I stopped suddenly and gasped, placing a hand over my mouth. The couple next to me jumped and followed my line of sight – which led nowhere. I was hiking in a state park, and in my ears was Kirsten Potter reading The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, written by the incredible Jenny Nordberg.
Narrative Muse’s mama Brough Johnson probably said it best when she remarked to me, “Underground Girls is one of those quietly excellent books that few people have read.” I absolutely agree.
Journalist and foreign correspondent Nordberg published Underground Girls in September of 2014 after documenting an unusual phenomenon she noticed occurring in Afghanistan. And this was news to me. Apparently, girls and young women in Afghan villages and cities frequently choose to, or are told to, dress as boys. And they’re asked to not only dress as boys; pass as boys.
They are called bacha posh – translated from Dari and literally meaning “dressed up like a boy”. They become their families’ honorary sons and consequently, treasured members of society. This generally lasts until they hit puberty and concealment is no longer possible.
Nordberg begins by explaining to the reader that women who fail to conceive sons are ostracized and sometimes punished. “It is incumbent,” she writes, “upon every married woman to quickly bear a son – it is her absolute purpose in life, and if she does not fulfill it, there is clearly something wrong with her in the eyes of others.” You can imagine the judgment leveled at women who bear daughters exclusively. In these cases, many parents approach a likely child and ask if they’d like to be the family son.
Afghan boys are allotted myriad freedoms when juxtaposed with their female counterparts. They can attend school, move about freely, play sports, speak with their elders, even ride in the passenger seats of cars. They can have careers. Thoughts. Opinions.
Nordberg’s voice in Underground Girls is calm, intelligent, and informed. She is able to write educationally without her narrative becoming too dry. In order to keep herself safe, she often adopted traditional Afghan dress while conducting her research. Nordberg handles the differences in cultural milieu without judgment, no matter what she may feel. She is clearly there to tell the story of the bacha posh and she leaves her findings for the rest of us without much comment of her own.
One of the main focuses is on the family of a middle-aged parliamentarian named Azita, whose youngest of four daughters, Mehran, is the family’s bacha posh. Azita explains that since Mehran started dressing as a boy, they have experienced a palpable change in society’s attitudes towards them – especially important for a woman politician who already faces social resistance. But once Mehran hits puberty she will have to change back. Fragile and developing sexual identities aside, what broke my heart most was Mehran’s relationship with her father. He calls her his “little boy” and celebrates her in a way unlike her sisters, yet inevitably, all of this will end, and their relationship and her value in his eyes will diminish once again.
Reading about the control exerted over women by their Afghan husbands saddened me, not necessarily because of the conservative-ness of it; but because of the abusiveness of it. The sheer powerlessness, the limited opportunities, militant adherence to modesty of dress, and even shunning of media seem to be consistent themes, not to mention the terrible widespread domestic and sexual abuse.
Though my society is broken too. I can’t help thinking over and over again that I, as a cis-gender caucasian American woman, am so very privileged. What our sisters overseas are dealing with is unthinkable. Here I sit, holding two degrees and able to wear whatever I want. I have career options. My father never tried to sell me. I mean, I get down sometimes because of my chronic health issues and how they hold me back. But to imagine a person I share my life with holding me back. Wow.
At the end of the day, I’ve got some things to worry about – we all do – but in general, freedom has not been one of them. The bacha posh of Afghanistan get to taste it, just for a little while, before it’s snatched away. When asked, they usually explain that they’d rather experience freedom that way than not at all.
Header photo by Adam Ferguson for The New York Times