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: