The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg
A girl is born: “She is perfect, down to her tiny, grasping fingers.” But here’s what her life will probably look like: “… to many in Afghanistan, she is naqis-ul-aql, or ‘stupid by birth,’ as a woman equals a creature lacking wisdom due to her weak brain. If she survives, she may often go hungry, because feeding a girl is secondary to feeding a son in the family, who will be given the best and most plentiful food. If, in her family, there is a chance of the children going to school, her brothers will have priority. Her husband will be chosen for her, often before she reaches puberty. As an adult, very few of life’s decisions will be her own.” Who wouldn’t want to escape such a fate?
In a society where “a baby boy is triumph, success [and a] baby girl is humiliation, failure,” a “third kind of child … [is] not unusual”: they are bacha posh, which translates in Dari as ‘dressed like a boy.’
“Afghan families turned their daughters into sons, as a way of both conceding to and defying an impossibly rigid society,” writes award-winning Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg who first wrote of this practice in a September 2010 New York Times article, “Afghan Boys Are Prized, So Girls Live the Part.” Nordberg expands her story into a full-length book filled with fascinating history, psychology, and the long-term effects of girls dressing as boys – but the title’s heart and soul are, of course, the actual girls and women with lives so intriguing, so challenging that each could be worthy of a book of her own.
Azita, one of Afghanistan’s new women parliamentarians, was married off as the second wife to an illiterate cousin who proves to be a brutal, abusive husband; after birthing four daughters, she decides to raise her youngest as bacha posh. While Azita’s is the primary story woven throughout, the Girls are varied and many. [If you choose to go aural, frequent narrator Kirsten Potter doesn’t disappoint.] Niima, who is also Abdul, “poses as a boy purely for the survival of the family.” Shubnum’s return to being a girl comes years earlier than expected because her feminine mannerisms become too pronounced to allow her to pass as a boy. Zahra, at 15, never wants to revert and “speaks of the usual path for Afghan women as unthinkable to her.” On her wedding night, Shukria thought she “ought perhaps to have been the one with the penis,” because until a month before her marriage, Shukria had lived as a man. Nader has lived as a man her entire life, presenting the excuse to her family that she would be “the useful male companion to [her] elderly mother.” At 51, gun-toting, horse-riding Hukmina only knows how to live as a man. Trained by Americans, Shahed is also familiar with guns, and is man enough to serve in the Afghan national police force.
If the concept of bacha posh in Afghanistan sounds familiar – in spite of the rather sensationalized front-flap claim that Nordberg “broke the story of this phenomenon” – you might be remembering Deborah Ellis’ international bestselling trilogy-turned-tetralogy which began with The Breadwinner, published in 2000, in which the eponymous breadwinner is a girl in Taliban-controlled Kabul who dresses as a boy in order to support her desperate family. More recently, doctor-turned-novelist Nadia Hashimi’s first title, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, hit shelves last May 2014, about two women in the same family who lived as bacha posh, four generations apart. The “phenomenon” is certainly not new, nor quite as “underground” and “hidden” as the title suggests; regardless, Nordberg’s is undoubtedly the first title in English that so closely, extensively, and intimately examines the lives of bacha posh.
“Most bacha posh,” Nordberg notes, “have paid dearly for living as boys, and their circumstances were rarely chosen. … So can a story of concession and resistance, of tragedy and hope, exist at the same time?
“For women, it always has.”