Today, in 2015, Afghan mothers who produce only daughters are still routinely abused by their families and shunned by their communities. They are almost universally barred from employment outside the home, and a daughter can be sold into marital slavery for a one-time lump sum. Their only asset is “the ability to one day give birth to sons of her own,” because a son is “essential to the survival of the family.”
The Underground Girls of Kabul by investigative journalist Jenny Nordberg contains true, astonishing tales of six Afghan girls who are bacha posh: girls whose families disguise them as boys until puberty. This allows them to work outside the home, which provides money and prestige for the family, and a touch of the freedom that most Afghan women never experience.
Cast of characters. The story begins with Azita, who relates how she became one of the few female parliamentarians in the country. When the Taliban was defeated in 2001, government positions were opened to women for the first time since the 1980s. Azita’s father, a progressive professor, convinced her husband to let her run for office.
As a child, Azita’s parents disguised her for several years as a bacha posh and encouraged her dream of becoming a doctor. To this day, she attributes her self-confidence to those years as a boy. But during the rise of the Taliban in 1990s, conditions worsened and Azita’s father had no choice but to marry her off to an “illiterate cousin” who beat her regularly. At the time of the book’s narrative, 2013, Azita is raising twin girls and a bacha posh daughter named Mehran, who is “the wildest member of the family.” Mehran is pictured on the cover of the paperback editions.
Nordberg interviews other bacha posh from different ages and backgrounds. Some are poor, like Shukria (whose boy-name is “Shukur”) and Niima (“Abdul”). They do physical labor, but they can leave the house and experience freedom. Better-off girls like Sakina (“Najibullah”) believe bacha posh is more a matter of appearance, and a “character-strengthening education.” Most bacha posh are changed back into girls at puberty, but a few — like Nader — are able to pose as adult men and lead fuller lives.
Bacha posh a solution? Nordberg unveils a vast underground world of bacha posh practices in other countries as well. She has found evidence of bacha posh in Pakistan, India, Egypt, Iraq, Cambodia, Myanmar, and beyond. In fact, bacha posh are said to exist in any country that legislates strict dress codes for boys and girls and essentially segregates the genders. The bacha posh “clandestinely drive cars and gather online to exchange images of androgynous fashion, as well as tips for avoiding authorities.”
For all that, bacha posh obviously cannot end a culture that imposes inferiority and violence on women, in Afghanistan or elsewhere. At the end of the book, Nordberg suggests that women’s rights in Afghanistan may be attained by educating the country’s most ignorant, illiterate, and conservative men. Progressive Afghan fathers, like Azita’s, might set an example for the rest. But this one-on-one, individual solution is not the answer.
If Nordberg were a socialist feminist, she’d recommend revolution. And that is exactly what Afghan communists did in 1978! Led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and supported by the Soviet Union, the new government outlawed bride price, forced marriages, polygamy, etc. In the 1980s, Afghan women were admitted to universities, held government jobs, drove cars, traveled — all without male guardians. These dramatic advances might have been preserved but for U.S. interference.
The wealthy rural landlords and mullahs, deeply fundamentalist and anti-communist, mounted a ferocious counterrevolution and eventually won. With U.S. help, the Taliban shoved Afghanistan back into the Middle Ages.
Soft on the U.S. Nordberg touches on how much better life was for women during the decade of a socialist government, but doesn’t explain why. And she lets the U.S. totally off the hook for siding with the most backward forces and contributing mightily to the counterrevolution.
Furthermore, at one point she writes, “Countries that suppress their women are more likely to threaten their neighbors as well as other countries far away. So the more progress for women Afghanistan sees, the less of a threat the country is to the rest of the world.” Surely Nordberg doesn’t think that impoverished, war-stricken Afghanistan is a bigger threat than the United States, however less oppressed U.S. women.
Underground Girls is a well-written, finely researched and sympathetic view into the lives of Afghan women, and it reveals how they so ingeniously thwart their tormentors. But it doesn’t provide much hope for reversing centuries of ruthless subjugation.
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