The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan

Overview

An investigative journalist uncovers a hidden custom that will transform your understanding of what it means to grow up as a girl

In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as misfortune. A bacha posh (literally translated from Dari as “dressed up like a boy”) is a third kind of child – a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world. Jenny ...

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The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan

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Overview

An investigative journalist uncovers a hidden custom that will transform your understanding of what it means to grow up as a girl

In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as misfortune. A bacha posh (literally translated from Dari as “dressed up like a boy”) is a third kind of child – a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world. Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke the story of this phenomenon for the New York Times, constructs a powerful and moving account of those secretly living on the other side of a deeply segregated society where women have almost no rights and little freedom.

The Underground Girls of Kabul
is anchored by vivid characters who bring this remarkable story to life: Azita, a female parliamentarian who sees no other choice but to turn her fourth daughter Mehran into a boy; Zahra, the tomboy teenager who struggles with puberty and refuses her parents’ attempts to turn her back into a girl; Shukria, now a married mother of three after living for twenty years as a man; and Nader, who prays with Shahed, the undercover female police officer, as they both remain in male disguise as adults.

At the heart of this emotional narrative is a new perspective on the extreme sacrifices of Afghan women and girls against the violent backdrop of America’s longest war. Divided into four parts, the book follows those born as the unwanted sex in Afghanistan, but who live as the socially favored gender through childhood and puberty, only to later be forced into marriage and childbirth. The Underground Girls of Kabul charts their dramatic life cycles, while examining our own history and the parallels to subversive actions of people who live under oppression everywhere.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

In Afghanistan, the birth of a son is an occasion of rejoicing; the birth of a daughter is often mourned as a sign of misfortune, even dishonor. To mitigate the shame, many families have fabricated a third gender, the "basha posh," girls dressed and presented as boys until they reach puberty. In The Underground Girls of Kabul, award-winning journalist Jenny Nordberg exposes this little-known practice, tracking it not as a curiosity but as the jumping-off point to several poignant portraits of women who were drafted into this misogynistic practice, many of whom responded in very different ways. Nordberg's profiles are subtle and sympathetic, giving this book an unexpected resonance; editor's recommendation.

Publishers Weekly
★ 05/26/2014
Alook at the furtive world of girls who pose as boys illuminates the cruelties of Afghanistan’s tradition of male supremacy in this searing exposé. Journalist Nordberg explores the lives of bacha posh—girls who are made over as boys so that their parents can claim the honor of having a son (or, according to folklore, improve their chances of conceiving a real one). Bacha posh experience what few Afghan females ever do: the freedom to go outside without a chaperone, speak their minds, and lead public lives—until adolescence arrives and they are forced back into femininity and sold off in arranged marriages to live in domestic confinement under their husband’s thumb. Nordberg’s vivid profiles of these girls takes in the quiet, harrowing struggles of other women in a society that accords them few rights. Included is a case of a charismatic woman who is a member of parliament and her family’s sole breadwinner—yet still helplessly subject to her husband’s abuse. Nordberg’s subtle, sympathetic reportage makes this one of the most convincing portraits of Afghan culture in print; through a small breach in the wall of gender apartheid, she reveals the harsh ironies of a system that so devalues women that it forces them to become men. Agent: David Halpern, The Robbins Office. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
“Five years of intensive reporting have yielded this gritty, poignant, and provocative collage of intimate portraits…Nordberg conveys captivating nuance and complexity; just when you feel some kind of judgment or conclusive opinion is within reach, she deftly turns the tables, leaving us to reexamine our own prejudices and societal norms as we struggle with questions that are perhaps unanswerable.”–Elle

“[A] searing exposé…Nordberg's subtle, sympathetic reportage makes this one of the most convincing portraits of Afghan culture in print.” –Publishers Weekly [starred]

“A stunning book… Nordberg has done  some staggering work in this unique, important, and compelling chronicle. Book clubs will be riveted, and will talk for hours.” –Booklist [starred]

“As affecting as the stories of these women are, Nordberg’s conclusion—that women’s rights are essential to ‘building peaceful civilizations’—is the most powerful message of this compelling book. An intelligent and timely exploration into contemporary Afghanistan.” – Kirkus Reviews

“The Underground Girls of Kabul is a groundbreaking feat of reportage, a kaleidoscopic investigation into gender, resistance, and the limits of cross-cultural understanding. Jenny Nordberg is a riveting storyteller and she has an astonishing tale to tell.” –Michelle Goldberg, author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World

“Jenny Nordberg has given us a fascinating look into a hidden phenomenon of extreme patriarchal societies: a form of gender-bending far riskier and more rewarding than Western academia's trendy, abstract gender categories. Nordberg's reporting is thorough and sensitive, her writing vivid and insightful. You will not forget this book; it will haunt you.” – Robin Morgan

The Underground Girls of Kabul is a riveting, firsthand account of what life as a girl is like in Afghanistan and how it often means becoming a boy.  Jenny Nordberg has written a compelling and important work that exposes the profound gender prejudice that exists, in different forms, all over the world.” –Jennifer Clement, author of Prayers for the Stolen

“Forget everything you thought you knew about gender and what it means to be a woman or man. Jenny Nordberg’s exquisitely reported look at why Afghans choose to raise their girls as boys is nothing less than heartbreaking, mind-bending, and mesmerizing—not to mention timely.”—Lauren Wolfe, director of Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege

“Nordberg brings to light a world that no Afghan speaks of, but everyone knows: the world of girls raised as boys, usually until puberty.  In a society where being a girl means living as chattel, and where families without boys are shamed, the bacha posh tradition arose, as it has in other highly patriarchal societies.  Going deeper, Nordberg discovers that the bacha posh, once adults, become a subversive force: having tasted freedom and opportunity, these women can never go back.  They stand up—for themselves, their daughters, and their country.  The former bacha posh may yet change Afghanistan for the better . . . Nordberg’s book is a pioneering effort to understand this hidden world.” –Valerie M. Hudson, professor and George H.W. Bush Chair, The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University
 
“The investigation into bacha posh gives a new and unique perspective on the women’s situation, gender and resistance in Afghanistan. The author tells the story with empathy and respect for the women who have let her into their lives. This book will interest both those who want to learn about Afghanistan and those wanting to understand how gender works, and it is a must-read for both Afghanistan and gender specialists.” –Sari Kouvo, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network

Kirkus Reviews
2014-06-25
A journalist’s fascinating study of the Afghan subculture of young girls raised to be boys.In post-Taliban Afghanistan, men are still all-powerful. Women—even those who wield some political influence—live mostly in a state of servitude. Yet some girls manage to enjoy the privileges of being male by living as boys. Known asbacha posh, these young females are usually members of families in which the only children are girls. They “become” boys through family fiat and then live as males “as long as the lie will hold or as long as the community goes along with it,” which usually means until adolescence. To better understand this phenomenon, Nordberg not only researched the histories ofbachas,but also interviewed and observed them throughout various life stages. She tells the story of Mehran, the young fourth daughter of a female politician who “needed” a son to reinforce her family’s “good standing and reputation” in the community, as well as her own in the Afghan parliament. With several years until adolescence, Mehran could live in the happy freedom denied her sisters. However, as Nordberg shows through the story of Zahra, puberty—and the return to the second-class citizenship of womanhood it implied—could be gut-wrenchingly traumatic. For Shukria, being abacha poshrendered her unable to desire men and eventually made her undesirable to her husband, who divorced her. But for Nader, who managed to continue living as a man into adulthood, her third gender status inspired her to coach youngerbachaslooking to resist Afghan patriarchy and remain autonomous. As affecting as the stories of these women are, Nordberg’s conclusion—that women’s rights are essential to “building peaceful civilizations”—is the most powerful message of this compelling book.An intelligent and timely exploration into contemporary Afghanistan.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307952493
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/16/2014
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 159,800
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

JENNY NORDBERG is an award-winning journalist based in New York. A correspondent and columnist for Swedish national newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, she has a long record of investigative reports for, among others, The New York Times, where she also contributed to a series that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. In 2010, she was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism for a television documentary on Afghan women. She is a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Jenny Nordberg, author of The Underground Girls of Kabul

Who are the bacha posh of Afghanistan?

Bacha posh is the term for a girl who is "dressed up like a boy." These children are part of a hidden practice in which parents disguise daughters as sons. Instead of wearing a headscarf and a skirt or a dress, a little girl will get a short haircut and a pair of pants, and she'll be sent off into the world as one of the boys. The bacha posh look like boys, they learn to behave like boys, and to those around them who don't know, they are Afghan boys.

Why are girls disguised as boys in Afghanistan?

It's a creative, some would say desperate, way to buck the system in a suppressive, gender-segregated society. In Afghanistan, men make most of the decisions and women and girls hold very little value. From the moment she is born, an Afghan girl has very few rights and little control over her own life. She often cannot leave the house without an escort. She must guard her behavior and appear modest at all times. (For a girl to ride a bike, for instance, would be seen by many as inappropriate.)
For Afghan girls, posing as a boy opens up a whole new world. It affords a girl freedom of movement; for some that means a chance to go to school, for others the ability to work and to support their families. In every case, it allows her to see and experience things most girls and young women in Afghanistan never do.

When you first broke the story of Afghanistan's bacha posh in a 2010 New York Times article, it drew millions of views and a massive response from readers worldwide. What drew you to this topic and inspired you to expand the article into a full-length book?

This is the story of a lifetime. How often does a journalist come upon an actual secret that holds the promise of a journey straight into the unknown, where no one has gone before? It also cuts right to the most difficult questions of human existence: war, oppression, and the differences between men and women. When I first discovered and started researching the bacha posh, I was frustrated to find that none of the Western experts on Afghanistan I consulted had any idea about this practice. In time, I realized I had to become the expert.
Furthermore, as a woman, the experience of bacha posh opens a window onto a very raw form of patriarchy, where my kind is unwanted, despised, and abused. Writing a full-length book gave me the space to go much more in-depth on this issue and to try to understand why that is.
I also hope that my book will reach an even broader audience; as a reader of my original Times piece said: "What woman hasn't," she wrote, "wondered how life would have been different if she had been born a boy?" Her comment helped me realize that this is not just a story about Afghanistan—it's a story about all women and the history we share, and that should be read and understood by women (and men) everywhere.

Most bacha posh are forced to become girls before they hit puberty, sometimes after living their whole lives as boys. What kind of lasting impact—if any—did this have on the women you interviewed?

My research, based on interviews with dozens of bacha posh, shows that the impact on adult females depends very much on when their transition back to the female gender takes place. A few years as a boy when they are children may be remembered as an empowering experience. But for those who go through puberty and beyond as young men, things quickly become much more complicated. Aside from the psychological conundrum, those who are nurtured as boys and young men through their teens and beyond can see a delay in the development of female identity and even the onset of puberty. It's an example of how the mind affects the body. Bacha posh really is a unique, current-day nurture versus nature experiment.

To research and write this book, you have spent a great deal of time in Afghanistan over the past few years. What was it like?

Working in a country at war can be physically and mentally exhausting; you're on high alert most of the time. There's a feeling that there is no time to lose, because who knows for how long you can be lucky and not be in the wrong place when a blast goes off? Imagine how Afghans feel, who have lived with this for more than thirty years. The good side of it is that Afghans are extremely polite and hospitable, and there is very little time for indecision or procrastination; interactions are much more immediate. With the constant presence of potential disaster, life takes sharper contours. And you laugh a lot together.

You reported this book from Afghanistan and worked closely with its subjects. Did you become friends with the women you interviewed for the book?

A classic tenet of journalism warns that a journalist should not make friends with her subjects. But I believe you can be a professional and a human being at the same time. With all my main characters, I have developed an intimate, respectful bond. Over the years I've asked them to tell me things they have never spoken of before, about their bodies, about sex, about religion—all the forbidden topics. In return, I have also shared some of my secrets with them.
At the same time, there were no blurred lines about who the journalist was and who the subjects were. Each of these very brave women made a conscious choice to be part of this book, and I have tried to honor that by offering a lot of transparency about my work. For instance, when I had a somewhat finished book manuscript in the summer of 2013, I went back to Kabul to see each of them again. We read it together, and for those who could not read, I read it out loud. Some details were added; others were taken out. Together we have tried to be careful and protect their families. In the end, I hope I have done them and their courage justice, and they have told me that they hope people will want to know about them. This is a dispatch from inside extreme suppression, from those who just happen to have been born in the most dangerous place on earth to be a woman.

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