At first glance, Mangal Karimy, 13, could be any child who lives in a small village in western Afghanistan, carrying firewood and feeding cattle on his father's farm.
In silence, he rushes among the chores: a light figure with luminous white slippers, dragging drums of water through arid fields.
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Until the age of two, Mangal was Madina, one of the seven daughters chosen by their parents to live as a child under an Afghan tradition called "bacha posh," a term from Dari that translates as "child dress."
While Mangal can remember, he puts his long hair under a woolly hat, puts on his jacket and pants and helps his father take care of his wheat and dairy farm in the village of Sanjoor, in the province of Herat, covered of snow.
In the deeply patriarchal society of Afghanistan, sons are much appreciated compared to daughters, to the point that a family is considered "incomplete" without a child, says Nadia Hashimi, an Afghan-American pediatrician and author of the successful novel posthuman bacha 2014 "The Pearl that broke its shell".
The girls grow up believing they are a burden to the family, said Sodaba Ehrari, editor in chief of the Women's News Agency of Afghanistan (AWNA), who interviewed several parents of bacha posh children.
Women "cannot earn money to support their families, they cannot live alone, and there are many reasons (like this one) that lead them to this patriarchal society to practice elegant bacha," he said.
The century-old tradition says a lot about the discrimination faced by Afghan girls literally from the moment they are born.
After all, "nobody who only has children is transforming them into a daughter," says Hashimi.
The transition is temporary, and bacha posh boys are expected to abandon their male identities once they reach puberty and return to live as girls, something that is not always easy.
Underpinning the custom is the superstition that an elegant bacha boy "will change the fate of fate, so that the next child born in the family is a child," says Hashimi.
Mangal's father, Khoda Bakhsh Karimy, told CNN that if the family had a son, the boy would live like a girl again.
Until that time or when Mangal reaches puberty, Khoda and his wife Amena Karimy were "happy" with Mangal and the responsibilities he carries out, such as "welcoming guests to our house and offering them tea or food."
& # 39; I made my daughter like a child & # 39;
After having two daughters, Mangal's parents yearned for a son. "We made her as a son to help her father," said Mother Amena.
"I made my daughter like a child to serve me food and water when I worked in the desert," said Father Khoda.
In the Dari language there are no gender pronouns "he" and "she".
But Mangal told CNN that he preferred to be mentioned because of his masculine identity, and the English equivalent "he."
His parents, meanwhile, believe that Mangal's gender at birth – female – remains unchanged.
The English translation of their conversation uses the pronoun "she".
Mangal is a precious pair of extra hands for the family of nine who earn around 6,000 Afghans (about $ 80) per month, even by Afghanistan standards.
"I love all my daughters, but I love Madina more when I ask her to do a job like & # 39; go take care of the cattle & # 39; or & # 39; take something to a neighbor & # 39;", says Khoda.
"Otherwise there is no difference between them."
Author Hashimi says that Afghanistan's love for its children has practical roots.
In this agricultural economy, it is the children who cut firewood, plow the field, travel independently and work outside the home, she says.
And when they get married, their wives, and the next generation of children, are absorbed by the family.
For girls, it's a very different story. A daughter is expected to be "demure" and "help with housework," says Hashimi.
Outside the house, a girl "bargaining at the market" or "looking adults in the eyes" would be a surprise to some people, he adds.
For parents without a child, bacha is a solution to these obstacles that cross socioeconomic lines.
Data on the practice are scarce, but Hashimi says that almost all Afghans he interviewed for his book knew of an elegant bacha girl, regardless of region or class.
& # 39; People agree with that & # 39;
Sitting next to his father in his simple clay brick home, Mangal speaks quietly and his answers are brief.
With a shy and quick smile, he says "yes" likes to be a child and prefers the English pronoun to refer to "him."
But, he adds: "I would like to be a child again when I grow up."
When he is not helping on the farm, Mangal says he likes to play football with other children in the village, where he is the only boy with an elegant pothole.
His father, Khoda, says the neighbors have been accepting Mangal, only that they tell him that the boy "should wear girl's clothes when he grows up."
To which Khoda replied: "Of course."
"The family is using this gap to overcome this void."
Even when people realize that a boy is, in fact, a girl dressed as a boy, "they somehow accept it," Hashimi explains.
"There is an understanding that the family is using this gap to overcome this void, to try to correct their family and have a source of honor and pride," she says.
Mangal occupies a blurry space between daughter and son.
When he is not working on the farm, he attends a girls' school along with four of his sisters. But he does it dressed as a child and known by his masculine name.
"No, I don't consider him as a son," says Khoda. "We know that she is a girl, in the future she must wear girl's clothes and marry someone."
Each family has its own version of elegant bacha. Journalist Ehrari said some parents told him they were "trying to hide or that they don't want to show others that they have a daughter."
A son is a source of pride, while "having a daughter is a shame," they said.
having a daughter is a shame
Other parents said they desperately wanted their daughters "to have achievements."
But in a society where "everything is only for men," Bacha was the only way that "his daughters could live in freedom," Ehrari said.
His clothes might be different, but the inequality remains, Ehrari said.
"This is an injustice against women, who cannot be themselves and live as a woman freely."
& # 39; There were so many advantages and disadvantages & # 39;
Making the transition live again as a child, especially after a brief look at male freedoms, can be a painful process.
Shazia, who did not want her last name published, was nine years old and lived in Kabul in 1990, when her parents decided to transition to elegant bacha for five years.
With the civil war against them, Shazia's parents had already sent their two older brothers to Russia to prevent them from being recruited.
But when his father, a middle-class businessman who deals with imports and exports, lost his leg in an accident, his mother and the remaining six daughters were left without a breadwinner.
"It was then that my family decided to dress me as a child," says Shazia, who, like the third daughter, considered herself old enough to help her mother out of the house, but still young enough to go through a child.
"I had to play the role of a son," says Shazia, who took Mirwas's male name and had her hair cut and children's clothes worn.
Almost overnight, Shazia's daily tasks changed dramatically, from "cleaning and feeding the chickens" to "accompanying my mother in the local market."
Sometimes, Shazia even bought food alone, something she described as "a huge company, especially for a girl."
"I would have to stand in line and receive bread to feed my family."
"There were so many advantages and disadvantages of being an elegant pothole," says Shazia, who is 37 today and is the mother of three daughters and works for a women's NGO in the United States.
"Mirwas" could "fly kites, play soccer with the neighborhood kids, ride my father's bike, all of which was not a normal activity for a girl in Afghanistan," Shazia told CNN by phone from her home in New York
But she was also harassed by her sister and her cousin for wearing children's clothes and was charged with the most stressful tasks.
"During the harsh winter, I had to stand in line and receive bread to feed my family," says Shazia.
"I was jealous of my sisters in the house, warm."
& # 39; I was caught between being a girl and a boy & # 39;
While the immediate family knew Shazia's true identity, the neighborhood was not aware, and she describes the torment of "playing two different roles in society."
"I felt particularly insecure about my facial features, my clothes, my height compared to children my age," he says.
"This imposed lifestyle was not my choice. I was caught between being a girl and a boy."
Hashimi says that this transition between genders is "essentially imposing an identity crisis on a young psyche."
She says that the elegant bacha tradition could induce a "gender dysphoria" where children "are simply not happy with their biological gender and feel they belong to a different world."
& # 39; She threw all my male clothes & # 39 ;.
Shazia's return to childhood came at age 13 when one of her older sisters intervened and told the family "this is enough."
"My sister was very, very tough," says Shazia.
"She hit me, threw all my male clothes, said & # 39; you have to become a girl & # 39;".
Shazia's parents agreed and gradually emerged into the world as a child again, at first I was afraid to go out "because my neighbors were going to see me" and "wear a big scarf until I had grown enough hair."
A few months later, the family moved to Pakistan and Shazia was able to fully embrace her feminine identity.
But the childhood years, or having a male identity, "left me confused about my identity," she says.
Bittersweet return to childhood.
For many stylish bacha boys, being a girl again can be bittersweet, says Hashimi.
"It's an experience of what it is like to be on the other side, in a country where those two parts are remarkably different."
In extreme cases, he says, they can even refuse to live again as women.
With so little information available, it is difficult to say if the practice is decreasing or growing.
But Hashimi believes that the elegant bacha will finally "die out as Afghan society continues to promote the place of women in society."
In recent years, the Taliban have strengthened their control over Afghanistan: between 60% and 70% of the country is now in dispute or under their control.
As the Islamist militant group gains ground, gender inequality and the need for an elegant pothole will continue, Hashimi said.
Each year, the Women for Afghan women advocacy group attends at least two cases of potholes in their shelters for women across the country.
The girls, aged 14 to 18, "are not in a stable emotional, mental and financial state," said the group's executive director, Najia Nasim.
Many are referred to shelters by the police.
Girls are usually "friends with boys and have more freedom," Nasim said.
He added that "they often end up being mistreated" by people who make them "dance, drink and (participate) in sexual activities."
These girls could end up in a "special prison for boys under 18 called a rehabilitation center," Nasim said.
He added that with the help of mediators and mental health services they could also reintegrate into their families.
& # 39; there is nothing that boys can do that girls can't & # 39 ;.
CNN contacted the Afghan government to comment on its position on bacha, but did not receive an answer.
But Ehrari, from the Women's News Agency of Afghanistan, said the government has not traditionally ruled against the elegant bacha, because he believed that the practice "comes from Afghan culture and was a custom that could not be changed."
Through family connections, Shazia married at age 18 with an Afghan man who lived in New York.
While her husband "fully supports" his past bacha, the couple has never discussed it in detail, she says.
Instead, it was his 17-year-old daughter who encouraged Shazia to share her story publicly for the first time.
"I have three girls. And people would tell me & # 39; oh, you really should have boys, try to have boys & # 39 ;. I said: & # 39; No, there is nothing that boys can do that girls don't can & # 39; "says Shazia.
"Girls are not a burden. They are really a blessing."
Meanwhile, back in Sanjoor, Mangal continues with his daily tasks, diligently cleaning the land with his father in the winter cold.
A group of younger boys from the neighborhood come from a short distance.
Mangal's sisters remain inside the house, hidden from view.
An independent journalist contributed to this report from Sanjoor, Afghanistan, while CNN's Ehsan Popalzai contributed from Kabul.