Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review of The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance In Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg
Publisher: Crown
Publication Date: September 14, 2014
Length: 368 pages
Source: My own copy

From the Publisher's Synopsis: An 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.

My Thoughts: Swedish investigative journalist Jenny Nordberg's book The Underground Girls of Kabul is magnificent. Have I used that word in a review this year? I don't think so, but trust me, it applies. I'm somewhat embarrassed to sound so gushing here, but I can't help myself. What I really want to say in this post is, "Read this book--it kicks ass!" But, uh . . . let's see if I can come up with something a little more cogent and well-considered to persuade you to read the book.

The Underground Girls of Kabul is revealing, complex, and utterly fascinating through-out. Nordberg conducted many interviews with women who have dressed as boys--and some who still present themselves as men even as adults--and these stories are enormously compelling. Nordberg's research into Afghan history and culture is impressive and extensive, and Nordberg presents her findings in a direct, readable way. Nordberg's absorbing book sheds new light on what it is like to be female in Afghanistan, a country that has been called the worst place in the world to be born a girl.

I was completely enthralled by the story of Azita, the central character in Nordberg's book. When Nordberg meets her, Azita is a member of the Afghan Parliament, representing a rural district--an impressive feat for a woman in male-dominated Afghanistan. Azita herself had been fortunate enough to receive an education as a girl, although her father married her off to an illiterate farmer at the age of nineteen. She and her husband have four children, all girls; this is a problem for Azita both personally and politically. In Afghan culture, the lack of sons indicates a lack of strength, and is seen as a serious failure on the part of the mother.

Azita decides to transform her youngest daughter into a bacha posh; the girl born as Mahnoush is now presented as a boy named Mehran. Mehran can now play outside and experience other freedoms unavailable to his sisters; he receives favored status inside his own family, even though everyone knows he is really a girl . . . and will be expected to live as a girl once again by the onset of puberty. Azita has many reasons to transform her daughter into a temporary boy, including her own complicated personal history, and Nordberg made me care deeply about this woman and her family.

In addition to Azita and her family, Nordberg presents other case studies of bacha posh, including Zahra, who at age 16 has no interest in transforming herself back into a girl and losing the freedoms she has discovered while living as a boy, and Nader, a woman in her thirties who managed to avoid marriage and still lives as a man. Nordberg uses these women's stories as the basis for a nuanced exploration of the meaning of gender, the oppression of women, and life in contemporary Afghanistan more than a decade after the defeat of the Taliban.

I highly recommend The Underground Girls of Kabul to all readers interested in gender, women's rights, Afghanistan, and life and culture in other countries.

Ok, why don't I just end with what I wanted to say in the first place? Read this book--it kicks ass!

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


  1. OK - I've seen one too many glowing reviews of this one - am now adding it to my TBR list! And -I like your simple, yet effective summary of "read it - it kicks ass"!

    Today, I posted my list of all-time favorite nonfiction books...Bloglovin is STILL not working for me :(

    1. Lol, I think I was in a strange mood yesterday, with the ass-kicking comments!

      All-time favorites--that's a good list for this month! I will pay a visit . . .

  2. I need to get my hands on this one, it seems...

    1. Yeah, I think everyone does! Interesting on so many different levels. I realize that I didn't even mention some of the really fascinating stuff the author gets into about religious beliefs; not from Islam, but the Zoroastrianism and belief in magic that predates it, and is still relevant to some parts of Afghan culture.