. He says it is up to the educated segments of society to change these traditions and "pave the way for a positive future."

"Instead of preaching to others about gender equality, they should first lead by example and act on their ideas," he says. "Only then will people trust their words and follow them by example."

For Mohammadyor, performing the nashrah ritual for his daughter is his small contribution to changing the many age-old traditions that continue to discriminate against women in Afghanistan.

"Having a daughter is a blessing from God and gives one a unique happiness in life," he says. "Daughters are the source of love and the sweetest gift that a father can receive."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Homayoon Shinwary contributed to this report
  • 16x9 Image

    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

  • 16x9 Image

    Salih Mohammad Salih

    Salih Mohammad Salih is a correspondent and producer for RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

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