Book Review: Underground Girls of Kabul

underground_girls Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan

by Jenny Nordberg

When I saw Jenny Nordberg on The Daily Show, this book went right on my reading list. The Underground Girls of Kabul is an investigative look at bacha posh, girls in Afghanistan who are raised as sons. Because of a huge emphasis on son preference and reputation in their culture, some families who have many daughters, or need a son for some other reason, will choose to raise a daughter as a son until they have a son or until the masquerade will no longer hold. The practice isn’t exactly common, but it is less rare than you would think. In seeking out stories of bacha posh and their families, Nordberg writes eloquently about gender segregation, children’s rights, gender norms, and women’s experiences in Afghanistan. I was most fascinated by the ways that the girls understood their gender and the change in subjectivity that they were experiencing. Nordberg writes:

Although none of the girls chose their boyhood voluntarily, most say they enjoy their borrowed status. It all depends on what they get to do with it. For each child, it boils down to perks versus burdens. Those who, like Mehran, are part of upper- or middle-class families, are often their families’ token of prestige and honor, thriving on speaking up at school and playing violent outdoor games in the neighborhood. Others, in poor families, are broken down by forced child labor, just as actual boys in the same position often are. ‘This can be an awful place to be a woman. But it’s not particularly good for a man, either,’ Carol le Duc is fond of observing.

The book does a lot of things well. First, it’s a compelling read an interesting story. I think Nordberg nicely balances telling her story as a reporter learning about a different culture and having her expectations upset and telling the stories of the families and individual women she spoke with. I think including herself in the narrative facilitates important moments in which she disrupts what the reader may expect of Afghan culture and society. We can put ourselves in her shoes as a reader and she negotiates what may be especially surprising about her findings in a way that is generous to the reader but also pushes further into questioning the implications of her research. Put more simply, Nordberg knows what the reader may expect from the Afghan people she writes about and she does not hold that against us–many times those preconceived notions were hers as well–but she also does not shy away from putting real pressure on the essentialist ideas that underlie our assumptions.

I think Underground Girl of Kabul is not only a fascinating read, but that it also raises compelling questions about how gender works. It’s genuinely surprising how fluid gender in childhood is for the people Nordberg writes about and in that surprising space, there is ample opportunity for thinking about the motives for gendered binaries and how those motives shape people’s experiences, expectations, and which rules can be broken. The book also presents an interesting way to think about a trans-gender experience and the construction of gender in childhood. I kept thinking about how much backlash there would be in America if people raised their daughters as sons and then shifted them back to daughters at puberty. I can already hear the pundits yelling about it. In a way, there’s a fluidity in Afghan culture that there isn’t in U.S. culture. Nordberg writes:

[T]he west may also be more obsessed with children’s gender roles than what Afghans are. Although Afghan society is strictly built on the separation of the sexes, gender in childhood in a way matters less here than in the West. ‘Here,’ Carol says. ‘people are driven by something much more basic–sexuality. Everything before puberty is just preparation for procreation. That’s the main purpose of life here. And perhaps we need to set aside what we in the West think of as the order of things to even begin to understand Afghanistan. Where a long lineage of tribal organizations is far more powerful than any form of government, where language is poetry and few can read or write but it is common for an illiterate person to have memorized the work of Pashto and Perisan poets and to speak more than one language, parameters for established truths and knowledge are manifested in other ways than those outsiders easily recognize. In Carol’s words, in a nation of poets and storytellers, ‘what matters here are the shared fantasies.’

While there’s obviously not a lot of wiggle room for non-heteronormative thinking, that idea of the shared fantasy looms large in Nordberg’s book. I was most surprised by how often the family raising a daughter as a son was an open secret. Teachers, neighbors, doctors, knew and were complicit. Because of son-preference most were willing to go along with it and share the fantasy. Buy the performance. That fluidity was really fascinating to me and the implications can be worked through in many ways. I’ve done a lot of work about the way that girls are freer in childhood and how the transition to womanhood can be a constriction of rights in some cases. This book takes that idea and trumps it up a lot as the girls living as boys undergo a radical shift in their liberties and identities when they transition back.

Underground Girls of Kabul is an eye-opening read that I think would work fantastically in Women and Gender Studies classroom. I think that a great conversation about norms, taboos, and cultural dictates could come out of it and the normal, othering conversation about how free women are in the West and how oppressed they are in the Middle East is disrupted in a really useful way by Nordberg’s book.


See Nordberg on The Daily Show:

Books for Talking about Race with Kids

Issues of race in American culture have been at the forefront of the news lately, with the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. With all the complicated and strong feelings, chances are kids have both been exposed to the news and have questions about it. There are tons of books out there that can be read with kids, helping you facilitate a conversation with them about race, privilege, and history. Because of some of the graphic violence that comes with these issues in American history, not all books are appropriate for all children. I’ve grouped books based on age, but knowing your child’s level of sensitivity is also important. This list isn’t exhaustive, nor is it perfect, but hopefully these books can be useful in discussing issues about race, identity, and justice with your kid(s). Other helpful resources include Bookriot’s chart- Black History in Young Adult Fiction, this comic on white privilege, and the Civil Rights Leadership Conference’s guide on talking to children about racism and diversity. They point out:

“Children care about justice, respect, and fairness. Squabbles about sharing, concerns about cliques, and problems with playmates-the daily trials of childhood-reflect their active interest in these social issues. So do the questions children ask, when they feel safe enough to ask them.
One important gift we can give our children is to create a family in which difficult issues like racism are openly discussed. By talking openly and listening without censure, we can learn about our children’s concerns and help them find connections between larger social issues and their own life experiences.”

downloadElementary School
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Let Them Play  by Margot Theis Raven
Most Loved in All the World by Tonya Cherie Hegamin
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni
My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Christine King Farris
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Ruby Bridges Goes to School and Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges
A Picture Book of Harriet Tubman David A. Adler

These books cover a range of genres and time periods. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a beautifully written novel that deals with issues of race and class in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression. Let Them Play tells the story of fighting segregation in Little League. It’s a story that will likely appeal to kids’ sense of fairness and will be relatable to many children. Most Loved in All the World is a picture book about a woman working on the underground railroad who has to separate from her daughter in order to send her to freedom. The Name Jar is a picture book about a young Korean immigrant who struggles to choose an Americanized name, before finding acceptance with her new classmates. Reading books about Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman can help younger children learn about important African American leaders while also getting some context about the struggle against racism.

download (1)Tweens
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson
Mississippi Trail, 1955 by Chris Crowe
The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
Finding My Place by Traci L. Jones
Remember: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison

To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic novel about racism, classism, and allyship in rural Alabama. Mississippi Trail, 1955 and A Wreath for Emmett Till deal with the murder of Emmett Till and could help children old enough to think critically about that violence to put the outrage over the death of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin into a larger historical context. Finding My Place is about a young African American woman in 1975, who moves to a new school and is the only black girl. Her struggle to stay true to herself and find a sense of belonging also gives a portrait of generational differences in the Civil Rights Movement.

Young Adults
download (2)The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Southern Horrors and Other Writings; The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Mona in the Promised Land by Gish Jen
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Passing by Nella Larsen
Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Meriwether

Some of these books are more violent or racy than those for the younger groups. The Bluest Eye, for example, is a stunning depiction of the intersection between race, class, and gender, and a searing critique of white beauty standards, but it also includes a pretty graphic scene of rape. The Round House is similar in a lot of ways to To Kill A Mockingbird, but deals with rape and domestic violence against Native American women. Southern Horrors and Other Writings is an incredible collection by journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. It’s an important piece of African American and women’s history, but also deals pretty graphically with lynching violence. These books, are just a snippet of the huge list of titles that could be read by teens and young adults interested in social justice and civil rights issues.

Holiday Gift Guide: Active and Feminist Gifts for Girls and Women

il_570xN.405212347_34dkThere are plenty of gift guides out there this time of year. These are just a few of my favorite gifts on the market this year. Remember, that when buying gifts for your mother/daughter/sister/significant other, that their taste and interests should be your guide, not the way that marketers gender items. Take it from girls like Maggie and Riley.

Nefarious Ideas Journal  ($10) I love this notebook. It’s a great stocking stuffer or gift for anyone, really, but I especially like the idea of a tween toting this around to jot down ideas and thoughts. Because, you know, kids can be kind of devious and hilarious.

Goldie Blox Toys ($16-$85) Goldie Blox and other building toys are really fun for kids and their parents. Hands-on fun can counteract all that screen time, too.

Feminism is for Everybody Wreath ($40) This beautiful wreath would look great in a feminist’s office or home. It’s handcrafted and whimsical, while also sending an important message.

Stars Hollow T-Shirt ($20) Any Gilmore Girls fan would love this shirt. It has an understated design and looks super soft and comfortable.

Yoga, Sports, or Dance Equipment  Once the holidays are over, a lot of people are determined to keep those New Year’s resolutions. Gifting yoga, sports, or dance equipment can be a way to show your support and give someone a gift they’ll really get a lot of use out of. For little ones, the Little Yogis Kit ($25) can help introduce them to healthy exercise early on.


Ann of Green Gables Doll Outfit ($40) Dolls are a classic holiday gift. I know that getting my American Girl dolls made for some of the most exciting Christmases of my life. Doll clothes and accessories are also a fun gift for a doll lover. I love the handmade outfits I got for my dolls at craft shows. This dress and pinafore set is perfect for dressing a doll like Ann of Green Gables.

Strong Role Model Dolls by Sew Whimsical (~$115) These soft and cuddly dolls are hand sewn to resemble real, living women who are good role models.

Pride and Prejudice Cookie Cutters ($14) If you know a baker who also loves to read, these Pride and Prejudice cookie cutters are a perfect present. Pair them with a cookie mix.

Sainted Writers Candles ($10) These are handmade by a former classmate of mine. There are so many authors to choose from. These candles are a great gift for a reader or a writer on your gift list.

What My Daughter Wore (~$19) This book is a collection of illustrations of a tween’s outfits done by her mother. It showcases the fun fashion choices of the young and fearless. It would be such a cool gift for a girl or an adult, especially someone interested in fashion, art, or design.


Wreck This Journal (~$10) This one’s on my wish list. The journal is full of prompts for ways to decorate, fill, and destroy its pages. It’s a great way to get a little crafty outlet and inspire more creativity.

Bossy Women Art Print ($5) For those who don’t want to ban bossy, consider this art print of a quotation from Amy Poehler celebrating bossy women.

4M Science Kits ($7-$40) I’m getting my little sister one of these and I’m looking forward to helping her with the projects included. There are a variety of kits focusing on weather, kitchen science, eco-friendly projects, and more. They teach basic science concepts and look like a lot of hands-on fun.

Boy Meets World DVD Set ($50) This set would be really fun for adults or kids. In addition to this classic show, Clarissa Explains it All, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Doug would also make great gifts.

Shark Week zipper pouch ($20) This pouch can be used for makeup and, um, other things women might need while out and about. It might also be great paired with a Hello Flo kit, especially for a girl hitting puberty.

What are the gifts you’re excited to give this holiday season?

12 things white people can do now because Ferguson

Originally posted on Quartz:

As we all know by now, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenage boy, was gunned down by the police while walking to his grandmother’s house in the middle of the afternoon. For the past few days my Facebook newsfeed has been full of stories about the incidents unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri.

But then I realized something.

For the first couple of days, almost all of the status updates expressing anger and grief about yet another extrajudicial killing of an unarmed black boy, the news articles about the militarized police altercations with community members and the horrifying pictures of his dead body on the city concrete were posted by people of color. Outpourings of rage and demands for justice were voiced by black people, Latinos, Asian Americans, Arab American Muslims. But posts by white people were few at first and those that I saw were posted mostly by my white activist or…

View original 2,112 more words

Book Review: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Yes Please Amy PoehlerAmy Poehler is pretty high on the list of women I admire. For years, I think dating back to Baby Mama, my BFF Emily and I have jokingly likened ourselves to Amy and Tina Fey. We are not nearly as funny or successful (give us time?) but I am a brunette with glasses and she is a blond and we are best friends. (Side note: Emily, are you still technically a blond? To me, you will always be, in-part, blond and ten years-old.)

Anyway, what I admire about Poehler’s comedy is the way she can be sharp and hilarious while still remaining upbeat. Her humor isn’t cruel. She is so smart and also bonkers. It’s a great energy and the balance between incisive and positive or constructive is something I try to achieve in my own work. Amy is the bomb.

So I was surprised when I wasn’t immediately taken with her new book, Yes Please. In my opinion, the book starts off overly self-deprecatingly, rambly, and with fits and starts. There’s a big trend in writing right now in which writers constantly interrupt their own sentences or stories with asides. If you know me in real life, you know that that is how I actually think and speak and tell stories a lot of the time (Sorry!). So I understand the style and I understand that it is supposed to make the writing sound more conversational and that it is supposed to be charming. And often I think it is. But also I think it should be used sparingly, because it can be confusing or come off as an obvious ploy to make the reader like you more. The book starts out this way.

But then the tone of the book hits its stride and it’s wonderful. The writing started to show the charm and warmth and wisdom I’ve come to associate with Poehler’s work, especially the bits associated with Smart Girls at the Party. Because she is so successful and thoughtful, but also a comedian who relishes in the inappropriate and vulnerable, it was a wonderful and enlightening read. Amy Poehler always seems so fearless to me, and I really appreciated reading about how she cultivated that feeling and how she deals with the “demons” that try to hold her back. This is super corny, but like with Fey’s Bossy Pants, I put the book down feeling motivated to chase my own dreams. “Bitches get shit done.” Books like Poehler’s are kind of big right now in publishing and I’ve read most of them (Fey, Poehler, Kaling…). I think it’s an important trend, though. I value what these women have to teach me as a woman starting her career and interested in starting a family and dreaming of having public impact. I think the best part about these books from women in comedy, as opposed to other industries (cough: Lean In), is that they are often less cautious about their own images (or at least they seem to be). They are honest about the shit they deal with without taking themselves too seriously. I’m a fan.

–Related: How Female Comedians Went from Self-Hating to the Self-Help Shelf

Ultimately, what I really love about the book is the way that Poehler writes about herself and the people in her life with such tenderness and the way that she speaks to the process of growing into and loving oneself. Yes Please is broken up into three sections: “Say Whatever You Want”, “Do Whatever You Like”, and “Be Whoever You Are.” That advice is pretty banal and vague. Inside those sections, however, are chapters that tell stories about forgiveness, aging, motherhood, friendship, love, and work, that deal with how hard it is to know yourself, let alone be or love yourself. It’s not preachy or overly simplified and, like Poehler’s comedy so often does, it feels honest and generous and sometimes rather hyper.

There are also some genuinely beautiful parts. For example, in one chapter, “Sorry Sorry Sorry,” Poehler tells the story of a skit she did on SNL that hurt the innocent person it mocked and how it took her five years to apologize. Inside the chapter are honest reflections about the situation and how our heads get in our way when we screw up and need to apologize. The story is also just moving and beautifully told.

Then there are just beautiful sentences. In a chapter about giving birth to her first son, Poehler writes about finding out on-set at SNL that her OBGYN died the day before her baby was due. She started sobbing and Jon Hamm (of course) made her laugh. She writes:

“Going from crying to laughing that fast and hard happens maybe five times in your life and that extreme right turn is the reason why we are alive, and I believe it extends our life by many years.”

The book is full of little nuggets like that and they are the best part of the whole thing.

But, if you read Yes Please, you will also get to see: Amy Poheler’s kindergarten report card, a note to her son Archie from Hillary Clinton on the occasion of his birth, her excellent sex advice, what she thinks of her Parks and Recreation castmates, and much, much more. Yes Please is a heavy, glossy book, but a quick read (even at 300+ pages) that I anticipate I’ll pull out every once in a while for a pick-me-up or a reminder to “treat [my] career like a bad boyfriend.” I recommend. And, as the back cover points out, it would be a great holiday gift.

Full disclosure: I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher via the Birchbox Book Club. My review was not solicited nor compensated. But free book, heck yes please!

Stumbling into Resources, My Matryoshka Problem

Right now, I’m up to my eyes in research, as I mentioned before. I keep getting to a point where I’ve synthesized a lot of historical and critical work, but get roadblocked in making my argument by difficulty finding other resources. I’m going to start with a request–above the fold–and then get more into this saga.

I am currently seeking letters written between students at American Indian boarding schools and their parents or other people not associated with the school administrations. I’m working on a chapter about gender in the boarding schools and, while I have a mountain of research on the history of the schools, as well access to the student records archived by Carlisle, I desperately want to get my hands on students’ letters. The files at Carlisle include correspondence between students and the school, but, although those letters can be interesting, I don’t think they can really be taken as students writing about their experiences at the school. I’m going to keep looking, but if you happen to have seen something like this in a book or archive somewhere, I would love to know that.

Anyway, one of the best pieces I ever received in grad school was to follow the questions that I was interested in and to create my archive of texts and artifacts around those questions. Taking that advice from my awesome advisor has shaped the last few years of my academic life and has led me to the dissertation that I’m working on now–a dissertation that I love and will hopefully be proud of. Also, a dissertation that keeps surprising and frustrating me. One of those surprises is that to answer the questions I’m interested in, I have to educate myself all over again about new historical moments and fields of inquiry. For example–and primarily–I don’t like to read autobiographies, yet that’s all I’m reading right now. Between life writing and interviews by young Jewish immigrant women and theory about autobiography, I’m consumed with reading that I would never, ever choose for fun. But it’s fascinating because it is necessary to answer the questions I am interested in about how girls made sense of citizenship during a period of intense Americanization and changes around gender norms in the home and the economy. It seems like once a day I’m having a moment in which I think both “I love this!” and “How on earth did I end up here?!” I’m enjoying it, even if I am also getting tripped up by the way my sources act like Matryoshka dolls. Each source just leads me to another source I need in order to proceed.

Fellow writers, how did you go about forming your archive? Are you surprised by where you’ve ended up in your dissertation or other project? How do you draw the line and say, “This is enough research, already!”?


Hi, there. Long time, no see. You may have heard about National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo, an annual November event in which people commit to writing a rough draft of a novel–or ~50,000 words–in one month. I’m kind of stuck in the mud with my dissertation, so I’ve decided that I’m going to write that much during November, just for my dissertation. I’m committing to writing 1,500 words a day for my dissertation. It might not be great. I might not keep it all. But I want to get in the habit of writing seriously every day. I’d like to keep that going, too.

Sometimes research doesn't work out...

Sometimes research doesn’t work out…

I have a tendency to bury myself in research and then get stuck there because I’ve drowned out my own thoughts and my own argument. In addition to that issue, there’s been a couple of anxiety flare-ups, and my fiancé (did I mention I got engaged in August?) and I have been planning our wedding (way in advance because we wanted to nail down our big ticket items while he was actually on this side of the country). I’m not behind by any means, but I’d like to start seeing more results for all my effort. Basically, I’m hoping that this sprint will get me in good writing habits and help me cut through the blocks I’ve set up in my writing process. More focus, more writing, more happiness. Yay!

At the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum

I’d also like to note that while Julio was here, we drove to Chicago and saw the Hull-House Museum. I found it not only helpful for my dissertation, but really inspiring. It got my creative juices flowing and I’m hoping that, as I make progress on the dissertation, some of the ideas I had can also bear fruit.

As I’m cranking out writing during this month, I’m also planning to get back in the habit of blogging here about my research and related subjects and events as they pop up.

Readers, how do you keep up good habits? Do you have particular practices that help with your writing or productivity? How do you balance creativity and analysis? (I find that hard sometimes.)