By Meagan Noel Hart
Her mother, Pakiza, laid a blue, flowery dress across the bed. It looked alien against her dark comforter. She did not want to wear it.
“It’s only a suggestion, Safiya,” said Pakiza.
“Safi,” she corrected, offering the male version of her name.
“There’s no need for that here,” her mother said sternly. “We are in America now. Whatever you choose, we can use your given name.”
“They don’t name boys after girls here.”
“Safiya, you are not a boy. You were bacha posh, and you don’t have to be anymore. In Kabul this was best for our family. But even there, this was temporary. One day, honorary boy. The next day, bride. You are thirteen. Your body will make you a woman soon. It is not right to continue on in such a fashion, no matter what soil your feet are on. No bacha posh is meant to live as a man.”
“Some have,” said Safiya very quietly.
“Dishonorable. Living their lives in secret. Offering no offspring for their mothers, no husband. They are not meant to exist. Those that do must only out of terrible necessity. It’s punishable by death. Not a life. Not a choice.” Pakiza sat heavily on the bed, causing the dress to slide toward her some. “I admit, it is different here. America is all about choice, even bad ones. Your father wants us to embrace that, and that means allowing you to decide, but Safiya, there is only one obvious answer. Here, you can be both a woman and free.”
Safiya bit her lip instinctively. She had always given her mother respect, even if it meant physically restraining herself. Her bottom lip was forever chapped, even in Summer. Safiya wanted to call her mother blind, blinded by the fairytales of the West. There was no denying women had more rights here than in Afghanistan, but it was foolish to say they had no restrictions. A society across the sea was still a society, and sometimes the rules not written in ink were the ones dangerous to break.
“Give the dress to Fereshtah,” Safiya said finally.
Her mother sighed. “You know she will not wear it. Is this my curse? To bear no sons yet have daughters who are no good as women?”
There was a gasp from the doorway. They looked just in time to see Fereshtah’s burka disappearing down the hall.
“In bimani ast,” her mother muttered, hurrying after her other daughter.
Safiya felt a pit in her stomach. Even in the land of choice, there was no choice.
In Kabul, with no sons, her parents had lacked respect. Worse than that, they were pitied. Before Fereshtah, her mother had given birth to two stillborn girls. Depressing as that was, the true devastation was that they were female. When finally Fereshtah was born, Pakiza’s mother had simply said, “Well, at least this one is alive.”
When Safiya was born, the decision to raise her as bacha posh, a girl dressed as a boy, was an easy one, and a respected one. Though no one spoke of it directly, everyone knew that even a fake boy was better than a girl. And it came with benefits. She received a better education, walked the streets freely, came and went as she pleased, helped her father with errands, escorted her sister, could work if needed, and best of all, played football. She loved football. Loved kicking the round ball as hard as she could, her blood racing, her heart pumping, her clothes filthy with the dust and grime of city streets. It was exhilarating, as if she was built for it. The real boys never guessed the truth about her in those random street games, and if they did get suggestive or nasty, as boys tend to do with one another, she would get nasty back. She had won many fights.
It was after such a fight, less than a year ago, that her mother had told her the hard truth. Her body would make her a woman. She would live like one and become a wife. It was a fact, not a choice, but for Safiya, living with the rights of a boy was also a fact. She had been Safi since she was 3 weeks old. Even hearing her birth name, Safiya, felt foreign and unreal, but going against her parents’ wishes and the demands of her culture would be dishonorable.
So, by day she wandered the streets of Kabul as Safi. At night, the coaching of Safiya began. “When you are a woman, you will not greet guests in such ways,” Pakiza would say. You will not eat this way. You will not walk this way. You will not run those errands. You will not say such things nor keep such friends. You must lower your laugh and avert your eyes. You must smile.
“You can rely on a salwar kameez, at least in summer, but you must learn to wear the head scarf properly. It is always falling off. Maybe it’s your hair,” Pakiza said, adjusting the scarf one evening. “When it grows out more, we can pin it.”
That night Safiya started trimming her hair before bed, keeping it short.
Outside, she became more aware of both men and women. She had always been aware of the obvious differences, but it was the subtle things that made her stomach churn. The comments. The glares. Both how women were acknowledged and dismissed. Once, a man made a disparaging comment about Fereshtah. As her brother, she was able to approach and threaten him with her knife while her sister stood silently back. He was at least two heads taller than her, but she pressed the blade rough against his beard, a beard she could never have. Her heart pounded, but before she could rethink her actions, the man laughed, congratulated her for being such a brash lad, and moved on. That was when she had first felt the pit in her stomach. It was only a matter of time before she could not only not defend her sister, but would take the same abuse herself.
Then the attack happened.
As her father’s son she was first to be contacted when he could not be, and received the full details. The perpetrators were from a village taken over by the Taliban. A man in the city had denied the marriage of his daughter to a villager. The villager’s brothers came to Kabul to find her. They mistook Fereshtah for this other girl and threw acid on her face and arms. Realizing their mistake, they attacked their original target as well. All on school property.
These incidents were common, but having it happen to family changed everything. How could her parents expect Safiya to become a woman? Yet, how could they not? Fereshtah was no longer marriageable. Her mother refused to send her to one of the shelters for women, insisting they would be abandoned soon by the expats who funded them, and her daughter would have nowhere to go. Fereshtah, already a reserved girl, became more so, frightened to leave the house. She did everything to hide her scars, finally resorting to wearing only burkas. Her pain was amplified by the fact that the men were never prosecuted and that no one fought for such.
Safiya’s silent rebellions became more pronounced and began to weigh heavier on the family. She stayed out later and later playing football, avoiding her mother’s training sessions. She picked a few fights with other boys, coming home bruised and bloody but victorious.
Then one evening, her father announced they were moving to America. He had secretly been preparing for it for some time, but Fereshtah’s attack urged him to escalate measures. They would be leaving everything they knew behind, meeting cousins in the nation’s capital, and this, he said, would give his children a chance.
Safyia felt hopeful when she heard the rumors about equality in the West. She even practiced introducing herself in the mirror. “I am Safyia.” The name still felt bulky, but less offensive than it used to.
They arrived to a hot American summer. Excited and jet lagged, she and Fereshtah giggled at the ridiculous sight of men in shorts and stared in wonder at the confidence and ease with which people entered motor vehicles. For two months they stayed with her fathers’ cousins while searching for their own home and while her father adjusted to his new job. It was a time to adjust for all of them, to try their feet out against this free soil. There were several daughters in the family, and at first they seemed bold and brazen, with their hair free and their every opinion rattling across their tongues, just like men, but Safiya soon recognized familiar distinctions. These girls had lived here all their lives yet still dressed and spoke differently than the boys. Their parents were more instructive with them, more protective. When they walked down the street, men would still call out rude, obscene things. They acted as if it was normal. From what Safiya could see, these girls were not the exception, but the rule.
While there, her parents presented her as Safi, out of habit and perhaps also fearing their transition would go poorly without a son. (Old habits and superstitions died hard.) This only highlighted the differences further. Safi was given a later curfew and asked, over the daughters, to run forgotten errands after dark. Also, she struggled to make conversation with them. Instead, these free girls, the ones her mother said she would soon be “just like,” spoke more easily with Fereshtha, even when she insisted on burkas and ignored their advice about scarves attracting more onlookers than scars.
Safiya spent most evenings kicking a ball against the side of the house alone, finding the sweat, the dirt, and the thud, thud, thudding comforting.
In honor of their new country, her parents had taken a new position. Being Safiya or Safi, this was her choice now because choice was American, and here, women could dress as boys and act as men without consequence. Safiya suspected otherwise, and mild research confirmed that though things were different here, people who broke norms where still met with fear and hate by many. And, the norms were clear.
TV, radio, advertisements, and neighbors bombarded her everyday with what a woman was. Silent but bold. Sexy but chaste. Smart but in the right way. They challenged men while needing them. Pakiza’s coaching sessions had ended, but something equally overbearing and much more confusing had taken their place.
Additionally, her parents instructed her to make the decision hers, despite how painfully clear it was what they expected.
“In America,” her mother said the first night away from the cousins, “you can be whatever you want to be. No more pretending. You can be you, but as a woman. You can even play football. Your new school has a team just for girls.” Pakiza ran her fingers through her daughter’s short hair. “Your father and I think it is wise you decide now, before classes begin Monday. The principal says if you register as a girl, but act and dress like a boy, it may cause issues. See, they have a physical education class there. You should like that, but as a girl, you must practice that with the girls. That makes sense, yes? Now, the principal did say they could make an exception and let you play with the boys and register you as such if it is important to your, well, he said sexual identity. It is so odd, people speaking so directly about these things. Anyway, you have options. But, clearly this option he suggests is ridiculous.”
“Why? I’ve only ever played with boys. Playing sports with girls seems more ridiculous.”
“Having a choice is important to your father. He says it will make you both more American and help your sister distance herself from her pain. So, we must consider it. But, Safyia, right is still right. The choice is obvious.”
Safiya said nothing then nor the next day. Now, with school beginning, a decision was necessary.
The blue dress was a reminder of what was right.
Safiya plucked it off the ground. It had fallen when her mother hurried after Fereshtah. She could hear her mother comforting her sister, slipping in and out of English, fighting to maintain what her father wanted, a normal newly American family, where having two girls, even a scarred one, even one who didn’t want to be one, was acceptable, normal.
Holding it, Safiya saw now how short the dress was. No, Fereshtah could never wear this either.
She walked to the kitchen where her father was reading. He watched silently as she dropped the dress into the trashcan.
“The dress isn’t necessary,” he offered. “Most do not wear them regularly.”
She shook her head. “You want me to decide. So, I have decided.”
Safiya swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry, the growing pit in her stomach finally bottoming out. She had thought on this American soil, surrounded for miles by people speaking their minds, even when it didn’t make sense or was dangerous, that making this decision would feel better. It did not. Choosing male felt like some kind of defeat. But, choosing female meant living the consequences of that defeat, and that, that would be unbearable. Trying to find something in between would only fill her life with disappointments from both sides.
For a moment she feared he would make her explain herself
, and she doubted her words would be sufficient for the things she was feeling.
Instead he nodded. Not approval but acceptance. “I will notify the school.”
She stayed still.
“And inform your mother.”
Still, she did not move.
“Thank you, Safi.”
That was what she had been waiting for. To hear his confirmation in her name. The only name that felt right.
She returned to her room, shutting the door behind her. This was not the easier choice. She knew that. The American boys would not be kind once they found out.
But, boys she could handle.
Meagan Noel Hart
Meagan Noel Hart is a lover of stories who’s been chasing the truth through fiction all her life. She mainly writes flash fiction of varying genres, but occasionally produces a poem or essay. Her work has been included in Mothers Always Write, Everyday Fiction, and Welter, and will be included in the Writers Workout’s 72 Hours of Insanity in 2017. She has three collections of work, Twisted Together, Whispers & Fangs, and A Short Stack of Silly Shorts for the Morally Sidetracked. She lives in Baltimore with her husband, two rambunctious but lovable sons, and a house full of fur-babies. By day, you can find her teaching English at Stevenson University.