Sunday, August 16, 2015

Book Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul, by Jenny Nordberg

In a society segregated by gender, women and girls in Afghanistan usually live in the shadows. From the moment a girl is born in Afghanistan, she is seen as a liability rather than a gift. As a teenager, she will likely find herself in an arranged marriage; as a woman, she will be unable to leave her home unless she is escorted by a male blood relative. When she ventures outdoors, she will be expected to wear a head-to-toe covering known as a burka, which has only a small mesh opening in front of her eyes.

In The Underground Girls of Kabul, journalist Jenny Nordberg uncovers a little-known practice among families without sons in Afghanistan. Some families temporarily raise their girls as boys, in order to obtain the family honor that goes with having a son. Known as bacha posh, these girls dress and live as boys, usually until they reach their childbearing years. Then they must change their gender identities once again, as their families negotiate arranged marriages.

In her book, Nordberg follows the stories of several bacha posh and their families. These underground girls experience the privileges and freedoms of being male, only to be forced into the shadows at puberty, where they must learn to stay indoors, speak softly and avoid eye contact with men who are not their blood relatives.

Ms. Nordberg explains that in spite of attempts to improve women's rights, vestiges of the harsh Taliban laws remain in Afghanistan. In fact, she notes that many of the Afghan rules that govern the lives of women pre-date Islam. One woman named Azita -- a former bacha posh and later a member of Parliament -- recalls learning how to walk slowly in a burka so that her ankles would not show. Another asks "how many people must I be" after many transitions from girl to bacha posh to bride to divorced woman after her husband announced that he was leaving her. In Afghanistan, a woman is considered still married to her husband if he initiates the divorce -- one of many impossible situations for women in that country.

I found The Underground Girls of Kabul to be a well-documented, fascinating look into a world largely unknown by the West. The author describes every conversation, every meal, and every household with such detail, I felt as though I knew these women personally. I highly recommend this book to anyone who seeks a greater understanding of the lives of women in Afghanistan.

For more information about the author, Jenny Nordberg, click here. You can find more information about the book at Penguin Random House.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book free of charge from Blogging for Books for this review.