One Half from the East By Nadia Hashimi HarperCollins, US ISBN: 978-0062421906 272pp.

Afghan-American writer Nadia Hashimi’s fourth novel is the second of her books based on the Afghan tradition of bachha poshi [dressing as a boy]. For those unfamiliar with the practice, it is apparently not uncommon for Afghan families who only have girl-children to bring up one daughter as a boy; the little girl is made to wear boys’ clothes, is given a haircut, and is encouraged to act as — and mingle with — boys. The change is not permanent and when puberty hits, the child is made to revert to girlhood, with marriage generally following soon after.

The phenomenon has been documented by journalists, with at least one recent book, The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg, describing it in some detail for the non-academic reader. Apparently, the bachha posh girl is not only supposed to (temporarily) help the parents assuage the grief of not having a son, but her role-play is supposed to bring good luck to the family, with greater chances of actually having a baby boy. At the very least, the bachha posh child is useful as someone to run errands, do chores outside the house, and escort the mother and sisters on routine trips to schools or marketplaces — all the tasks that a young son would perform in a highly patriarchal society. The practice has attracted the attention of child psychologists and anthropologists, many of whom point to the complex psychological issues faced by young girls who are suddenly expected to switch gender roles upon onset of puberty, which is already a confusing time. On the other hand, there is a belief that being a bachha posh encourages young girls to become more confident and capable, as those who go through this transition have greater exposure to the world than their more traditionally brought up sisters.

One Half from the East explores the latter aspect of bachha poshi, not dwelling too much on the possible psychological problems such children face. It follows the fortunes of Obayda, a ten-year-old with three older sisters whose policeman father has lost a leg in a bomb blast. This misfortune compels the family to relocate from Kabul to their ancestral village, with their livelihood now dependent on an elder uncle and other extended family. An aunt advises Obayda’s mother to make her, the youngest daughter, a bachha posh for the short while before puberty hits, to bring good fortune to the family and to assist the mother in chores outside the house — a necessary consideration given that the man of the house is no longer fully functional.


Dressing up a daughter to pose as a son may benefit the family temporarily, but what effect does it have on the child herself?


The novel briefly documents Obayda’s bewilderment at being told that she is now to be the family’s boy-child, with no access to her colourful clothes or her dolls. Initially she is deeply unhappy and conflicted, but her first few days at her new (boys’) school are rendered meaningful by her encounter with Rahim (in a past life, Rahima), an older bachha posh who immediately recognises Obayda for what she is, and proceeds to take her under her wing.

As the boys at school remain blissfully unaware of the existence of the intruders in their midst, the two girls cavort in their less restrictive attire, play raucous games in the schoolyard, learn to climb trees and play ghursai (a wrestling game) and enjoy the freedom of running around the village with no questions asked. Before long, Obayda (now called Obayd) cannot bear to think of the inevitable transition back to girlhood and is determined to transform herself into a boy in the true sense of the word. When Rahim(a) is suddenly withdrawn from school, matters come to a head as both girls have to succumb to the inevitable.

The author’s biography states that having been born and brought up in the United States, she has not, in fact, spent a lot of time in Afghanistan with barely a few short trips to her homeland to her credit. As such, it is brave of her to set her novels in a land of which she has little experience. That she manages to paint a convincing portrait is commendable, although her American roots are reflected sometimes when the characters refer to groups of boys as “guys” or their mothers as “moms.” Nevertheless, given that the text is supposed to be a translation of their actual speech, this is not too jarring.

The novel explores some interesting concepts of gender — what does it really mean to be a boy or a girl? Is it purely physical or also a state of mind? In traditional societies where gender roles are narrowly defined, is a confident, outgoing girl in danger of being considered manly, and/or is she likely to aspire to manhood? These are difficult questions to answer, and perhaps the novel’s main weakness is that it does not explore them fully. In fact, the main characters seem to transition fairly seamlessly into and out of defined gender roles.


My mother calls me into the kitchen. ... “Take this dough to the baker and come back with bread.”It sounds simple enough. I’ve been to the market plenty of times with my mother. I used to go to the market in Kabul with my father too, but that was when he had two legs. I walk slowly, watching the people around me to see if anyone notices that I’m in pants for the first time ever. No one seems to realise. ... The baker stares at me with one eye narrowed.I don’t know what to say.“Which is the dough and which is the boy?” he asks his friend with a laugh. “Hard to tell when neither one is talking. I clear my throat. He called me a boy.— Excerpt from the book


It would have been interesting had the timeframe also been extended to more than just six months, to truly depict the transition from girlhood to boyhood, and back to young adulthood as a girl. The limited timescale barely allows an exploration of the first transition, and leaves the second one largely to the imagination of the reader. What is clear is that the bachha posh characters in the book come to savour their new identities with few regrets. The pleasures of combing through long, lustrous manes, wearing pretty clothes and jewellery, and confiding in sisters are nothing compared to the pleasures of being mobile, unafraid, unrestricted and an obvious support to their families. Boyhood is so obviously the preferred option that years of cultural conditioning as a girl appear to simply fall away with the donning of trousers and the haircuts. But is it ever really so simple? The characters could have been a little more multi-dimensional. Similarly, Rahima’s fate is inadequately unexplored, which is unsatisfying. Although she is the main character in another novel by the same author, here she is largely abandoned to a dark future with little insight into how she copes with the tragedy that confronts her.

This is not a very long novel and is aimed at young adults — probably another reason why the characters are not very complex. Nevertheless, it is well-written, engaging and highlights a cultural practice that is little known internationally, but may have parallels in other cultures. Certainly, preference for sons is not a central and South Asian phenomenon only, and manifests in a number of ways across societies. This novel gives some insight into how a small section of Afghan society adapts to the constant pressure to have a boy child. It would be interesting to know if the practice extends into parts of Pakistan — perhaps some intrepid scholars here can investigate that.

The reviewer is a research and policy analyst

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 12th, 2017

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