A Girl In Disguise

Image of Short Story
I quickly walk into the Amal School for Children, with my mother’s words on repeat in my head, “The quicker you get inside the school, Zahara, the better.” I make my way to the back row of desks. With the Taliban’s new laws forbidding girls older than ten to go to school, there are no longer any girls left in my classroom, and there are still very few boys. I sink my head down into my arms, afraid that someone may look into my eyes and see me for what I truly am – a girl in disguise. Luckily, no one notices me, and even better, no one says anything about Zahara not returning.
It has been six years since that day I first walked into school as a boy. For the last six years I have been Ahmed at school and Zahara at home. Sometimes I think it would just be easier if I were a boy all the time, but my parents are afraid that will make the transition from being a part-time boy, to a full-time girl, harder. At sixteen I am considered too old to be a bacha posh - a girl who dresses as a boy, and ever since I was twelve my mother has told me it is time to become a girl again. Of course, I am still a girl on the inside, but being a boy has allowed me to do all the things a girl in Pakistan cannot. When I am Ahmed I can do anything I want; run, dance, yell, and go to school. When I am Zahara I can do none of these things.
So, I talked Mother and Baba into remaining a bacha posh for a while longer. But my mother, being the stubborn woman she is, insists that I go back to being a girl whenever she sees me in boy clothes – which is every day.
“Zahara, when are you going to listen to me and start acting like a girl again?”
“Zahara, don’t you think you are a little too old for this nonsense?”
“Zahara, why don’t we go and get you some new girl clothes from the bazaar?”
It never ends with her. My father on the other hand is more relaxed when it comes to me being a boy. Baba has always loved his daughters, but I know that he secretly wished he had a son. For a man to have six girls (only one of whom is married) and no son in Pakistan, he is seen as a failure. Unable to provide his family with a son for protection or future income. No wonder he likes to pretend that I will be able to stay a boy forever. Something that I often wish I could do.
I walk to work and feel the cool breeze in my short boy-cut hair. For the next five hours I bag groceries for costumers at the local market with my head down, afraid to let them see my face entirely. As much as I love working and being a boy, I know that because of my age I am starting to look more feminine, something that has been a problem as more boys my age have noticed I do not look exactly like them.
After my shift I take my time walking home. Although it is dark I can see the silhouette of the mountains that encompass Swat Valley. I am tired but do not want to go home, as this is the best part of my day. When the sky is dark, and the world is silent. In the darkness I don’t have to worry about what people see me as. It doesn’t matter if I am Zahara or Ahmed. It’s just me.
When I get home I quietly change and slump down into the mattress I share with Afsana, one of my younger sisters. I can hear the steady breathing of the twins- Amana and Farzana, and Aniya on the mattress next to me. As I lie there in the darkness I feel the cool air cover me. Is this all there is to my life? I wonder. Will I always be sharing a tiny room with my four younger sisters. Will my sisters never know what the other side is like? What it is like to be a boy? These thoughts fill my head until my eye lids become too heavy to hold up.
A few weeks later when I get home from school I catch my mother in a bad mood.
“Zahara, we need to talk.”
No talk with my mother that has begun with those words, has ended well.
“What is it, Mother,” I sigh. I am still wearing Ahmed’s clothes, as I did not have a chance to change yet.
“Zahara, do not sigh at me. For some reason, whenever you pretend that you are a boy – which you are not, you think you can talk back to me and give me that attitude. We need to address this, Zahara. You know you cannot be a boy forever, right?” She looks at me with wide, inquisitive eyes. I know she says “Zahara” more times than she needs to, just to remind me that I am a girl and only a girl.
“Mother! Why does this bother you so much? This was your idea! I do everything else you ask; can’t I just keep Ahmed?”
She looks at me intensely before she responds. “You act as if Ahmed were a friend and Zahara was a complete stranger, and then you refer to yourself as if you are no one. It is not healthy, Zahara.”
I don’t know how to respond to this. It’s just something she wouldn’t understand, even though she constantly pretends to. I go to walk away but turn back before entering my room. “I am not just Zahara, Mother. I am Ahmed too.”
I am heading home from work and it is almost pitch-black outside. I am still fuming over what my mother has said, but I know that at some point I will have to give in. I know that I cannot be both Zahara and Ahmed forever. I am lost in my thoughts when I hear footsteps and deep breathing. Out of nowhere something knocks me over, slamming my head into a nearby wall.
“We know you are not a boy,” an unknown voice yells.
I’m closed in by multiple boys, with the wall to my back. I can tell they are boys because of how they are standing. It is how I stand. “What do you mean? I am a boy,” I say in a deeper voice than my own.
“Then prove it!” One of them shouts. For a moment I am scared that I will have to do something unforgivable, but I quickly jump up, throwing the top of my head into somebody’s chin. His neck snaps back. I get entangled with a few others, punching and kicking at whatever I can. I give a few solid blows, but they are quickly returned. I’m able to escape but they follow behind me. I hear my quick, jagged breathing and feel my feet moving quicker than I thought they could ever go beneath me. I throw open the door and collapse onto the hard floor of my family’s small home.
“Zahara, what has happened?” My mother looks puzzled and horrified all at once. I begin to cry.
“Who did this to you,” my mother begins, “did a boy do this to you?” I look up at her and see the fear in her eyes. How did she know a group of boys had done this to me? Suddenly it clicks. My mother was a bacha posh too. No wonder she was constantly pleading with me to just be a girl again.
My parents help lift me up and we go over to the chairs in our living room to assess my injuries. Blood drips down from my head and onto my neck, sending a shiver through my spine. The rest of my wounds consist of a bruised stomach, arms, and one swollen eye. It will be purple tomorrow. My pants were ripped, but nothing my mother could not mend. We sit in silence until I finally speak in a weak voice.
“Mother...” I begin but I don’t know what to say. “You were right.” Although not every part of me wanted to, I was scared that something worse would happen to me next time. I have heard of other girls who dress and act like boys who have been forced to do things that no one should have to do. Some of them have even payed the ultimate price. And although I was scared, what really made me decide was the look of complete terror on my mother’s face when she found me crying on the floor, bruised and defeated. “It is time,” I say.
That night my parents and I collected all three of Ahmed’s outfits and threw them into the Swat River, where all other unwanted items and trash went. As I threw Ahmed’s favorite shirt into the filthy water, I felt as if a part of me had died. I watched as Ahmed’s clothes drifted down the river and couldn’t help but think how I had lost the best part of me. The part that was strong and brave. The part of my that was bold. The only part of me that was truly free.