Reading Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul was a lot like reading Sophie’s Choice or Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There’s not a lot of similarity between the three books, content- or style-wise. Sophie’s Choice and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are fiction; The Underground Girls of Kabul is based on the author’s experiences in Afghanistan and numerous interviews with Afghani women. What the reading experiences have in common is that they all made me profoundly, intensely angry. The Underground Girls of Kabul joins my very short list of books that have made me so incandescently furious that I wanted to hurl them across the room.
And this is precisely how any reader of this book ought to feel.
The “underground girls” of the book are the bacha posh—girls who are raised as boys for various reasons. Some parents choose to raise a girl as a boy to raise their odds of having an actual boy as their next child. Other parents need a boy to help work for family businesses or to help raise their reputation in their communities. Boys are so important to Afghan culture that bacha posh—as long as they can pass—are completely accepted. However, once a girl hits puberty, she must let her hair grow and put on dresses and headscarves and become a woman.
Jenny Nordberg spent years interviewing women and men and adolescents and bacha posh, investigating gender roles in post-Taliban Kabul and Afghanistan. Early in The Underground Girls of Kabul, Nordberg describes the difference between boys and girls thusly:
One kind of child is born with the promise of ownership and a world waiting outside. The other is born with a single asset, which must be strictly curtailed and controlled: the ability to one day give birth to sons of her own. She, like her mother before her, has arrived in what the Untied Nations calls the worst place to be born. And the most dangerous place in which to be a woman. (40*)
For a few years, the bacha posh get to take advantage of all the freedoms granted to males. Their sisters, however, learn to be quiet, to hide their bodies, to be still, to be perfect Afghan women. In a sense, the bacha posh are the luckiest girls in the country, at least until they have to turn back into females.
After the American-led coalition invaded Afghanistan and (temporarily) displaced the Taliban, women were able to regain some rights. But most of the gains were on paper only. Nordberg shows us how any changes to Afghan womens’ lives run into the long standing traditions that prevent them from being equals with men. Patronizing seminars for about empowerment (17) are pointless, Nordberg shows us, until every member of Afghan society learns that women not the weaker, stupider sex. As Nordberg writes, “Hope rests with these men [fathers and husbands], who control what happens to their daughters” (303). It’s galling, deeply galling, to admit, but Nordberg is right. Currently, any attempts to empower women are viewed as “a stand against men” (304). Power is viewed as a zero-sum gain. If women are to have more power and rights, who will have their power and rights taken away? And, as one of Nordberg’s interviewees, Azita, points out:
the burkas, and any other ways of hiding, will disappear only once there is safety and rule of law in Afghanistan. Until then, nothing much will happen in terms of easing harsh social codes and opening up opportunities for women. Because most of all, and first of all, there needs to be peace. (302)
The fact that Westerners and their money are leaving Afghanistan in droves means that peace and prosperity are not likely to arrive any time soon. Worse, as Norwegian political scientist Torunn Wimpelmann comments, “womens’ rights have increasingly become viewed as an elite and Western-backed issue by many in Afghanistan” (267).
Nordberg is skilled at showing us the limited, dangerous lives of Afghan women without making them appear pitiful or patronizing them. Her narrative follows a few particular women and their families. Azita is a politician from a remote province. Her youngest daughter is bacha posh and making the most of it. Through her, we see the advances and retreats in women’s rights. Nordberg introduces us to Zahra, a bacha posh who has reached the point when she must transform herself back into a female and is resisting every step. We also meet Shukria and Nader/Nadia, adult bacha posh. Shukria transitions back to a woman but always felt like an outsider and a failure as a women. Nader refuses to become a woman. She found a way to stay male and is helping other bacha posh fight to stay officially male.
Gender, Nordberg is careful to point out, is different in Afghanistan. In the West, we are coming to terms with the fact that gender is not tied to sexuality. Gender is a spectrum and is based primarily on culture. Nordberg summarizes the existing science by writing, “What makes a person and a personality is in fact a combination of nature and nurture, in the brain’s development in the womb and life experiences that follow” (178). There’s no reason to say that there are certain traits that are female or male, or that there’s a “natural” way of being a man or a woman; it’s all based on what a society expects of men and women. For the bacha posh, learning to be male or female was based on observation. For example, Nordberg writes of one former bacha posh:
By observing and imitating women’s behavior, Shukria now has arrived at very distinct ideas of the differences in male and female behavior.
“I had to change my thoughts and everything inside my mind,” is how she puts it. (175)
There’s nothing inherent about gender.
I am profoundly lucky. Biologically, I am female. I identify as a heterosexual cis woman. But the difference between me and women in Afghanistan is that I was born in the West. More importantly, I was born in the later quarter of the twentieth century, after generations of women reshaped society enough that I have equal legal rights to males in my country. (Social, it’s not as clear cut, but that’s another rant.) I never had to disguise myself to get an education. I wasn’t told what I had to wear or how to speak or act. My parents would never sell me in marriage to a man I didn’t know. I have the freedom to “identify” as a particular gender instead of being told what I am based on my anatomy. The girls in my family will never go through that Afghan women have to. We are lucky. I don’t know how the women and bacha posh in Nordberg’s book carry on, without giving in completely in to despair or rage.
Even though this wasn’t a pleasant read by any means, I think it’s an important book that should be widely read and discussed. The women of Afghanistan and women in similar societies should not be forgotten as Westerners leave these countries. Strange though it may sound, Nordberg’s book has a small, glimmering thread of hope. The bacha posh, though they’ve been around for centuries, are a sign of resistance. A society and a culture can change, given incentive and will.
As I read The Underground Girls of Kabul, I seethed. I kept myself awake at nights imagining what I would say to someone who believed that women were “natually” less than men. I’ve underlined so many passages from the book that I want to bring up with my book group that I don’t know how we’ll get to them all.
*Quotes are from the 2014 kindle edition by Crown Publishers.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Prescribe this book to readers suffering from ennui or apathy. Contraindications: Do not recommend to Men’s Rights Activists.