The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg

Two nonfiction books in a row. I am on a roll. Honestly, I wasn’t going to review this one because it could be a touchy subject but then I changed my mind.  There have been many books written about Afghanistan and women in Afghanistan, but I thought this one was one of the better ones.

Rating: 5/5

Summary and cover from Goodreads

Underground Girls of KabulAn investigative journalist uncovers a hidden custom that will transform your understanding of what it means to grow up as a girl.
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.

As a fellow journalist, I went into this with a critical eye. I read a similar book a few months back, “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe” which delved into women in Kabul who makes dresses and sell them to raise money for their family. While a good read, the story was a little subjective and only focused on the viewpoints of that one family.

Nordberg, however, provides stories of several girls/women who dress as boys or used to dress as boys but she doesn’t stop there. She not only tells their story, but also investigates the impact that has on the family as well as the individual who becomes a “bacha posh.”

Where “Dressmaker of Khair Khana” alludes to the dangers of what they are doing, Nordberg cites specific scenarios where the women were in danger of being found out.

She also delves also into Afghanistan’s philosophy about women and the patriarchal society that is so dominant there. While it is universally well known, it is still shocking to learn how deep it runs.

“Regardless of who they are, whether they are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, Afghan women often describe the difference between men and women in just one word: freedom.”

Nordberg explores everything from how women are given a higher status based on how many sons they birth and what is expected of a female as she grows up, to women’s roles in the household and domestic abuse.

I was particularly shocked when Nordberg describes the rape culture and how the victim can be arrested and charged because of something she allegedly did to elicit the rape, from exposing a little skin to some other outlandish accusation.

“The responsibility for men’s behavior, indeed for civilization itself rests entirely with women here, and in how they dress and behave. Men’s animalistic impulses are presumed to be overwhelming and uncontrollable. And as men are brutal, brainless savages, women must hide their bodies to avoid being assaulted. In most societies, a respectable woman, to varying degrees, is expected to cover up. If she doesn’t she is inviting assault.”

SERIOUSLY?!! While our own country has it own issue when it comes to believing rape victims, it is by far not as bad as this and really makes me appreciate what we have in this country.

If there was something I would criticize Nordberg for it was that she seemed to get judgmental in a few areas. However, she either backs it up or proves how she is wrong with sources. Not only does she interview the women who are directly involved, she also interviews doctors and professionals and occasionally men.

Yet, while based on facts, the book is not boring as one would expect. Nordberg creates a story that is more than interesting and vivid, while at the same time raising points that makes you think.

“We know what it’s like to be men. But they know nothing about us.”

If you want to understand more about Afghanistan society and about how women deal with living in that society, this is definitely a book to consider.

Yours truly,

Book Admirer


Have your read this? What did you think? Let’s discuss! Post in the comments below.

5 thoughts on “The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg

  1. I do adore journalists like this and was probably interesting book for you who works in the same industry 🙂 I read this last year and it was quite a shocking read. Like to live as a girl pretending to be boy all your life…and this seems to be socially acceptable.

    And I like Islamic Empire, it’s sad how it collapsed

    Liked by 1 person

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