The South Asia Channel

The Underground Girls of Kabul

It should be inspiring to find out that there is a movement in Afghanistan to resist the country’s deeply ingrained gender norms that treat women so poorly, which seems to be the story that Jenny Nordberg is set on telling in her fascinating book, The Underground Girls of Kabul, as she investigates the centuries-old tradition ...

Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

It should be inspiring to find out that there is a movement in Afghanistan to resist the country’s deeply ingrained gender norms that treat women so poorly, which seems to be the story that Jenny Nordberg is set on telling in her fascinating book, The Underground Girls of Kabul, as she investigates the centuries-old tradition of bacha posh (Dari for “dressed up like a boy”). Nordberg defines bacha posh as a “historical and present-day rejection of patriarchy by those who refuse to accept the ruling order for themselves and their daughters.” But is it?

Nordberg discovers bacha posh almost accidentally — or at least, unknowingly — when she is introduced to the “son” of Azita, a politician she is interviewing for a story on female parliamentarians. Azita’s daughters tell Nordberg that their brother is actually a girl, and Azita confirms it when she shows Nordberg the family photo album. She explains to Nordberg that in order to be respected as a wife and a politician in Afghanistan’s deeply patriarchal society, where reputation and the ability to produce sons is everything, she needed a boy. So their youngest daughter, Mahnoush, became Mehran. They cut her hair, switched her clothes, and presented her to the world as their son. Everyone congratulated them on having a complete family — even those who knew the truth. And Azita’s political career took off. As Nordberg puts it, “having a made-up son was better than none, and people complimented [Azita] on her ingenuity.”

As Nordberg grapples with understanding how bacha posh works logistically for Azita’s daughter (the newly dubbed son is treated the same as other boys and can run and play outside, work outside the home, serve as a chaperone to female family members, and go to school for a longer period of time — all until puberty hits, when she will turn back to a girl), she begins to question other contacts about the phenomenon. Nordberg’s investigation turns up a number of young women who have lived, or continue to live, as members of the opposite sex.

As she tells their stories, she tries to paint the women and the families who changed them as part of a larger picture, an underground movement that supports equality of the sexes in Afghanistan. But what Nordberg really tells is a story of women — and men — who have developed a coping mechanism for dealing with the economic, social, and cultural challenges that Afghanistan’s patriarchal society has created. Although the bravery of the girls and women, and sometimes their families, to resist these norms should not be discounted, the “underground resistance” that Nordberg tries to uncover is neither underground nor an actual resistance.

Instead, bacha posh is a way for families who have a girl but need a boy to work within the framework of Afghan society’s strict gender norms. And, as Nordberg’s impressive multiyear investigation leads her across economic classes and through different regions of Afghanistan, she finds that the phenomenon is actually well-known among Afghans. Most people she talks to will admit that they knew someone personally or have heard of someone who was living as a boy, but was actually a girl. Nordberg then explains how, after researching the concept further, she found that the tradition actually extends beyond Afghanistan, though it can be traced back to localized, tribal beliefs in Afghanistan.

After speaking to a teacher of religious law at Kabul University, Nordberg reports that the bacha posh custom began as early as the Sassanid period, which spanned the third to seventh centuries. Persians ruled an empire that included modern-day Afghanistan and stretched to the Balkans. The dominant religion, Zoroastrianism, treated marriage as a vehicle for producing more sons, and sometimes, if too many girls were being born, “magic” was used to try to tip fate in the favor of sons. In addition to the many Zoroastrian shrines that survived the Taliban’s rule, Nordberg discovers that the Zoroastrian belief in “magic” to produce sons continues, through the tradition of bacha posh. Her book is filled with women, mothers, grandmothers, and even former bacha posh rationalizing their behavior by saying that having a bacha posh in the family produces a real son. They provide anecdotal accounts of mothers desperately turning one daughter into a son and then, as if by magic, actual sons are born. It’s an interesting account, and one that Nordberg tells well — mixing academic research with on-the-ground reporting to show how bacha posh transformed, and survived, through centuries of changing religions and sovereigns.

But the survival of the bacha posh tradition isn’t that surprising when you consider that each religion that replaced Zoroastrianism had common tenets as far as women were concerned and, as Nordberg puts it, “since girls continue to be born in many places where they are not always welcomed.”

Another tradition that Nordberg briefly mentions, that of bacha bazi (“boy play”), has some parallels to bacha posh. Bacha bazi is a practice where powerful men adopt young boys as dancing entertainers and use them as sex slaves, trading them among themselves and abusing them until they hit puberty. While homosexuality is condemned in Afghanistan — in both the legal and religious realms — bacha bazi has become almost socially acceptable, since it turns on the needs of men to fulfill their sexuality. In a culture that views women as necessary only for creating children and relations during marriage as a vehicle for procreation, not pleasure, bacha bazi has become a coping mechanism — and the young boys an outlet — for sexually frustrated men who can afford the luxury of satisfying their urges while avoiding dishonoring women outside of marriage.

But Nordberg’s billing of the tale of bacha posh as one of resistance isn’t completely untrue — it is perhaps just misplaced. While bacha posh in and of itself is not a resistance, the former “boys” who grow into women sometimes show rebel tendencies. The girls, who have spent their prepubescent years under an umbrella of freedom, often find reverting to the conservative, submissive role of a woman in Afghanistan extremely hard — sometimes unbearable. This plays out in a number of ways for the women Nordberg interviews, but their tales are all heart-wrenching in their own way.

One woman who marries after changing back from a boy is later divorced by her husband after he finds another woman, and she blames herself for not being able to conform to the typical female role. Yet, she manages to work as a nurse and is studying to become a doctor so she can support her children. Another teenager refuses to change into a girl when puberty hits. Instead, she keeps her hair short, disguises her female figure with baggy clothes and a cocky gait when she walks, and counsels other bacha posh girls in weekly, therapeutic tae kwon do sessions. Even Azita, the politician, admits that being a bacha posh allowed her to have an exceptional education and gain the confidence needed to be in politics, before her family’s financial situation took a turn for the worse and her father was forced to marry her to an illiterate man from a village far from Kabul. But she endures her physically abusive marriage — finagling a deal with her husband where she financially supports the family if he allows her to work and them to live in Kabul.

Nordberg manages to capture the strength of these women, as well as their vulnerabilities, to show the psychological toll bacha posh has on those who endure it, and the ability of women to adapt to the constricts society places on them. Her book ends with an epilogue calling for a larger gender shift in countries like Afghanistan by likening the current situation to Western history, where women had to dress as men to fight wars or attend school, and by showing how both men and women in every society are still “trapped by traditional gender roles.” Following the story of bacha posh, it reads somewhat as a call to arms, especially when Nordberg briefly criticizes foreign aid programs that tried to address gender problems in Afghanistan, but failed because they left out the most important audience: men.

As you read The Underground Girls of Kabul, you wish you were reading a tale of women fighting for equality in their patriarchal society, but instead, you’re faced with stories about women coping with the cards they’ve been dealt. Some of them manage to mount a personal resistance, where the very male-dominant traits they learned as bacha posh carry over into their womanhood and propel them through the perils of life as an Afghan woman. But a larger resistance, one that would shift gender norms and allow women in Afghanistan to be themselves, still seems to be many years away.

Emily Schneider is a research associate in the International Security Program at New America. She is also the assistant editor of the South Asia Channel. Follow her on Twitter: @emilydsch.

Emily Schneider is a program associate in the International Security Program at New America. She is also an assistant editor of the South Asia channel. @emilydsch

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