Ruth Styles - With regular football matches to enjoy, a posse of cheerful sisters and a successful mother making a name for herself in the Afghan parliament, life for Mehran Rafaat, seven, is good.

But though he might look like a happy little boy, Mehran is actually a girl and, like many others, has been made to live a lie in order to spare his family’s blushes.

And his story is by no means unique, with family turning their girls into boys for fear of being shunned thanks to their inability to have sons and to create a useful pair of extra hands in a society where girls are kept behind closed doors at all times.

When he reaches puberty, he, like other ‘bacha posh’, as they are called in the Dari language, will be returned to his original gender, although some remain in their male clothing until they marry.

Now the story of Afghanistan’s bacha posh has been turned into a book, The Underground Girls of Kabul, which author Jenny Nordberg hopes will make the world sit up and take notice of their plight.

‘This is a universal tale of oppression and one that resonates deeply with me,’ she explained in an exclusive interview with MailOnline.

‘The Underground Girls of Kabul and the practice of bacha posh offers a window into one of the most closed and secretive parts of Afghan society and culture.’

Until recently, the very existence of Afghanistan’s girl-boys was virtually unknown, a silence only broken by a newspaper article written by Nordberg in 2010.

Shortly after arriving in 2009, she was interviewing local politician Azita Rafaat whose gaggle of daughters revealed that their youngest brother was, in fact, also a girl.

‘I was astonished, and didn’t quite believe them at first,’ she remembers. ‘But it was true.’

Intrigued, she began searching for more bacha posh and soon discovered that the phenomenon of families with sons who were actually daughters was more common than she realised.

‘These girls are brought up as boys by their parents for several reasons but at the core of it is that in Afghanistan, only boys count.

‘In a deeply patriarchal society, where only men inherit property and can support their families by working, a family without sons is seen as weak, incomplete and the parents are pitied.

‘So as strange as it may seem at first, it’s a way for people to get around that injustice, and it’s not uncommon for a family with only daughters to just dress a daughter as a boy, and present her as such to the outside world.’

Families who do turn their girls into boys benefit from higher status and are also allowed to send their bacha posh out on errands - something that no girl is allowed to do.

‘In Afghan society, a boy can roam around freely, play outside, ride a bike and hang out with other boys and adult men,’ explains Nordberg.

‘A girl is much more sheltered and restricted at all times. The bacha posh get to see more of the sky and what life on the side of privilege and rights is like. It can also mean a chance of going to school, in areas where it may be more difficult for girls to do so.’

But while the bacha posh enjoy more freedom during their time spent as boys, the transition back to female life can prove almost unbearable.

‘The bacha posh are expected by society to revert back to being girls, and young women, around the time of puberty,’ explains Nordberg.

‘That is when the small window of freedom closes, and a girls is put in a headscarf and a skirt, to prepare for marriage to a man of her parents’ choice.’

Among those to find it impossible is Zahra, a 15-year-old who appears in the book, and who says she never wants to go back and be a woman in Afghanistan.

Others, such as Shukria Siddiqui, a 36-year-old mother of three, make the transition. More still, Nordberg’s friends Nader and Shahed among them, never make the switch and continue to live disguised as men.

Nordberg is clearly heartbroken for them. ‘I think it’s upsetting that this practice needs to exist to this day,’ she says, passionately.

‘To disguise yourself as a boy or a man is something that women have done throughout history when they have been denied basic human rights, such as the right to an education, or the right to choose when and if she gets pregnant.

‘These girls are not so much a gender story but a symptom of an extremely dysfunctional society that inevitably has to change.’–Daily Mail