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The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan - Jenny Nordberg

Like many New York Times readers, I read Nordberg’s first article on girls disguised as boys in Afghanistan and was fascinated. It’s a topic that deserved a book, and fortunately Nordberg went deeper and wrote one.


This book relates many stories of girls disguised as boys, and women disguised as men. Sometimes changing a girl to a boy is done to raise the family’s social standing, as both fathers and mothers are looked down upon for not producing sons. Sometimes it’s done for practical reasons: Afghan boys can work outside the home, but girls and women are rarely allowed to do so. And many families do it for superstitious reasons, believing that creating a faux boy child will hasten the birth of a real one. The transitions back to femininity are equally diverse: one eight-year-old girl is changed back early because she’s “terminally girly”; another girl, a teenager, refuses to change back and give up her freedoms despite family pressure. Some women who spent time as boys during childhood look back on it as an empowering experience, giving them self-confidence that lasted into adulthood; others, especially those who changed back as older teenagers or adults, are left confused, feeling not quite male or female.


One of the biggest surprises for me was how accepted this practice is in Afghan society; I’d imagined families going to great lengths to hide the true gender of their daughters, but despite or perhaps because of the rigidity of gender roles, dressing girls as boys functions as an acceptable release valve. Appearances, in many cases, suffice. One father admits to forgetting that his “son” isn’t a real boy (sadly, this does not make him rethink his clear favoritism for this child; he can form a bond with an honorary son, it seems, but not a daughter). Even the schools get involved: in the case of one young girl, “all the teachers play along and help protect her secret by letting her change clothes in a separate room when necessary. . . . The rules are clear: dresses for girls, pants for boys. . . . But it is not for the school to get involved in a family matter, [a teacher] explains. Whatever gender the parents decide upon, the school should help perpetuate.” Cross-dressing seems less a matter of truly convincing others than of being credible enough to let everyone pretend.


Nordberg does an excellent job of presenting this information clearly and letting readers into the life stories of the women she meets; we get to know them as individuals, as the book provides a window into their daily lives. Two authorial decisions bear mentioning, though. First, Nordberg repeatedly mentions that women have disguised themselves as men in many patriarchal societies, and that more broadly, there have always been people who pretended to be something they weren’t to avoid discrimination. This broader context is useful, but Nordberg never develops it in any detail. Second, a substantial chunk of the book focuses on the life of an Afghan parliamentarian, the mother of the first disguised girl Nordberg met, despite the fact that these sections go far afield from the subject of girls disguised as boys. The parliamentarian, Azita, has a fascinating story that illuminates the challenges faced by women in Afghanistan – Nordberg mentions early in the book that 90% of Afghan women suffer some type of domestic abuse in their lifetimes, but it’s the individual stories that bring home how abusive behavior is the foundation of gender relations there for most people. Still, I wish the book had spent as much time on the stories of some of the disguised girls and women as it spends with Azita.


Overall, I found this to be a captivating look into another culture, and very readable, though sometimes depressing. Some of the marketing for this book focuses on Nordberg’s “discovering” a cultural practice westerners had previously overlooked, but her treatment of the people she writes about is always respectful. She seems to have immersed herself in the culture far more than a typical western journalist, and earned the trust of the women she met. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in Afghanistan, gender issues or feminism.