“We all have to work very hard and ignore those people who say we should not be here.” So says a female Afghani politician, one of the subjects of Jenny Nordberg’s eye-opening narrative nonfiction account of the practice of bacha posh in Afghanistan, The Underground Girls of Kabul.
The quoted politician, Azita, is the mother of a bacha posh, a girl who is dressed in disguise as a boy with her family’s approval, and lives this way until puberty when it’s time to consider marriage. At which time, like Cinderella at midnight, she reverts back to her true form of an eligible young lady. Until then, she gets to enjoy all that comes along with being a boy in a society that places far greater emphasis on that gender – playing outside, riding a bike, wearing pants, having some measure of personal freedom. Usually, the choice is the family’s to disguise a daughter as a coveted son, since males are a valued commodity and girls aren’t considered anything too special. This is a society where even medical professionals peddle fertility treatments purporting to give families sons, not daughters.
Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg first wrote a wildly popular New York Times article about her time spent in Afghanistan meeting bacha posh and learning how this cultural practice unfolds throughout the girls’ and their family’s lives, including their eventual transition back to her birth gender. Some of the girls described are still children living as bacha posh, one is an adult who’s transitioned back and taken a role, if somewhat reluctantly, in the traditional family structure, and another fights as a soldier, still in the guise of a man. Additional strong female figures, like Nordberg’s interpreter and Azita the parliamentarian, round out these portraits of strong women working with the cards they’ve been dealt and fighting through the struggles of a country torn by war for more years than many of them have been alive.
The comparisons to popular western examples of certain decidedly un-feminist practices (i.e. British royals baby machine) drive home that not nearly enough has changed in modern times, an era in which we’d like to believe global societies are steadily if slowly moving past outdated ideas about gender roles. But here is the proof that we’re still stuck, and the ones really making a change are the women in the thick of it, resisting in whatever ways they can engineer and devise. It’s heartbreaking what these women are expected to do with their lives and how desperately some of them bravely seize any attempts to change a station and future that were assigned to them from birth. There’s so much to admire and learn from them.
I can’t remember the last time I read a book and ended up with so many dog-eared pages of lines or facts I wanted to remember, or that I was ready to read again as soon as I’d finished and closed it. Compellingly written, intensely researched, and passionately told.