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.
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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
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
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
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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book exceeded my expectations. I knew little about the females of the Middle East and this book enlightened me about the Afghanistan population, more than I ever imagined. If you could see my copy, you would know that I enjoyed this book immensely. I have pages of notes pertaining to this book that have opened my eyes and I have talked about this book with many others, it has definitely made an impact on my life. Gender equality, gender power and gender identity issues are words that run deep in this region of the world. I was shocked to learn just how important sons were for this region, so important that a female in the household will dress and act as a male to play this role should a boy not be born into the household. How long they hold out in this charade depends on a few factors which the author digs into and shows us, the reader. The author brings to us the lives of a few individuals who are walking in these very shoes. I found their lives very fascinating and interesting. The pros and the cons are examined and I felt that the author provided a very thoroughly job explaining this complicated life which is so different from our very own but also has a few characteristics of issues that we deal with here in our own country. The author addresses many subjects in the book surrounding the female individual including marriage, jobs, divorce and children. The author brings us personal stories and females who have walked the walk in these different situations so we hear firsthand what their lives were like and/or what they are experiencing firsthand. There is nothing like hearing it come from a person who has actually lived in those conditions. I felt so connected and informed about the females in this region and I know bits of my heart were breaking but to them, they knew no different. I could sing praises of this book forever and I know my husband is probably sick of me reading quotes of the book to him so read this book. The author will take you on a journey where you will meet some individuals who are trying to rise above it all. Thank you Goodreads for my copy of this book. This is my own opinion of this book.
NOTE: In view of the non-fictional account of true events within this book, this will most likely be an unqualified book review because you really can’t critique what is factual; like, the characters and the stories in this hardcover. Alright so here’s the scoop: I have sat at my desk holding this book tightly against my chest, all while staring at a blank post template for countless minutes, unable to decide how I should proceed with this review. Only to end up walking away completely defeated, and ultimately disappearing under my covers, all while sobbing and whispering faint, “I can’t! I can’t! I cant’s!” into my crushed reality, because the truth of the matter is, how do you even begin to review factual events that are taking place today without opening a floor for debate? I for one, do not like debates; especially, around events as heavy-handed as these. Granted, a story of this magnitude should be told, there’s no arguing that, and it goes without saying, Jenny Nordberg writes this emotional narrative with so much grace and humility. For one, she carries the narration of the story without hysterics; not once, does she shame, degrade or disprove the people of Afghanistan or their culture; nor does she, retaliate against the opposition. I commend her conduct and inclination to avoid disparagement, but at the same time, I would love to know how she truly felt given the circumstances surrounding the prose. With that in mind, I remember with almost painful clarity the way in which Jenny collectedly painted the unsanitary conditions within the hospitals of Afghanistan where Afghan women lay helplessly in labor awaiting their eventual fate: If a daughter is born, it is not uncommon for a new mother to leave this delivery room in tears. She will return to the village, her head bowed in shame, where she may be derided by relatives and neighbors. She could be denied food for several days. She could be beaten or relegated to the outhouse to sleep with animals as punishment for bringing the family another burden. And if the mother of a newborn has several daughters already, her husband may be ridiculed as a weakling with whom nature refuses to cooperate, a mada posht. Translation: “He whose woman will only deliver girls.” The only thing I feel right now, is the weight of my own tears as I just finished sharing this quote with you. . . I experienced this book in a fairly odd way too, during the time when the influence of ISIS began to overrun the Middle East, the time when I had just finished reading The Kite Runner, and during the time when I was deeply involved in my community’s House of Prayer; praying for the Middle East in specific. Therefore, my emotions and my thoughts were in a whirlwind of chaos. Needless to say, I often times read and received the stories of these women in a sort of shell-shocked, wide-eyed paralysis. The Underground Girls of Kabul, is a great book -allow me to rephrase that, it is a praiseworthy informative book, but it reads similar to a distressing and painful inhumanity of a Holocaust memoir, and for this reason, my recommendation is in a mixed bag. I am afraid that is all I can truly say; I don’t know if this is a book I could recommend because it is slightly different from most of the books I speak highly of. Even so, it is a must read as it will pluck you from the norm of the popular fictional realms and will hurl you into a reality that will give you a closer look at what is really taking place in the world around us. IN A NUTSHELL: // Jenny Nordberg delivers a powerfully written narrative that sheds light on what it’s like to be a woman in Afghanistan. More respectively, “The worst country in the world to be a woman”, according to the United Nations // It is a story about survival as well as the short comings the most silenced voices in our society are forced to confront // If you are debating on whether to read this book or not, please know that it is not a light read by any means; nor is it a “feel good” story either; on the contrary! It convicts and poses questions about your own humanity and society // The novel reads just like a documentary // It is a story about families that are compelled to disguise their daughter’s gender for the purpose of acquiring income and legitimacy; without a son, a family is seen as weak and vulnerable // I personally valued the book. It kind of just makes you want to hold your little girls and tell them how much you love them, and just sob! It’s worth the read, but with reservations 3 THINGS I LIKED: + The book cover and overall presentation of the book is stunning. There is an itemized table of contents, a detailed index, an author’s note with follow-up accounts of each character’s life story, and the edge of the pages have a vintage look to them; I love it! + Jenny Nordberg who risked her own life in order to raise awareness about the practice of bacha posh and the conflicts the women in Afghanistan face. I know that a simple thank you will never be enough to express how incredibly grateful I am for your book, but in all seriousness, thank you. From the bottom of my heart. + Despite the incomprehensible religion and customs, I came to discover that many of the women in Afghanistan who have once lived as a bacha posh, stand proud in their ethnicity and take pride in their country. Like Azita for example, a former parliamentarian whose life Nordberg explores in great detail. Azita is a respectable revolutionary and out of all the characters, she gave me hope and I long to see some sort of reformation through her life, and that of Nordberg’s 3 THINGS I DID NOT LIKE: - "The Taliban leadership also argued for sexual abstinence and maintained that contact between men and women in society should be avoided, as it would only serve to weaken warriors.” For a group of men who long to rule a male dominant society, I have to wonder, do they realize that women are necessary in order to produce. . .well, more men? Are they that ignorant to the fact that they sometimes go as far as to murder their own little girls because they are a “burden?” I just cannot comprehend this barbaric belief; it’s inhumane! - "The responsibility for men’s behavior, indeed for civilization itself, rests entirely with women here, and in how they dress and behave. Men’s animalistic impulses are presumed to be overwhelming and uncontrollable. An as men are brutal, brainless savages, women must hide their bodies to avoid being assaulted. In most societies, a respectable woman, to varying degrees, is expected to cover up. If she doesn’t, she is inviting assault. Any woman who gets into “trouble” by drawing too much attention from men will have only herself to blame.” - It is frightening to think after reading this book, that this is a prevalent issue in our modern-day. Frankly, I struggled to reason how when a bacha posh reaches the age of puberty, it’s suddenly convenient to reverse the gender roles as if it is not a difficult process. This has got to be a complex psychological struggle for every bacha posh female! I especially saw this in Zahra’s story Overall Rating: Storyline | 5/5 Characters | 5/5 Violence | Moderate Profanities | None Sexual Content | Minor Mature subjects/themes include, but are limited to: loss of a loved one, death, assault, family strife, arranged marriages, discrimination; especially against women and little girls, cross dressing, social conflict, politics, warfare, coming of age, sexism, fundamentalist cultures, Taliban, Islam, honor killings
I was so unaware that my knowledge of the Afghan peoples and cultures was so miniscule! I AM NOW MUCH MORE ENLIGHTENED,SADDENED AND EMPOWERED TO LEARN MORE TO HELP
An interesting and revealing book I received free from Goodreads First Reads. Jenny Nordberg, a journalist, realistically tells the reader what life is like for a female in the country of Afghanistan. A baby boy is celebrated and revered while a baby girl is not highly looked upon. A woman who does not give birth to a baby boy finds herself doing everything in her power to have a baby boy and may have to have a girl pretending to be a boy as long as possible. Read the highly recommended book by the talented author, Jenny Nordberg.
Author Jenny Nordberg began to hear hints of something hidden in Afghanistan. Hidden within a culture that values men over women, and the birth of a baby boy is something to celebrate while the birth of a baby girl can lead to shame and public ridicule, there is a hidden tradition carried out by some families, whereby young girls are raised as boys. These girls are referred to as bacha posh. There are different motivations for having a daughter live as a bacha posh. Some do it in order to improve their reputation and standing after having only daughters, while others do it for the convenience of having a "son" to assist with things like running errands and escorting the other daughters in the family (in a society that forbids women and young girls to go out unsupervised without a male present). And yet others do it for the benefit of the girl, in order to allow her to have the experience and confidence that comes with living as a boy. They are entitled to sit with their father and his friends, to work, to play in the street. There are special benefits allowed young boys that girl's are not permitted. Here in America we tend to oversimplify this issue. We think Afghanistan simply needs to change their culture of making women second-class citizens who live at the whim of the men in their lives. However we don't understand the complexity of the issue, in a society that views the years before puberty of both men and women as simply "preparation for procreation". Their economy is essentially based heavily on the ability to sell daughters into marriage and to form tribal alliances. At one point, the author asks people about the differences between men and women. Men give a list of varied responses, such as women are more "sensitive" or more "emotional". But the majority of the women give the same answer: freedom. Which led me to think: In the West, we focus on things like women being forced to cover their heads. However it is so much simpler than that. The women would happily cover their heads as an expression of their faith, if only they could have freedom: the freedom to choose to leave the house, to travel, to go to school, to choose whether or not to marry and whom to marry, whether or not to have children. This is why every Afghan woman wishes she were a man. Men have freedom; women do not. My final word: I absolutely loved this book! It made me realize how complicated this issue is. You can't just say, "Women should be treated equally..." and expect that is it. This is a cultural issue that has developed over thousands of years, and has economical implications as well as many other things. It is something that needs to be slowly changed, and it is something that needs to be changed from within the Afghan people and culture, and not from the outside from the West. The author uses the stories of multiple girls who have lived as bacha posh to illustrate the benefits and downfall of this practice. The book was well done, although the transition between subjects was sometimes difficult to follow, and you'd have to try and figure out who was being written about now. This was an unquestionably fascinating read, and a favorite of 2014!
In a country where a family’s worth is dependent on their having a son, some Afghans have found a creative way to circumvent the system. It’s more common than you’d expect, rarely discussed in polite company, and has been going on for generations. What do they do, you ask? Why, they raise their daughters as sons. In a stunning story of a trend discovered completely by accident, Nordberg takes us on a journey through Afghanistan and into the lives of families, and women, who are bucking tradition. The Underground Girls of Kabul is an incredible story about what it takes to survive in an oppressive culture and the creative ways families find to survive within it. The fact that Nordberg stumbled across this trend completely by accident only adds to the book, for the reader feels like he/she is learning each new piece of information alongside the author. Her curiosity and ability to coax families to open up is stunning, making this a book that everyone should read. Allison @ The Book Wheel
Although Afghanistan is a highly patriarchal culture, there is an unspoken tradition of the bacha posh, a girl who is allowed to dress like a boy and assume the role of the male gender until they come of age. It normally takes place in a family in a family that has several daughters but no sons. This allows the daughters to leave the house without a male relative and actually elevates the family’s standing in the community, even if everyone knows the supposed boy is really a girl. The main characters are Azita, a well-educated female politician who was allowed to dress as a boy for a few years while working in her father’s shop; Mehran, Azita’s fourth daughter who at the age of six was transformed into a boy to increase the family’s prestige, Zahra, a tomboy who is refusing to turn back into a girl although she is of childbearing age, Shukria, a nurse who lived as a boy and man for twenty years but eventually married and had three children, Nader, a grown woman who still dresses as a man and teaches martial arts to girls, and Shahed, an undercover female police officer. The author regards traditional Afghan attitudes toward gender, a combination of Islam and Zoroastrianism, to be an extreme case of gender discrimination in history and around the world. I found the book to be quite interesting, but my wife got angry as she read it.
I know that the situation in Afghanistan is not the norm for all women in the Muslim faith. I know that there are situations in some Christian communities where women lack equality with men, access to education, and opportunities to reach their potential. I say this because I don’t want to overstate the case. However, I find Jenny Nordberg’s book about women in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan to be credible. Because it is believable, it is hard to accept. Women in Afghanistan have no rights. Even the individual Nordberg gives the most attention to, the politician is under heel in her own home. Jenny Nordberg has opened a world that most Americans and westerners never see or understand. Now that she has revealed it, I still don’t understand it. I come away from my reading of “The Underground Girls of Kabul” thinking there is no way in traditional Islam that women can ever be fully human. Combined with the experiences shared in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “Infidel,” I am left to conclude that a main thread of Islam involves the violent subjugation of women. I am a Baptist pastor who tries to afford women every opportunity men have within the church. My more conservative Baptist peers do not feel women should be allowed to be ordained as pastors. I do. However, even the conservative Baptists in the United States have no objection to women becoming doctors, lawyers, politicians, or university professors. The rights denied women in conservative American Christianity while wrong pale in comparison to the way women are subjugated in normative Islamic life in Afghanistan. I think Jenny Nordberg went through real hardship to research this book and her final product is a gift to any thinking person who wants to understand the situation in conservative Islamic communities. Writers who go the extent she did to accomplish her work help make humankind smarter.
I'm not sure I can say I enjoyed reading this book but I was certainly fascinated by the insight into a cultur of which I know very little. As an American, it is hard to understand a society where women have so few choices about their lives. Ms. Nordberg did an excellent job of pointing out this difficulty while giving useful information for understanding what seems a strange custom of open and accepted deception. It was also interesting to see how this was actually beneficial to the individual and women as a whole in this country. Would recommend it to anyone wanting more information about this country and the role of women there.