The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

18077802Nonfiction — print. Crown, 2014. 350 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan”, Nordberg’s book introduces readers to families who have made the decision to raise their daughters as bacha posh (“dressed up like a boy” in Dari). These young girls are raised as boys and, therefore, allowed to travel freely outside the home, attend school, work, and play with other children unlike females of all ages.

As Nordberg explains, because Afghanistan is a patriarchal society and biology is poorly understood, women who fail to produce male children are, at best, criticized and pitied or, at worst, abused and divorced. Some women such as Azita, a female member of Afghanistan’s parliament, raise their youngest daughter as bacha posh in order to save face in their community or to provide their elder daughters with protection to and from school. Others do so because of a belief in a particular strain of magic, which Afghanistan’s obstetricians and mullahs equally support, remaining from the country’s history with Zoroastrianism that says a daughter raised bacha posh will cause the next child to be a boy.

While there are no statistics to explain how wide spread this unique phenomenon is in Afghanistan, Nordberg managed to meet with multiple girls, women, and mothers of varying ages who were either raised bacha posh or are raising their own daughters as boys through the life cycle of a typical Afghani female. Mehran, Azita’s daughter, seems to revel in her freedom as a bacha posh; she plays games with unrelated, male children in the neighborhood and is much louder and freer with her opinions than her three older sisters are allowed to be.

However, she is adamant that she is a boy rather than a girl leaving both Nordberg and the reader to wonder if Mehran will struggle with the transition back to womanhood as much as Zahra, a teenager who rejects her mother’s attempts to force her to wear a hijab, continues to wear clothing designated as male, and categorically loathes the parts of her body that are decidedly not male.

If Zahra is transgender, her childhood as bacha posh does not transition onto to adulthood. She is expected to conform to the constrictive standards for young women now that she has reached puberty, and her community, which like others did not comment on her bacha posh childhood, has begun to exclude her and tarnish her reputation possibly ruining her changes of making an advantageous marriage.

However, even if Zahra decides she is cisgender or her father refuses to continue to support her as a bacha posh, she might follow in the footsteps of Shukria and struggle to adjust marriage and motherhood after living twenty years as a man. Time as bacha posh provided Shukria with access to an education allowing her to support her family after her marriage, but I found it incredibly telling that Shukria is adamant that she would not allow her two daughters to be raised as bacha posh because of how confusing the transition back to girlhood can be. After all, once you get a taste of freedom, it is impossible to willingly give it up.

This is one of the most humanizing books on Afghanistan I have had the pleasure of reading. Nordberg makes connections here and there between the experiences of Afghani women to those in Western history (e.g. Joan of Arc and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge), but she largely removes her own commentary from the book and allows her interviewees to present their own stories and experiences. The women and bacha posh in her book are not the nameless, shapeless blobs in burqas found in so many other books on the region. Rather, they are individuals with contradictory ideals and beliefs.

Nordberg’s book is also one of the few on the region that addresses gender issues without heavy-handed preaching. It would have been easy to glorify bacha posh as resistance as the subtitle suggests, but Nordberg moved her examination of this phenomenon beyond childhood to show how this “solution” to the forces of patriarchy can be both a saving grace and have lasting consequences. Zahra and Shukria are obviously extremes, but Nordberg also explains how there are still “tells” amongst the most well-adjusted, former bacha posh. Namely, these women forget to avert their eyes around men and carry themselves differently, which can cause them to be labeled as jezebels and, therefore, tarnish their and their family’s reputation.

Furthermore, can this truly be perceived as resistance if bacha posh are expected to immediately conform to expectations placed upon their mothers and sisters as soon as they reach puberty? If teachers and community members are willing to accept a child’s gender based solely on appearance with commentary or opposition until that child reaches puberty? If fathers such as those profiled in the book are only willing to interact with or provide opportunities to their bacha posh child rather than their female children?

Certainly, the book suggests that American society has a long way to go on its acceptance of gender fluidity, but wouldn’t resistance be allowing children like Zahra to continue to present themselves as males or engage in male-only activities with the blessing of their mother, father, and extended families? More than enough food for thought, no? Exactly how I like my nonfiction books to be.

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