Tuesday, 22 December 2015

My Favourite Books of 2015 #9: 'The Underground Girls of Kabul' by Jenny Nordberg

I'm counting down the days to New Year's by counting down by favourite books that I read this year. I'm not restricting myself to books that came out this year, although many of the ones featured on this list will probably have. Rather, I'm hoping that by the 31st I've been able to show you what has happened in my life, book-wise, the last twelve months! 

My #9 is: The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance by Jenny Nordberg.

I saw this book floating around the blogosphere for a while, always praised, until I decided in May to pick it up myself. I was so incredibly glad I did because it was a book that fundamentally changed my perceptions of Afganistani culture. I've always refused to make generalisations about how other cultures function so being given such an insight into Afghanistan was amazing. Nordberg is a great non-fiction writer and I gave this 5 Universes.

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.
This book could not be to everyone's taste, but it's such a worthwhile read. This is from my review:
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.
If you're intrigued check out the rest of my review and then get it yourself!

Do you enjoy reading non-fiction? And do you like reading about different cultures?

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