The Underground Girls of Kabul, written by journalist Jenny Nordberg, is a look into Afgan culture and the lives of Afgan women. Nordberg specifically explores the phenomenon of families dressing their daughters as boys, or bacha posh.
In Afganistan, a girl child is called “dokhtar” (daughter) while the boy is “bacha” (child). The girl is not the chosen child, she is “other”. The phrase “bacha posh” means “dressed like a boy” and is the term for those children who are neither son nor daughter. They are the girls dressed as boys.
Before reading this book I assumed it might be a heart-wrenching look into the confined lives of Afgan women, but this book proves over and over how much of a falsehood that thought was. In many ways, Afgan women are indeed mistreated and confined, but this book is a hopeful look at how their society might be transformed and is in the process of transforming right now. The presence and existence of these girls proves there is a kind of resistance to the control of society and a subversion of the tightly controlled roles and rules surrounding the behavior of women.
Reading this book also helped to open my eyes to the actual culture of Afganistan and its people and history. To be honest, I hadn’t read that much about Afgan culture before this and I was surprised in many ways to hear stories from the women themselves. Of course, there are some truly horrible and saddening moments in the book, but I understand more clearly why their society behaves this way.
For example, one eye-opening moment for me was when Nordberg points out that in some ways the West is more obsessed with gender roles (in childhood) than Afghans are. A woman she interviewed explains that, in Afghanistan, “people are driven by something much more basic- sexuality. Everything before puberty is just preparation for procreation. That is the purpose of life here.”
Part of the reason that Afghan culture keeps women so tightly confined is that they are in a constant state of war. When everything else is unstable, the Afghan men keep a tight grip on any reasons they have, specifically their reputation and their women. Controlling women means that, to an extent, they have control over life- the literal production of life which can mean safety and future security for their family.
Nordberg’s suggestions in the epilogue of the book as to how Afghanistan can move out of this cultural mindset include two important factors, that the country must enter a sustained time of peace, and that part of the change must begin with “powerful men educating many other men”. The women in Afghanistan won’t be able to achieve economic or political power until they are supported by their fathers and husbands.
This book really changed my perspective on Afghan culture and the Middle East. Nordberg helped me understand a little more clearly what living on the inside of such a culture looks like. Ultimately, there is great potential for hope and progress, but the road towards that goal will be long and difficult.