Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Underground Girls of Kabul, by Jenny Nordberg

In this brilliant work of empathy and understanding, Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg takes us inside the lives of Afghan women and their struggle for a better life.

There’s no other way to describe it: this is an exceptional book. So much that is written on Afghanistan comes from either a militaristic, political or academic angle. There are many important studies written by experts that give an abstract idea of the country, its wars, religion and history. Jenny Nordberg, a Swedish journalist based in New York, examines power,  gender and freedom in Afghan society through the cultural phenomenon of bacha posh: dressing up young girls as boys. By investigating a practice that is fairly common, accepted but not talked about, Nordberg paints a deeply human portrait of what it’s like to be a woman in Afghanistan.

Life for Afghan women is really no better than being a constant prisoner, with men holding the jail keys. Women must be covered up at all times lest they provoke the lust in men and they can’t travel without a man as an escort. Career wise, the only path is marriage. Marriages are arranged, brides literally sold off, and husbands must be obeyed. Domestic violence is treated as normal and acceptable. Once married, the first job for an Afghan wife is to produce a son. Having a son immediately raises a woman’s status, and that of her family. For a woman to have girl after girl and no boys lowers status. No one wants girls. So desperate are women and their husbands to have boys that, after producing several girls in a row, a couple may decide to turn one of their girls into a boy.  Turning a girl into a boy is as simple as cutting her hair and putting on boys clothing. There can be many reasons for this pre-pubescent gender bending.

There are practical imperatives to turn a girl into a boy. If a family runs a business and they need someone to help out, a daughter is prohibited from performing these sorts of duties. But sons are free. Thus turning a girl into a boy can provide a family with much needed economic help. Another popular reason that families may decide to turn a daughter into a boy is the widespread belief that this will bring good luck to subsequent pregnancies, promising the much prized boy. Jenny Nordberg interviews lots of Afghans who firmly believe they were able to conceive boys because they turned one of their girls into a bacha posh.

Mothers may wish to turn their daughters into boys because they were once bacha posh themselves and now want their girls to experience the freedoms that men enjoy, if only for a relatively short period of time.  Lastly there is the all pervading cultural demand to produce boys. A bacha posh, even though not a real boy, is seen as a definite step up from being a girl and a bit of a happy compromise. A bacha posh in the family will raise the family's status. Other families, even knowing the deception, will compliment the parents on such a wise decision.

Afghanistan being such a conservative country, you’d think that turning girls into boys would be frowned upon, perhaps lethally dangerous. Amazingly, it’s not. It’s much a case of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Girls passing as boys will go to school, perform jobs, run the streets and everyone will know they’re really girls. No one minds or disapproves. There are limits to this type of cross dressing, however. Most bacha posh are turned back into girls once they approach puberty. It’s seen as inappropriate to have girls on the cusp of womanhood enjoying the freedoms of men. So with a flick of the switch, gender is restored to female.

Jenny Nordberg does interview women who continue to dress as men into adulthood and puberty. One teenage girl she meets resists her parents urges for her to turn back into a girl. You get the impression, however, that her days as a boy are numbered. A couple of grown women manage to pass as men and hold down jobs. The main subject of the book is a female parliamentarian, Azita, who has decided to dress her youngest girl as a boy, given the male name Mehran. Azita is in a constant struggle to improve her family’s lot. Winning a seat in parliament has moved the family forward. Having a “boy” in the family, even though most people know she is her youngest daughter, has lifted the family’s prestige a knot. Yet with the country on the brink of civil war and the Karzai government notorious for its corruption, Azita’s future is precarious. She’s under enormous pressure to maintain the momentum in her career; the chance of sliding back into the role of a traditional Afghan wife, with all the restrictions that would impose, remains a very real possibility. The stakes are high.

What makes The Underground Girls of Kabul such an engaging book is Jenny Nordberg’s intimate reporting style. She’s lived amongst the Afghan women she writes about and has become in many ways entwined in their personal dramas. The book gives you a very real understanding of what it’s like to live as a woman in Afghanistan. But so much more than that, it shows how real people cope when living in such a society, in a country constantly suffering from war. You come to understand so many of the country’s problems through the lens of gender. Nordberg, wanting to complete the circle, even interviews Azita’s father. His replies show that he thinks Afghanistan’s strict rules on gender are stupid and limiting, but it is how society is organised and change seems too hard. When he is asked how he feels about his daughter being physically abused by her husband, he is clearly distraught, but can’t do anything. The husband must always be respected.

Another reason the book is so skilful at eliciting the reader’s empathy is that Nordberg throughout the text points out how we in the West have only very recently improved our laws to protect and emancipate women. Current day Afghanistan’s treatment of women is mirrored in Western history. We can’t hold the high moral ground.

If you really want to understand Afghanistan from the inside, what it’s like for its people, living with constant war, violence, poverty, yet still having hope of a better future, The Underground Girls of Kabul makes for essential reading.

The Underground Girls Of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys, by Jenny Nordberg. Published by Virago. ISBN: 9781844087747  RRP: $29.99

No comments:

Post a Comment