Book Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul
Author: Jenny Nordberg
Number of Pages: 368
My Rating: 5
Summary from GoodReads.com:
In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as misfortune. A bacha posh (literally translated from Dari as “dressed up like a boy”) is a third kind of child – a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world. Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke the story of this phenomenon for the New York Times, constructs a powerful and moving account of those secretly living on the other side of a deeply segregated society where women have almost no rights and little freedom.
The Underground Girls of Kabul is anchored by vivid characters who bring this remarkable story to life: Azita, a female parliamentarian who sees no other choice but to turn her fourth daughter Mehran into a boy; Zahra, the tomboy teenager who struggles with puberty and refuses her parents’ attempts to turn her back into a girl; Shukria, now a married mother of three after living for twenty years as a man; and Nader, who prays with Shahed, the undercover female police officer, as they both remain in male disguise as adults.
At the heart of this emotional narrative is a new perspective on the extreme sacrifices of Afghan women and girls against the violent backdrop of America’s longest war. Divided into four parts, the book follows those born as the unwanted sex in Afghanistan, but who live as the socially favored gender through childhood and puberty, only to later be forced into marriage and childbirth. The Underground Girls of Kabul charts their dramatic life cycles, while examining our own history and the parallels to subversive actions of people who live under oppression everywhere.
I literally just finished this book and had to immediately begin writing the review, as I am that excited to tell everyone about it. I keep repeating the word “wow” as I can’t believe the book I just devoured in less than a day. Do I seem a little ecstatic about this amazing book I stumbled upon? Well, I am, as it is one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg is not a happy-go-lucky read by any means. In all honesty, it is almost surreal as she interviews and talks with women currently living in Afghanistan, a country in which it is still disgraceful and embarrassing to give birth to a daughter. A country where many women still cover themselves from head to toe and don’t go out in public without a male escort, even though the Taliban has been out of power since 2001. A country where, in 2014, girls are being disguised as boys in order to gain the family respect as well as to give the girls a taste of freedom that boys and men so freely have. You heard me right.
Jenny is an award-winning journalist who winds up in Afghanistan researching this interesting notion she has subtly heard about from a couple of families. Intrigued, she decides to stay around the area in order to dig deeper and find out more about these “underground girls”.
As she researches, she meets many different women and introduces us to their stories as well as their individual circumstances. Some of these include having their daughter pose as a son for the family, and others allow us to meet women who they themselves are posing or have posed as men in order to help their families in some aspect. Whether they needed to dress and act like boys for their family to gain respect, in order to escort their sisters places, or to help their father with the family business, these girls turned out to be a surprisingly common practice in which many families participated yet chose not to speak about.
While we learn about these girls and their families, Nordberg also discusses the customs and expectations of women in Afghanistan and describes their woes and personal wars they are fighting on a day-to-day basis. I was floored by her findings and how women essentially still have no rights and are basically property to their fathers and then eventually their husbands. It was both shocking and terrifying to hear about the types of things women have to suffer through to this day and how despite the changing times in other places, it seems not much is changing in Afghanistan at all.
This book was a work of nonfiction and was a result of over five years of research and interviews. However, it was more intriguing than any piece of fiction and I read it faster than most other books despite the heavy subject matter. This book will educate you and open your eyes. It will shock you and make you emphasize. It will infuriate you and make you want to share it with others. It will make you say, “wow”. Trust me. You have to read this book. You, too, will be entranced by the world of the underground girls of Kabul that Jenny Nordberg so expertly exposed to us. And you won’t ever be able to forget them.