The Underground Girls of Kabul

IMG_0256I love to travel. But there are some countries I know that I’ll never go to. Even though I plan to send the rest of my life seeing every corner of the earth, I have some places with a big “X” on them. I love to watch travel shows of all kinds, but I notice that all of the hosts are men going to all parts of world because they are foreign men and basically immune to the social systems in other countries.

It’s weird to have to say I’m lucky that I was born in a country where I have more freedom as a woman than in other countries. I hate saying that because honestly, it shouldn’t be about luck. When girls are born, it shouldn’t matter in what country. And it shouldn’t be seen as a burden.

I know that the discussion of gender is far from over, especially in the United States, but it really bothers me to know that there are places where women can’t drive, where they cannot leave the house unless escorted by a man. I’m aware of the arguments out there that these women are actually well-taken care of even though it seems that they have some social limitations, but I’m a pretty independent person. I have a feeling that if I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, I would have opted to be raised bacha posh, meaning that I was raised to look and act like a boy in my younger years in order to experience liberation, at least until I matured.

The Underground Girls of Kabul is Jenny Nordberg’s account of visiting several parts of Afghanistan and meeting with families practicing a custom that no one really talks about openly. It’s something that most people in Afghanistan state doesn’t happen, but after some investigation, Nordberg, a Swedish journalist, found that it was a common phenomenon, known to help parents finally have a son in the family, which would protect them from societal shame and financial issues.

Nordberg’s book follows several women who have either been raised as boys when they were young themselves, or were mothers allowing one of their daughters to dress and act as a boy until she reached adolescence and would have to cover up. Each woman has a unique story, but the general laws remain the same. For me, it became difficult to read the laws over and over and read about another sanction that women were not allowed to do.

At first, I felt that this was a story about gender, that it was about one’s identity as a man or a woman. In reality, it’s more about the connotations and mandates that are associated with each gender in a country well-aware of war. While this is a difficult book to get through (spoiler alert: it’s not exactly a happy ending) it does offer information (both interesting and frequently disturbing) about a country and a society I know little about. I don’t assume to know everything now, and my knowledge of Afghanistan is still very miniscule. Nonetheless, I recommend this book to men, women, anyone wanting to learn something about a country we only hear about on television.