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

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

by Jenny Nordberg

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Overview

An investigative journalist uncovers a hidden custom in Afghanistan 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307952509
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/14/2015
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 109,559
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About 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).

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Rebel Mother

Azita, a few years earlier

Our brother is really a girl."

One of the eager-looking twins nods to reaffirm her words. Then she turns to her sister. She agrees. Yes, it is true. She can confirm it.

They are two ten-year-old identical girls, each with black hair, squirrel eyes, and a few small freckles. Moments ago, we danced to my iPod set to shuffle as we waited for their mother to finish a phone conversation in the other room. We passed the headphones between us, showing off our best moves. Though I failed to match their elaborate hip rolls, some of my most inspired sing-along was met with approval. It actually sounded pretty good bouncing off the ice-cold cement walls of the apartment in the Soviet-built maze that is home to a chunk of Kabul's small middle class.

Now we sit on the gold-embroidered sofa, where the twins have set up a tea service consisting of glass mugs and a pump thermos on a silver-plated tray. The mehman khana is the most opulent room in an Afghan home, meant to show off the wealth and good moral character of its owners. Cassette tapes with Koran verses and peach-colored fabric flowers sit on a corner table where a crack has been soldered with Scotch tape. The twin sisters, their legs neatly folded underneath them on the sofa, are a little offended by my lack of reaction to their big reveal. Twin number two leans forward: "It's true. He is our little sister."

I smile at them, and nod again. "Yes." Sure.

A framed picture on a side table shows their brother posing in a V-neck sweater and tie, with his grinning, mustached father. It is the only photo on display in the living room. His oldest daughters speak a shaky but enthusiastic English, picked up from textbooks and satellite television from a dish on the balcony. We just have a language barrier here, perhaps.

"Okay," I say, wanting to be friendly. "I understand. Your sister. Now, what is your favorite color, Benafsha?"

She goes back and forth between red and purple before passing the question to her sister, where it gets equally serious consideration. The twins, both dressed in orange cardigans and green pants, seem to do most things in perfect girly synchronicity. Their bobbing heads are topped with glittery hair scrunchies, and only when one speaks will the other's scrunchie be still for a few seconds. Those moments are a beginner's chance to tell them apart: A small birthmark on Beheshta's cheek is the key. Beheshta means "flower"; Benafsha, "paradise."

"I want to be a teacher when I grow up," Beheshta volunteers for our next topic.

When it becomes each of the twins' turns to ask a question, they both want to know the same thing: Am I married?

My response mystifies them, since—as they point out—I am very old. I am even a few years older than their mother, who at thirty-three is a married mother of four. The twins have another sister, too, in addition to their little brother. Their mother is also in the national parliament, I say to the twins. So there are many things I am not, compared to her. They seem to appreciate that framing.

Their brother suddenly appears in the doorway.

Mehran, age six, has a tanned, round face, deep dimples, eyebrows that go up and down as he grimaces, and a wide gap between his front teeth. His hair is as black as that of his sisters, but short and spiky. In a tight red denim shirt and blue pants, chin forward, hands on hips, he swaggers confidently into the room, looking directly at me, and pointing a toy gun in my face. Then he pulls the trigger and exclaims his greeting: phow. When I fail to die or shoot back, he takes out a plastic superhero from his back pocket. The wingman has blond hair, shiny white teeth, two gun belts slung across his bulging chest, and is armed with a machine gun. Mehran says something in Dari to the figurine and then listens intently to him. They seem to agree: The assault has been a success.

Benafsha comes alive at my side, seeing the chance to finally prove her point. She waves her arms to call her brother's attention: "Tell her, Mehran. Tell her you are our sister."

The corners of Mehran's mouth turn downward. He sticks his tongue out in a grimace before bolting, almost crashing, into his mother as she walks into the room.

Azita's eyes are lined with black kohl, and she wears a little bit of blush. Or perhaps it is the effect of having had a cell phone pressed to her ear. She is ready now, she exclaims in my direction. To tell me what I came to ask about—what it is like, almost a decade into America's longest war and one of the largest foreign aid efforts of a generation, to be an Afghan woman here.



When we first meet, on this day, I am researching a television piece on Afghan women and Azita has been a member of the country's fairly new parliament for four years. Elected to the Wolesi Jirga, one of the legislative branches installed a few years after the 2001 defeat of the Taliban, she had promised her rural voters in Badghis province that she would direct more of the foreign-aid influx to their poor, far-flung corner of Afghanistan.

The parliament she entered was heavily populated with drug kingpins and warlords and seemed to be in a state of paralysis due to deeply entrenched corruption, but it was at least an attempt at democracy that many Afghans expressed hope for. It followed many forms of failed governance during the last century: absolute monarchy, communism, and an Islamic emirate under the Taliban. Or no government at all in times of civil war.

As some foreign diplomats and aid workers around Kabul came to know Azita as an educated female parliamentarian who not only spoke Dari, Pashto, Urdu, and Russian, but also English, and who seemed relatively liberal, invitations to events poured in from the outside world. She was flown to several European countries and to Yale University in the United States, where she spoke of life under the Taliban.

It was not unusual for Azita to invite foreigners to her rented home in Macroyan, either to show her version of normal life in a Kabul neighborhood. Here, laundry flutters on the balconies of dirt-gray four-story buildings, interrupted by the occasional patch of greenery, and in the early mornings, women gather at the hole-in-the-wall bakeries while men perform stiff gymnastic exercises on the football field. Azita takes pride in being a host and showing herself off as an exception to the way Afghan women are portrayed in the outside world—as secluded inside their homes, with little connection to society, often illiterate and under the spell of demonizing husbands who do not allow them any daylight. And definitely not receiving visits from farangee, or foreigners, as the British were once dubbed by Afghans. These days, foreigners usually go under amrican, regardless of their passport.

Azita enjoys demonstrating her running water, the electricity, the television set in her bedroom; all paid for with money she has made as the breadwinner of the house. She knows that impresses foreigners. Especially female foreigners. With her glowing cheeks, sharp features, and military-grade posture, elegantly draped in black fabric from head to toe, and exuding a warm scent of musk mixed with something sweet, Azita does look different from Afghanistan's majority of women. At five feet six—perhaps a little taller in her pointy size-eleven sling-back heels—she even towers over some visitors. Those usually arrive in more practical shoes, as if on a trek somewhere.



On the topic of progress for women since 2001, Azita expresses little satisfaction to visiting foreigners, of which I am just the latest: Yes, more women are seen on the streets of Kabul and a few other larger cities than when the Taliban was in power, and more girls are enrolled in school, but just as in earlier eras when reforms were attempted, most progress for women is limited to the capital and a handful of other urban areas. Much of what the Taliban had banned and decreed regarding women is still effectively law in large parts of this mostly illiterate country, enforced by conservative tradition. In many provinces, burkas are still commonplace, and women rarely work or leave the house without their husbands. The majority of marriages are still forced, honor killings are not unusual, and any involvement of the justice system in a rape case usually means that only the victim goes to jail, charged with adultery or with having had premarital sex—unless she, as a commonly imposed solution, is forced to marry her rapist. Women burn themselves to death using cooking oil to escape domestic abuse here, and daughters are still a viable, informal currency used by fathers to pay off debts and settle disputes.

Azita is one of few women with a voice, but to many, she remains a provocation, since her life is different from that of most women in Afghanistan and a threat to those who subjugate them. In her words: "If you go to the remote areas of Afghanistan, you will see nothing has changed in women's lives. They are still like servants. Like animals. We have a long time before the woman is considered a human in this society."

Azita pushes her emerald green head scarf back to reveal a short black ponytail, and rubs her hair. I shake off my scarf, too, and let it fall down on my neck. She looks at me for a moment, where we sit in her bedroom. "I never want my daughters to suffer in the ways I have suffered. I had to kill many of my dreams. I have four daughters. I am very happy for that."

Four daughters. Only four daughters? What is going on in this family? I hold my breath for a moment, hoping Azita will take the lead and help me understand.

And she does.

"Would you like to see our family album?"



We move back into the living room, where she pulls out two albums from under a rickety little desk. The children look at these photos often. They tell the story of how Azita's family came to be.

First: a series of shots from Azita's engagement party in the summer of 1997. Azita's first cousin, whom she is to marry, is young and lanky. On his face, small patches of hair are still struggling to meet in the middle as a full beard; a requirement under Taliban rule at that time. The fiance wears a turban and a brown wool vest over a traditional white peran tonban—a long shirt and loose pants. None of the one hundred or so guests are smiling. By Afghan standards, where a party can number more than a thousand, it was a small and unimpressive gathering. It is a snapshot of the city meeting the village. Azita is the elite-educated daughter of a Kabul University professor. Her husband-to-be: the illiterate son of a farmer.

A few staged moments are captured. The fiance, attempting to feed his future wife some of the pink and yellow cake. She turns her head away. At nineteen, Azita is a thinner and more serious version of her later self, in a cobalt blue silk caftan with rounded shoulder pads. Her fingernails have been painted a bright red to match crimson lips, set off by a white-powdered face that reads as a mask. Her hair is a hard, sprayed bird's nest. In another shot, her future husband offers her a celebratory goblet from which she is expected to drink. She stares into the camera. Her matte, powdery face is streaked with vertical lines running from dark brown eyes.

A few album pages later, the twins pose with Azita's mother, a woman with high cheekbones and a strong nose in a deeply lined face. Both Benafsha and Beheshta blow kisses onto their bibi-jan, who still lives with their grandfather in the northwest of Afghanistan. Soon, a third little girl makes her appearance in the photos. Middle sister Mehrangis has pigtails and a slightly rounder face. She poses next to the twin mini-Azitas, who suddenly look very grown up in their white ruffle dresses.

Azita flips the page: Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in 2005. Four little girls in cream-colored dresses. All ordered by size. The shortest has a bow in her hair. It is Mehran. Azita puts her finger on the picture. Without looking up, she says: "You know my youngest is also a girl, yes? We dress her like a boy."

I glance in the direction of Mehran, who has been skidding around the periphery as we have talked. She has hopped into another chair and is talking to the plastic figurine again.

"They gossip about my family. When you have no sons, it is a big missing, and everyone feels sad for you."

Azita says this as if it is a simple explanation.

Having at least one son is mandatory for good standing and reputation here. A family is not only incomplete without one; in a country lacking rule of law, it is also seen as weak and vulnerable. So it is incumbent upon every married woman to quickly bear a son-it is her absolute purpose in life, and if she does not fulfill it, there is clearly something wrong with her in the eyes of others. She could be dismissed as a dokhtar zai, or "she who only brings daughters." Still, this is not as grave an insult as what an entirely childless woman could be called—a sanda or khoshk, meaning "dry" in Dari. But a woman who cannot birth a son in a patrilineal culture is—in the eyes of society and often herself—fundamentally flawed.

The literacy rate is no more than 10 percent in most areas, and many unfounded truths swirl around without being challenged. Among them is the commonly held belief that a woman can choose the sex of her unborn baby simply by making up her mind about it. As a consequence, a woman's inability to bear sons does not elicit much sympathy. Instead, she is condemned both by society and her own husband as someone who has just not desired a son strongly enough. Women, too, often resort to blaming their own bodies and weak minds for failing to deliver sons.

The character flaws often add up about such a woman in the eyes of others: She is surely difficult and obnoxious. Perhaps even evil. The fact that the father actually determines the sex of a child, as the male sperm carries the chromosome makeup for each child and determines whether a boy or a girl will be born, is unknown to most.

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

Part 1 Boys

Chapter 1 The Rebel Mother 7

Chapter 2 The Foreigner 16

Chapter 3 The Chosen One 26

Chapter 4 The Son Maker 38

Chapter 5 The Politician 49

Chapter 6 The Underground Girls 63

Chapter 7 The Naughty One 73

Part 2 Youth

Chapter 8 The Tomboy 95

Chapter 9 The Candidate 116

Chapter 10 The Pashtun Tea Party 130

Chapter 11 The Future Bride 140

Chapter 12 The Sisterhood 151

Part 3 Men

Chapter 13 The Bodyguard 163

Chapter 14 The Romantic 182

Chapter 15 The Driver 193

Chapter 16 The Warrior 202

Chapter 17 The Refusers 215

Chapter 18 The Goddess 224

Map: Zoroastrianism Across the Globe 232

Part 4 Fathers

Chapter 19 The Defeated 237

Chapter 20 The Castoff 254

Chapter 21 The Wife 262

Chapter 22 The Father 275

Epilogue: One of the Boys 300

Author's Note 309

Notes 313

Acknowledgments 337

Index 339

Reading Group Guide

Book club discussion guide for The Underground Grils of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg.

1. The Underground Girls of Kabul features several women who find ways to resist and subvert power—including Azita, whose status is elevated by disguising her daughter as a son; Mehran, who is able to confidently roughhouse with boys her own age; and Zahra, who fights her parents to maintain her male identity after puberty. Which woman’s story did you find most interesting? Why?

2. Although Afghanistan and its conflicts have been well-covered, the book offers a different entry point into the lives of people there. Before reading this book what (if anything) did you know about Afghanistan? What did you find surprising about the country and its history in reading this book?

3. Do you think the practice of bacha posh is subversive, with the potential to change the strict gender culture of Afghanistan? Or do you see it as women capitulating to and reinforcing a system of segregation?

4. Some of the girls who are raised as bacha posh do not want to go back to living as women. How do you think you would react if you were in their position?

5. After reading the book, does the practice of bacha posh make sense to you or is it entirely foreign? How would you explain why this happens?

6. The author outlines a pervasive culture of violence and extreme segregation. Which part of the story, if any, made you angry? Why?

7. What historical and current-day parallels to bacha posh, pretending to be someone or something else due to segregation or oppression can you think of: real or fictional, in different countries, for different reasons?

8. Are the lives of Afghan women entirely different from those of women in the West, or do you see similarities in how we behave and how we live? What are those?

9. Do you agree that there is also a “culture of honor” in our society, where girls should be pure and boys should be aggressive and protective? Where do you see examples of that in the reporting of daily news or in your own life?

10. Many of the women in this book experience the limits of female freedom, even if they have had success. For example, Azita has risen from a small Afghan village to occupy a place in parliament, but she is still very limited in what she can do and how far she can reach. Is there a limit to how far most women can get in our own society today? Why is that?

11. In an interview about the book, Jenny Nordberg said that the story of the bacha posh “cuts right to the most difficult questions of human existence: war, oppression, and the difference between men and women.” Do you agree? Why are the differences between men and women so important to us?

12. Jenny Nordberg raises questions about whether or not gender is dichotomous, and she even calls bacha posh “a third kind of child”—neither boy nor girl. What do you think: Are we born a certain way or do we become our gender?

13. Under what circumstances would you consider raising a daughter as a son? And in what situation or circumstance could you imagine disguising yourself in exchange for greater freedom?

14. Did you ever wonder how things would have been different had you been born a child of the other gender? Did you ever wish, at any stage in your life or in a particular circumstance, that you could be a different gender?

15. For the female reader: Did you ever dress in a less feminine and more traditionally male or conservative way to be taken seriously? Why is that important?

16. For the male reader: What traits that are considered traditionally female have you ever wished you could display more openly, if any? Do you feel a pressure to appear manly in the sense of protecting one’s family; to appear capable; et cetera?

17. In what way were you treated like a boy or a girl, respectively, when you were little? Were there things you absolutely couldn’t do due to your gender? Do you see a future in which gender roles will be less strict, and how is that a good or a bad thing for men and women?

18. Do you agree with the author’s conclusion that women’s rights are essential to human rights and to building peaceful civilizations? Why or why not?

19. What would you tell the author or any of these women? They would love to hear from you. We invite you to continue the conversation on bachaposh.com or to connect with Jenny Nordberg on Twitter: @nordbergj

Interviews

Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Jenny Nordberg

In The Underground Girls of Kabul, the talented, tenacious Jenny Nordberg delivers subtle, sympathetic portraits and a fresh perspective on the plight of women in a deeply segregated society by uncovering the lives of the bacha posh, Afghan girls allowed to live freely in society — dressed and acting as boys — until marriage. Nordberg discusses turning her newspaper reportage into a full-length book, working in Afghanistan, and what she learned from her subjects in a conversation for the Barnes & Noble Review. —Miwa Messer, Director, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program

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.

October 15, 2014

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