The Underground Girls of Kabul, by Jenny Nordberg (audio)

undergroundgirlsSubtitled: In Search of Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan [some versions are subtitled: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys]

When Jenny Nordberg was reporting in Afghanistan, she came across a phenomenon she hadn’t heard of before: bacha posh, or girls raised as boys. She began research into the bacha posh, which led to a wider discussion of freedom, gender, rights, and roles.

I’m so glad Shaina kept pushing this book on me. When she first recommended it to me, I tried to read it in print, but as so often happens with nonfiction, I couldn’t get into it. Nonfiction is so much better on audio for me, and my library up north did not have an audio copy. Boo. So I had to wait until I returned to San Antonio, which did have an audio copy in their library system. Just as with other nonfiction, what was difficult to get into in print was immediately captivating on audio.

It is difficult to say whether this book is more about gender or oppression and necessity. Nordberg discovers and follows the lives of several bacha posh. Some are girls who agree to “become” boys later in childhood for their families. Some are presented as boys from birth. Some transition back to girls before puberty, some after puberty when it’s time to marry, and some refuse to transition back at all. Some believe themselves male, some female, some both, or neither. Some families create bacha posh as a magical good luck charm to help them get a “real” male heir. Some do it because they need the extra income, or protection for the women in the family, or to avoid the shame that comes with having no male children. Whatever the reason, the bacha posh all react in very different ways to their shifting situations.

There’s a great quote (and I wish I had a physical copy so I could quote it directly) from a bacha posh who, in their mid-teens, refuses to transition back, and adamantly claims to be male. They’ve never known anything but a male role, having been presented male from birth. The question (and quote) is to do with the idea of gender – can we say this person is transgender? Or have they developed a gender identity issue because of the circumstances of their life? Would the situation have been different had this person been raised female? Keep in mind, this isn’t a culture that affords the freedom of choosing an identity. This is not a person who, as a child, felt at odds with their biological sex, and was therefore allowed to grow up male. This is a person who was randomly reared/treated as male all through life, including puberty, in a society where gender roles are strictly divided.

It brings into question how much nature and nurture are involved in the idea of gender. How much of gender is born into us, and how much is developed over time? What do gender identity issues mean in a society where one gender is given far less freedom than the other? Is there an equally extensive and historical opposite, of men raised as women? If so, Nordberg does not discuss it at all, and given the culture’s reverence of male children, I’d guess it’s probably less likely than the relatively common bacha posh.

The book was quite extensive, introducing bacha posh of all ages, lifestyle choices, finances, education, etc. It also went into great detail about the historical significance of this particular cultural phenomenon, as well as a balanced and realistic portrayal of gender inequality in both urban and rural parts of Afghanistan. Shaina said that her one complaint about the book was that it didn’t go into as much detail as she’d like about gender identity issues, and I can agree with that. However, I’m not sure just how much more detailed Nordberg could have gotten. While bacha posh are relatively common, they are also not spoken of very often or very easily. Some of the gender identity issues cannot easily be answered, and I think Nordberg did a good job at not making any assumptions. I found the book to be balanced, well-thought-out, and engaging. I’m so glad I finally got to listen to it!

Performance: The narrator of this audiobook was Kirsten Potter, who did a good job. Too often, audiobooks set in the Middle East involve really bad stereotyped accents, and this one did not. Potter pronounced the names well and read the book smoothly. Highly recommended!

About Amanda

Agender empty-nester filling my time with cats, books, fitness, and photography. She/they.
This entry was posted in 2015, Adult, Prose and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Underground Girls of Kabul, by Jenny Nordberg (audio)

  1. I’m excited about this. It looks amazing. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Shaina says:

    You make a great point about how inaccessible so many bacha posh are and how it might very well be impossible to study gender identity in this population. From my somewhat foggy memory, I think my beef was more along the lines of only seeing a handful of sentences about trans/gender identity issues *at all*, rather than a lack of extensive discussion of how these issues play out among bacha posh. But, really, I’m splitting hairs over what was ultimately an expansive and important book. I’m so, so glad you enjoyed it and am very happy to have pushed it on you. 😉


  3. Heather says:

    I have this in print on my TBR and I’ve been meaning to get to it soon! Thanks for reminding me! 🙂


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