Book Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, Jenny Nordberg (2014)

October 10th, 2014 12:02 pm by Kelly Garbato

Engaging, Informative, Interrogative; Intersectional Gender Studies At Its Best

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program.)

The bacha posh […] is a human phenomenon, and exists throughout our history, in vastly different places, with different religions and in many languages. Posing as someone, or something, else is the story of every woman and every man who has experienced repression and made a bid for freedom. It is the story of a gay U.S. Marine who had to pretend he was straight. It is the story of a Jewish family in Nazi Germany posing as Protestants. It is the story of a black South African who tried to make his skin lighter under apartheid. Disguising oneself as a member of the recognized and approved group is at the same time a subversive act of infiltration and a concession to an impossible racist, sexist, or otherwise segregating system.

Investigative journalist Jenny Nordberg was researching a larger story about Afghan women when she stumbled upon the practice of bacha posh (“dressed up like a boy” in Dari). During a visit with Azita Rafaat, one of the few women* to be elected to Afghanistan’s newly formed Parliament, one of Azita’s four children let the family’s loosely guarded secret slip: “Our brother is really a girl.” And so begins The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan.

Bacha poshes are a sort of “third child”: dressed, raised, and/or presented to the outside world as boys, the majority of these girls are nonetheless expected to embrace their womanhood – and the subjugation which accompanies it – once they hit puberty. While the level of freedom afforded a bacha posh varies – depending on the family’s reasons for passing their daughter off as a son; their level of income; their local community’s feelings on the practice; and the family patriarch’s open mindedness, or lack thereof – it’s arguably better than existing while female in Afghanistan, where women have few rights. In Azita’s words, “I wanted to show my youngest what life is like on the other side.”

After meeting six-year-old Mehran (formerly known as Mahnoush), Nordberg inquired around about the practice, only to be dismissed out of hand by the various Western “experts” who flooded Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. invasion. But more discreet interviews with Afghans themselves revealed that bacha posh is a longstanding tradition, deeply rooted in history, that exists out in the open but is rarely discussed beyond the confines of the home – “don’t ask, don’t tell,” if you will. Nordberg was surprised to find that many of the Afghanis she met knew of at least one bach posh, if even just second- or third-hand (e.g., ‘a friend of a friend’s cousin’). In a patrilineal culture where “having at least one son is mandatory for a family’s good standing and reputation,” the pressure to produce a son – one way or another – is overwhelming.

A bacha posh can fill a variety of roles, well beyond preserving her family’s reputation – not to mention her mother’s worth as a woman. A woman’s value is tied to her ability to bear children; and, as it’s commonly believed that mothers can choose the sex of their unborn children, an inability to produce male heirs is seen as a personal weakness and moral failing.

Additionally, since bacha poshes are allowed into male spaces, the boundaries of which girls are not allowed to breach, dressing as a boy frees girls to assist their fathers in their shops, or take jobs to help support their families. In households where the husband has died or is frequently absent, a bach posh is crucial to upholding the honor of her mother and sisters – not to mention, the day-to-day functioning of the household. In a culture where women are tied to men – children are considered the property of their father and, upon marriage, this ownership passes from a woman’s father to her husband – a woman who doesn’t have a man, be it father, husband, or son, is adrift; vulnerable; in a legal no-man’s-land.

Sometimes, the role of a bacha posh is much more fleeting; it’s believed that “magical” bacha poshes can help encourage their mothers to give birth to “real” sons, in a process that’s similar to the Western concept of “manifesting.”

Bacha poshes may be “turned back” into girls once a biological son arrives; other times, they continue to pass as boys “just in case” (Afghanistan has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world, despite an increase in average life expectancy.), or to further elevate the family’s status. They may be presented to the world as boys immediately after birth, or undergo the transition during infancy or toddlerhood as needed. However, one thing remains a near-universal truth: bacha poshes are expected to revert back to girlhood upon reaching puberty – or preferably just before. While most girls don’t choose their boyhood, many come to enjoy it; and not all bacha poshes willing to go back. Many would rather trade their gender for their freedom.

Yet some of Nordberg’s subjects – she interviewed roughly 36 current and former bacha poshes for this book – continue to defy and confuse gender roles long after it’s considered acceptable to do so. There’s fifteen-year-old Zahra, a “magical” bacha posh, who refuses to go back to being a girl now that she’s no longer needed to play at being a boy; she went into shock when she first got her period. Shukria lived as a man until a month before her wedding; her parents made her a bacha posh at birth in order to protect her older brother – their “real,” valuable son – from attempts on his life by their father’s first wife. (Having a man’s only son elevates a wife’s status in polygamous marriages.)

On the other end of the spectrum lies Nader, another “magical” bacha posh, who was lucky enough to have a liberal-minded father who let her decide whether she wanted to live as a man or woman upon reaching puberty. At thirty years old, she’s nearly aged herself out of the marriage market, at which point the societal pressure to return to being a woman will decrease markedly. Nader serves as a sort of mentor to other bacha poshes, young and old(er).

A member of an elite paramilitary force, Nader’s friend Shahed is a bacha posh who challenges gender norms on multiple fronts: her participation in combat “changes the honor narrative of war” by challenging the old ‘damsel in distress’ trope. Shahed is not a woman in need of protection. Her family first started dressing her as a boy in childhood, so that she could help her father paint houses. She chose to become a man so that she could care for her aging mother and unmarried sisters. For Shahed, a masculine persona is “a survival strategy that turned into an identity.”

Through these women’s stories, Nordberg traces the life span of a bacha posh from boyhood through adulthood – whether that entails marriage and motherhood, or something entirely different. Yet Azita’s own surprising journey – from the daughter of an erudite Afghani Communist, to the second wife of an illiterate farmer, to a politician in Kabul (“the lioness of Badghis”) – forms the backbone of The Underground Girls of Kabul.

In a society characterized by rigidly defined gender roles and strict gender segregation, how could such a practice be permitted? If the Taliban comes to power, it won’t be. But as of yet Afghan law remains silent on bacha posh, despite the strict regulations regarding women’s dress and appearance. As a Westerner, it’s a contradiction I have trouble wrapping my head around. Nordberg explains it this way (and of course I’m paraphrasing here): crossdressing is most subversive during a woman’s fertile years, since she’s “of no use” as a woman before or after.

And yet bacha poshes challenge the very idea of gender as an inborn, natural construct. Many bacha poshes (Shukria is a prime example), raised as boys, have trouble navigating the world as women: cooking, cleaning, staying silent, deferring to men, taking up as little space as possible, even just walking in a burqa. These are learned behaviors, and bacha poshes remain largely uneducated on performing femininity. As Robin Morgan observes, “[Birth] sex is a reality; gender and freedom are ideas.”

While the discussion of bacha poshes is fascinating, I especially love how Nordberg ties it to larger social issues: The importance of nature vs. nurture in gender development. The origins of the patriarchy and the patrilineal tradition. The problems with identifying one’s gender identity and sexuality in a culture that recognizes neither in women. The well-intentioned but often misguided use of foreign aid. The Russian and American invasions of Afghanistan. The importance of peace to social change (“War does away with ambition for change.”). The objectification and commodification of women’s bodies (“Those who hold the power of life control the universe.”) Solidifying oppression by turning the oppressed against one other. The importance of men and male allies to changing conditions for women.

Most importantly, that women are not a “side issue” to be addressed after the more pressing problems have be tackled; women are the core issue. The rights afforded to women is a barometer of a society’s overall health, stability, and prosperity.

There’s so much to say about The Underground Girls of Kabul, but I’m afraid that I’ve rambled on enough already (as I’m wont to do when I fall head over heels for a book). And nothing I might say could really do it justice anyway. Nuanced, engaging, highly educational – but also quite readable – The Underground Girls of Kabul is a wonderful example of intersectional feminist journalism. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

* I say “few” because, although 28% of the seats went to women, these numbers still fall woefully short of truly equal representation; and yet, Afghanistan still fared 11 percentage points better than the United States for the same year. So there’s that.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Journalist Jenny Nordberg explores the practice of “bacha posh” in Afghanistan. See my review for more.

 

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One Response to “Book Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, Jenny Nordberg (2014)”

  1. 2014 Real Book Challenge: September Roundup » vegan daemon Says:

    […] The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg (2014); review coming soon […]

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