Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Review: 'The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan' by Jenny Nordberg

The Underground Girls of Kabul struck me from the moment I read the blurb. There was something fascinating about it and I had seen a lot of very positive reviews on it.  I am so glad I got the chance to read it since it is the kind of book that will change your mind about a lot of things. Thanks to Netgalley and Crown Publishing for providing me with a review copy.

Pub. Date: 16/09/2014
Publisher: Crown Publishing
An investigative journalist uncovers a hidden custom that will transform your understanding of what it means to grow up as a girl
In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as misfortune. A bacha posh(literally translated from Dari as “dressed up like a boy”) is a third kind of child – a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world. Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke the story of this phenomenon for the New York Times, constructs a powerful and moving account of those secretly living on the other side of a deeply segregated society where women have almost no rights and little freedom. 
The Underground Girls of Kabul is anchored by vivid characters who bring this remarkable story to life: Azita, a female parliamentarian who sees no other choice but to turn her fourth daughter Mehran into a boy; Zahra, the tomboy teenager who struggles with puberty and refuses her parents' attempts to turn her back into a girl; Shukria, now a married mother of three after living for twenty years as a man; and Nader, who prays with Shahed, the undercover female police officer, as they both remain in male disguise as adults. 
At the heart of this emotional narrative is a new perspective on the extreme sacrifices of Afghan women and girls against the violent backdrop of America's longest war. Divided into four parts, the book follows those born as the unwanted sex in Afghanistan, but who live as the socially favored gender through childhood and puberty, only to later be forced into marriage and childbirth. The Underground Girls of Kabul charts their dramatic life cycles, while examining our own history and the parallels to subversive actions of people who live under oppression everywhere.
I am not a very avid non-fiction reader. What literature does for me is transport me to different worlds while teaching me about my own at the same time. However, in The Underground Girls of Kabul I found everything I was looking for. Having a culture that was completely alien to me explained by an author who seems so sensitive about the issues she is handling was a true privilege. Nordberg doesn't make The Underground Girls of Kabul into a sensationalist story, although she easily could have. There is no unnecessary hyping up of the story or of the characters' experiences in order to come across as shocking or to paint as bad a picture of Afghan society is possible. Nordberg is careful to remain relatively subjective and not making any of the rash judgements which typify so much of our current media. I really commend Nordberg on this because it's easy to fall into the easy trap of blaming Islam. However, at times I would have liked to see her perhaps be a bit more subjective on the matter.

The organisation and structure of the novel is very good. Nordberg moves from childhood to teenagers to adulthood which means that the progression of the novel is very natural. As Nordberg moves through her discoveries and findings, so the stories of her "characters" develops. As a reader, you meet young girls at the beginning of the book who are being raised as boys. This seems as an initially quite innocent start, but as Nordberg adds more complexity to her narrative the reader really comes to understand the implications and the consequences of this tradition. Nordberg also links it to different traditions in other countries, showing that rather than 'girls being dressed as boys' being an Afghan custom it is a sign of the patriarchy.

Gender identity is a topic very much in discussion right now. People are beginning to acknowledge that physical birth sex may not necessarily be the gender people identify as. On the other hand, there is also the growing awareness that gender is performative. This idea was first mentioned by Judith Butler in 1990, arguing that what defines us as 'male' and 'female' is actually just agreed upon behaviour. Humans who wear dresses and speak with a higher voice are women, whereas humans who play sports and speak with a lower voice are men. Once people start crossing these boundaries, the very existence of these boundaries has to be questioned as well. At times Nordberg loses herself a bit over the fact that the term bacha posh, which literally means 'dressed as a boy' in the Dari languages, means different things for different people. There are no absolutes in this discussion, and, as Nordberg herself rightly argues, as long as sexuality, gender and sex aren't free choices there won't be clarity on the subject either.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

Although at times the writing style didn't completely match the content of the book in the sense that at times Nordberg lost herself in her own subject matter. However, The Underground Girls of Kabul is a fascinating book which brings up a lot of interesting points regarding women's roles and the patriarchal society which has controlled most societies in the world up until now. Although non-fiction may not be for everyone, I'd recommend this book to everyone who wants to learn more about different cultures.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Juli, Ithink it is my first time visiting your blog. What a beautiful blog you have! What a great review! I usually don't read non-fiction either but this sounds like the perfect book for my "Girl Power" page. Thanks for sharing!