Title: The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan
Author: Jenny Nordberg
Published on: September 16, 2014
Genre: Non-fiction, Politics, Social Sciences
Life, for a woman in Afghanistan, is unlivable. Here, as is commonly known to the rest of the world, women are confined to their homes, with little or no interaction with the outside world, often illiterate and under the spell of demonising husbands who do not allow them an iota of daylight. What’s frightening is that nearly three-fourth of the woman population live this way: forced into marriage at a young age, subjected to domestic violence at the hands of their husbands who see it as their duty to beat their wives up and pushed to accept the role only that of a child bearer — even the child is the father’s and the woman has no rights on its future whatsoever.
Through The Underground Girls of Kabul, Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg offers an altogether different point of view on what it means to be a girl in Afghanistan: a rare glimpse into a distinct life many girls are forced to lead, not as the oppressed sex, but as one who resists the patriarchal norms set by the society.
At the centre of the book is the rise of ‘bacha posh’ — where girls are made to dress like boys — grown as much out of the need for women to be included in the fabric of the society, as of the circumstance where a family is unable to conceive a male offspring. In such families, a girl is ‘designated’ to act like a son of the household, even allowing them freedom to study, work, roam around and mingle with other boys. When they reach puberty, unequivocally most of them are made to revert to their innate girl-status, which for many Afghans is an innocuous process.
But as Nordberg points out, it can have serious repercussions. Through the transformation of Shukur, a bacha posh to Shukria, a married woman, Nordberg reveals how traumatic it is to switch roles all of a sudden. After years of being liberated, not many are prepared for the docile role of housekeeping or child bearing and hence face a bitter future. As Shukria herself puts it, after her failed attempt at getting into the shoes of a woman: Her parents should never have made her a boy, since she ultimately had to become a woman. Nevertheless, there are other contrasting cases. Many families, eschewing societal norms, are much more open to continuing the charade for an indefinite period. For instance, Shahed (Shaheda) and Nader (Nadia), who have revelled in their bacha posh status, hope to continue as a male member of the family and “be out of the marriage market for good.”
Through her portraits of women from various strata of the society in Kabul and the less popular and underdeveloped Badghis province, Nordberg proffers a gripping take on the politics of gender identity in Afghanistan against the backdrop of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (the ‘Russian times,’ as one former bacha posh and parliamentarian Azita puts it), the Taliban era and more recently, the US ‘war against terrorism.’ These are tales of determination and grit, of struggle, of rise against oppression, which, in a pertinent manner, offer a glimpse into the never-ending struggle of a woman in the country.
In the course of the book, Nordberg highlights that the practice of bacha posh is not specific to Afghanistan alone. While in the present day, it has risen out of the idea of maintaining a social status, she alludes to similar practices elsewhere in the world — of women masquerading as warriors in Europe and many other places. But is it a violation of human rights? Will it lead to a dysfunctional society, more than it already is? Will the concept of bacha posh perish if the Taliban comes back to ruling? As long as a strict patriarchal society prevails, Nordberg states, there will be resistance. She adds, “Perhaps someday in our future it will be possible for women everywhere not to be restricted to those roles society deems natural, God-given or appropriately feminine. A woman will not need to make an effort to resemble a man, or to think like one. Instead she can speak a language that men will want to understand.”