Summary and book reviews of The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

The Underground Girls of Kabul

In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan

by Jenny Nordberg

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2014, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2015, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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About this Book

Book Summary

An investigative journalist uncovers a hidden custom that will transform your understanding of what it means to grow up as a girl.

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.

CHAPTER ONE

THE REBEL MOTHER

Azita, a few years earlier

Our brother is really a girl."

One of the eager-looking twins nods to reaffirm her words. Then she turns to her sister. She agrees. Yes, it is true. She can confirm it.

They are two ten-year-old identical girls, each with black hair, squirrel eyes, and a few small freckles. Moments ago, we danced to my iPod set to shuffle as we waited for their mother to finish a phone conversation in the other room. We passed the headphones between us, showing off our best moves. Though I failed to match their elaborate hip rolls, some of my most inspired sing-along was met with approval. It actually sounded pretty good bouncing off the ice-cold cement walls of the apartment in the Soviet-built maze that is home to a chunk of Kabul's small middle class.

Now we sit on the gold-embroidered sofa, where the twins have set up a tea service consisting of glass mugs and a pump thermos on a silver-plated tray. The mehman khana is ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The Underground Girls of Kabul features several women who find ways to resist and subvert power—including Azita, whose status is elevated by disguising her daughter as a son; Mehran, who is able to confidently roughhouse with boys her own age; and Zahra, who fights her parents to maintain her male identity after puberty. Which woman's story did you find most interesting? Why?

  2. Although Afghanistan and its conflicts have been well-covered, the book offers a different entry point into the lives of people there. Before reading this book what (if anything) did you know about Afghanistan? What did you find surprising about the country and its history in reading this book?

  3. Do you think the practice of bacha posh is subversive, with ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about The Underground Girls of Kabul. Join the discussion! You can see the full discussion here.

"The Underground Girls of Kabul features several women who find ways to resist and subvert power. Which woman's story did you find most interesting? Why?
Azita was the most interesting to me. I found her both courageous and perplexingly timid. I was horrified that her father who seemed to support her aspirations would then marry her off to an ignorant man and condemn her to a suffocating life where ... - beckyh

Are the lives of Afghan women entirely different from ours, or do you see similarities in how we behave and how we live?
I've come back to this discussion as the book made such an impression on me. It's now on the way to my attorney grandson in NYC. I shall be interested in learning his reaction to the book upon his reading of it. Now, as to the question of ... - Lea Ann

As a child, were there things you absolutely couldn't do due to your gender? Do you see a future in which gender roles will be less strict? Is that a good or bad thing?
Reene and I sound like contemporaries. I recall how angry it made me to have to play half court basketball. And, how much angier I was working at a local cannery at age 16 and learning that the men/boys doing the exact job I was doing were paid 5 ... - Lea Ann

Before reading this book what (if anything) did you know about Afghanistan? What did you find surprising about the country and its history in reading this book?
I had read several books that touched on bacha posh but had no idea it was so widespread. It is very important for girls (and boys) to be educated. Azita knew - because of her education - that there was more she was capable of and could aspire to. ... - beckyh

Did you ever wonder how things would have been different had you been born the other gender? Did you ever wish that you could be a different gender?
I have never wished to be a male - not for one minute. Like some of the enlightened fathers in Jenny Nordberg's book, I also had a father who believed (and still believes) that his daughter can do anything with education and perseverance. My father ... - kellilee

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Underground Girls of Kabul is quite entertaining and would be a good primer for anyone looking to know more about women's rights in Afghanistan. Those interested in the custom of bacha posh or simply keen on finding a good human interest story are sure to find the book to be a fascinating read. I especially recommended it as a book-group selection; with its discussion of gender roles and women's rights it will certainly generate good conversation.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Full Review (1189 words).

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Media Reviews

Elle

Five years of intensive reporting have yielded this gritty, poignant, and provocative collage of intimate portraits…Nordberg conveys captivating nuance and complexity; just when you feel some kind of judgment or conclusive opinion is within reach, she deftly turns the tables, leaving us to reexamine our own prejudices and societal norms as we struggle with questions that are perhaps unanswerable

Washington Post

Jenny Nordberg has produced a striking and nuanced work that explores the current status of Afghan women through one of their subcultures...[A] finely written book.

The Boston Globe

Nordberg’s immersive reporting reveals an astonishingly clear picture of this resourceful, if imperfect, solution to the problem of girlhood in a society where women have few rights and overwhelming restrictions

Kirkus Reviews

As affecting as the stories of these women are, Nordberg's conclusion - that women's rights are essential to 'building peaceful civilizations' - is the most powerful message of this compelling book. An intelligent and timely exploration into contemporary Afghanistan.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [A] searing exposé…Nordberg's subtle, sympathetic reportage makes this one of the most convincing portraits of Afghan culture in print.

Booklist

Starred Review. A stunning book… Nordberg has done some staggering work in this unique, important, and compelling chronicle. Book clubs will be riveted, and will talk for hours.

Author Blurb Naheed Bahram, program director of Women for Afghan Women
The Underground Girls of Kabul is an amazing book. The fact that Nordberg brings this to light is eye-opening to everyone—even to Afghans. It is the truth that many Afghans live with it as part of their life.

Author Blurb Valerie M. Hudson, professor and George H.W. Bush Chair, The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University
Nordberg brings to light a world that no Afghan speaks of, but everyone knows: the world of girls raised as boys, usually until puberty . . .The former bacha posh may yet change Afghanistan for the better . . . Nordberg’s book is a pioneering effort to understand this hidden world

Author Blurb Jennifer Clement, author of Prayers for the Stolen
The Underground Girls of Kabul is a riveting, firsthand account of what life as a girl is like in Afghanistan and how it often means becoming a boy.  Jenny Nordberg has written a compelling and important work that exposes the profound gender prejudice that exists, in different forms, all over the world.

Reader Reviews

reene s

Underground Girls of Kabul
My book club will be discussing this book this month on my recommendation. The research for the book was thorough and required as we know so little about the customs of a country we are so involved with. I had no idea that this custom was so common...   Read More

reene s

Underground Girls of Kabul
Written and well researched by investigative reporter Jenny Nordberg, it reads like a novel. You cannot but help to become involved in the lives of the "characters" Azita, Zahra, Shukria and Nadar. In a culture ruled by men, how do some ...   Read More

Gloria

Read this book!
What kind of society values sons so highly that desperate women dress their daughters in pants and raise them as boys? And what happens to those daughters when they reach puberty and suddenly have to live as women in a society that demands that they ...   Read More

SJ2B House of Books

Highly recommended
'The Underground Girls of Kabul' by Jenny Nordberg is an immensely informative, insightful and compelling read. Nordberg obviously did extensive research on the practice in Afghanistan of 'basha posh'. I was not aware of the practice but not ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Muslim Women's Dress Styles

The Underground Girls of Kabul explores the custom of bacha posh where girls are dressed as boys and pass off as sons in families. While, by definition, the bacha posh wear male clothing, I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore the various items of Muslim women's attire as I suspect that, like myself, many readers will be unclear about the differences between the various garments, such as the hijab, chador, abaya and burka:

Two popular ways to way the hijab: Al-Amira and the Shayla The practice of wearing a veil or head covering predates Islam; statues from approximately 2500 BCE depict veiled women, and the first written reference found is in an Assyrian legal text composed in the 13th century BCE. It's thought that the custom was common in Persia and Byzantine societies, ...

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