The Underground Girls of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys By Jenny Nordberg - book review: Amazing depiction of women fighting for simple freedoms

In a family where only daughters are produced, a shared deceit is set in motion: turn one of your daughters into a boy

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It’s arguable that working in international news as your day job can make you take the horrors and injustices of the world in your stride.

I did wonder what specifically new I would find in Jenny Nordberg’s book about the plight of women in Afghanistan, and in particular, the practice of disguising daughters as sons. After all, the author, an investigative journalist, had written a piece about this very subject for The New York Times a few years ago. And, we are, of course, now, familiar with the post-2001 political rhetoric: that among the justifications of going into Afghanistan, was to “save” Afghan women; oppressed and brutalised by the Taliban, a byproduct of international involvement would be a safer place for those at the bottom of society.

But five years of research, and an almost novelistic approach to her findings, has produced a book full of fresh stories which reveals not the oppressed burkha-clad victim in need of an external saviour, but instead a picture of the detailed lives of women at home and, more exhilarating, individual Afghan women who are active agents, resisting the limited options they have for freedom and autonomy.

Being born a girl in Afghanistan is to be condemned to a half-life. As Nordberg says: “One kind of child arrives with the promise of ownership and a world waiting outside. The other is born with a single asset, which may be strictly curtailed and controlled: the ability to one day give birth to sons of her own.” At best, being a girl child is viewed with disappointment. At worst, it is a humiliation which calls for desperate measures. In a family where only daughters are produced, a shared deceit is set in motion: turn one of your daughters into a boy. Cut their hair short, don a pair of trousers, and voilà, the boy child has unrestricted entry into the world outside the home; hair uncovered, unescorted and — most importantly — the family is no longer pitied, because having even just one boy child is mandatory for good standing and reputation and the opposite provokes contempt. So, from bacha, the word for child, to bacha posh, literally, dressed as a boy.

The shared deceit of this enterprise extends across society. Throughout the book, it is clear this happens in middle class, well-to-do, educated families, as it does in working class, much poorer and illiterate families. Nordberg focuses on several individual stories, but returns often to a rare female parliamentarian, Azita, who appears to embody both promise and peril in a country the UN says is the worst in the world for being a woman. Azita spent five years of her girlhood as a boy and considers her time being treated as an equal among men invaluable in her role as parliamentarian, unafraid to look men in the eye. And though university educated and encouraged by her father to achieve, he allowed her marriage to a man who beat her. Mehran, only 10, is her bacha posh, afforded more advantages than “his” sisters, and a child who will have to deal with the difficulties of reverting to being a girl when she reaches puberty.

Given a taste of a man’s life, many don’t want to turn back. One stays as a boy for years and eventually has to marry and have children, but eventually is a divorcee. The harshness of some of the stories is embodied in her despair: “I was nothing and I am nothing. I was never a man, and never a woman. To whom do I have value?” A few, such as Shahed, a woman in her late twenties who was trained by the Americans to serve as a paramilitary sharpshooter, maintain their bacha posh status, eschewing traditional expectations that they marry and bear children. Shahed sees herself as a warrior.

All the women Nordberg interviews and spends time with are curious about her. They ask why she isn’t married and why she doesn’t have children. They are aware of her freedom and ask: “You can do anything you want, and you come to Afghanistan?” I’m glad she did. Azita’s final thought in the book is among the many in this book that will linger: “We know what it is like to be men. But they know nothing about us”.

Razia Iqbal presents ‘Newshour’ on the BBC World Service, and arts programmes on BBC Radio 4

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