Liralen's Reviews > The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg
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May 15, 2014

really liked it
bookshelves: middle-east, nonfiction, hear-me-roar, first-reads, z-2014, reviewed

My wishlist for this book is short, only two items. One is reasonable and the other unreasonable.

Unreasonably, I wish this were not journalistic nonfiction; I wish it were an academic study. I want statistics, numbers. How many bacha posh are there in Afghanistan? How long, on average, do they straddle the line between male and female? How many of them struggle to reintegrate as female, like Zahra and Shukria, or use their past to their advantage, like Azita, or simply put it away like a childhood toy?

Of course, if that sort of study existed, the premise for this book would be lost; in short, I want answers to the questions that Nordberg asks.

As I encounter more adult women who have grown up as a bacha posh, I come to understand that those who herald their boy years usually experienced them as children. Any potential empowering effects of living on the other side seem to be preserved in an adult woman only if her time as a boy was brief, and ended before puberty. After that...it quickly becomes far more complicated. (143)

More reasonably (at least in my estimation), I want more context from outside Afghanistan. Nordberg's subjects, girls in Afghanistan who spend a (usually limited) period of their lives dressing and acting as boys, have received very little attention; within Afghanistan you might call them a semi-open secret. Nordberg finds this fascinating, and while she eventually comes across references to girls in similar positions in similar cultures, discussion of those other cultures/roles is pretty limited in this book. To be fair, comprehensive coverage would require significantly more length; this would probably have to be a very different book than it seeks to be.

But what makes Zahra distinctly different from other children or young adults in the Western world with a possible gender identity disorder is that she was picked at random to be a boy. As with other bacha posh, the choice was made for her. For that reason, it would be hard to argue that she was born with a gender identity issue. Instead, it seems as though she has developed one. (144) Yes -- reminiscent of David Reimer, actually. Also, perhaps, of the situation some find themselves in in Iran, where it is legal to be transgendered but not legal to be gay.

Several years ago, in a class on queer ministry, I read about cultures in which girls are sometimes raised as boys; if I remember correctly, for some of them it is a lifetime role. I'm kicking myself for not having kept the textbook (or at least written down the title! It was fascinating!), but if I remember correctly such roles existed in some Native American and Chinese cultures, among others. (More recently, I read in Victor C. Uchendu that Igbo culture sometimes includes 'female husbands', and books like African Kings hint at some interesting tweaks of gender roles...) I'd love to see a comparison of those places where this gender-bending is, or can be, permanent (and/or voluntary) against places more like Afghanistan -- bacha posh, as Nordberg describes them, maintain a tenuous acceptance, one that is contingent on them resuming the restrictions and responsibilities of being female before they reach puberty. Moreover, it's generally not the child's choice.

In Afghanistan, sex is a means to an end, of adding sons to the family. But nowhere in that equation is a sexual orientation or preference a factor for women... For a woman to identify as either heterosexual or homosexual, and define what that means, can be very difficult for an Afghan women [sic], who is not even supposed to be at all sexual. (180) There's just so much to consider in this book, and I feel terribly scattered, trying to pull together a hundred thoughts. Here I'm reminded of something a professor of mine once said -- we were reading a book of laws from ancient Mesopotamia, and he pointed out that although there were plenty of laws banning male homosexuality, not a word was said about female sexuality -- perhaps because women simply didn't have the independence (financial and otherwise) for lesbianism to pose a risk (they'd still end up married off to men), and perhaps also because, if one man 'submitted' to another man, he would be lowering himself...putting himself in the position of a woman.

Feels like an impossible struggle. There's a wealth of information here, and I feel greedy wanting to know more, more, more. So many questions without easy answers!

I received a free copy of this book via a Goodreads giveaway.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
May 15, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
May 15, 2014 – Shelved
June 1, 2014 – Shelved as: middle-east
June 1, 2014 – Shelved as: nonfiction
June 1, 2014 – Shelved as: hear-me-roar
August 4, 2014 – Shelved as: first-reads
September 2, 2014 – Shelved as: z-2014
September 4, 2014 – Shelved as: reviewed

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Jenny (new) - added it

Jenny Nordberg thank you so much for these sophisticated (and greedy ;) thoughts. I feel the same; so many threads that could have been explored further. for another time, hopefully! warmly, J


Liralen Jenny, thank you for taking the time to respond (and, of course, for the opportunity to read and review!). I'm only sorry I didn't have this book to write a paper on in college...instead I'll just have to use it as a springboard for more reading ideas, and hope there's more to come in the future :)


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