When I stumbled across this book in an article online, I knew I had to download it and read it right away.
Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan was a wonderful read that I recommend to everyone.
Follow me on Goodreads here to keep up with what I’m reading.
Why do I recommend this book to everyone? Well, it’s quite the educational book which tells many different true stories of girls and women in Afghanistan. I also have a soft spot for journalists who write damn good ethnographies. What can I say? 😛 I have an odd love for cultural anthropology.
Anyway, this book is about girls and women who were raised as boys. This is known in Afghanistan as “bacha posh,” which is Dari for “dressed up as a boy.”
In Agfhanistan, it is common for a family to have a daughter be raised as a son. This happens for several different reasons, which I’ll let you find out by reading the book.
Nordberg did a magnificent job telling the stories of these girls and women. I cannot imagine the things women have to go through when living in Afghanistan. The ones interviewed in this book were just like any other women. They could’ve been just like you and I. The only difference is that they live in a society where women really don’t have equal rights compared to men. Men, and boys, are worshipped and highly valued, while women are the ones who are owned by men. I can see how many believe that it is unfortunate to be a woman living in Afghanistan. I can also see the pros and cons of being bacha posh.
I don’t want to spoil anything for you in this book, because you really do have to read it all for yourself to truly understand the situation going on in Afghanistan with these women. It’s not just nature vs. nurture, or women vs. men, it’s political and social.
I want to share my favorite excerpts from the book. I hope they make you want to go pick up a copy and read it.
(Sorry I can’t quote you the exact page. I read this as an ebook on my Kindle. So because of the different text size choices available, and me changing them all the time, I’d throw everyone off with page numbers :P)
“Having a made-up son was better than none, and people complimented her on her ingenuity.”
“But what will happen when puberty hits? ‘You mean when he grows up?’ Azita says, her hands tracing the shape of a woman in the air. ‘It’s not a problem. We can change her into a girl again.”
“In choosing each detail of her outfit, Azita considers the fundamentals of Afghanistan’s honor culture, where a woman’s purity is linked to the reputation of her family at all times.”
“‘A woman who attracts improper attention to herself is inevitably a whore.’ For a woman, being likened to a whore for dressing the wrong way or being seen speaking to a man who is not her husband can be of great consequence: Her neighbors will talk, her parents may be devastated, and shame will fall over her relatives and potentially tarnish their reputation and standing in society.”
“Any profession in which a woman interacts with or can be observed by other men is more problematic, as it risks tarnishing her family’s reputation.”
“In another universe, in another life, Azita’s color of choice would be bright red–but that is an impossible color in Afghanistan. The color of fire is considered to be overtly sexual, meant to arrest the eyes of men. It is for someone who means to be flamboyant. Admired. Brightly colored dress was outright banned by the Taliban, but it still would be unthinkable, potentially even dangerous, in Afghanistan’s conservative culture. No respectable Kabul woman wears red outside the house, and Azita owns no red clothing.”
“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 relates and neighbors. She could be denied food for several days. She could be beaten and relegated to the outhouse to sleep with the 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 life expectancy of a woman here is 44 years, and she spends much of it being pregnant. Most couples know how to limit pregnancies if they want to, but the pressure to have another son often overrides any concern for a woman’s survival.”
“‘But why do only sons count here? What is it that women cannot do?’ I ask. Dr. Fareiba raises her hands in the air to express frustration. She already explained this: It is not about capability. Men and women just have different roles and different tasks. It is about how society is arranged and what works. It is about how it’s always been.”
“The ownership of an Afghan girl is literally passed on from one male–her father–to the one who becomes her husband. He will take over the ruling of her life, down to the smallest details if he is so inclined.”
“‘The daughter is never ours. But the son,’ says Dr. Fareiba in a matter-of-fact tone, ‘will stay with us forever.'”
“Dr. Fareiba is well aware that the male sperm decides the sex of the fetus, but she still believes that ‘changing conditions’ inside a woman’s body can make the environment more or less favorable for the ‘right’ sperm–those carrying the male chromosome combination. The man needs no special treatment, however. His body is already complete and ready to produce sons.”
“9 out of 10 Afghan women will experience domestic abuse in some form, according to surveys from the UN and several human rights organizations.”
“‘It is not called rape in Afghanistan if your husband forces himself on you,’ she says. ‘People would think you are a stupid woman if you call it that.’ A woman’s body is always available to her husband, not only for procreation, but for recreation as well, since male sexuality is seen as a good and necessary thing.”
“‘…woman is a very beautiful thing. In order to protect something beautiful, you should core it. Like a diamond. You cannot just put it on the street, because everyone would just come and take it.'”
“In another country, Zahra would perhaps by now be suspected of having what the WHO terms gender identity disorder. It is defined as ‘persistent and intense distress about being a girl, and a stated desire to be a boy.'”
“…gender behaviors are learned. A person’s sex is determined at birth, but gender is not: It is trained and adopted through performance.”
“Despite Afghans’ awareness of their practice, individual bacha posh are often isolated, and left alone to ponder their notions of gender. But each older bacha posh I have come to know has at one point turned to me and asked if there are others like her. Some have been stunned to learn that there are–not only in Afghanistan, but also in other countries. How can we speak to them? they have asked. How can we meet? Or, as Shahed once asked me, how could they build a village where they would all live together?”
I hope you enjoyed reading those excerpts. But just think about them. The reason I picked those ones specifically to share was not only because I highlighted them on my Kindle, but because they all meant something to me. Just read them and tell me they aren’t impactful. This book was truly something special. You’ll learn a lot after reading it.