With no let up from ISIS and its ability to generate lurid headlines, you might be excused for thinking nothing left has the power to shock. But you would be wrong: Jenny Nordberg’s superb but chilling account of the treatment of women in Afghanistan will leave you stunned.
Aside from female oppression, the real subject of her book has to be one of the oddest I’ve ever encountered: families passing daughters off as boys—a widespread but officially unacknowledged practice known as bacha posh. Strange, yes, but given the culture, it makes all the sense in the world, or at least the Afghan world.
In a society where the “need for a son trumps everything,” a houseful of daughters rains public scorn down on husband and wife. But the sudden appearance of a son—even when it’s known the “son” is a daughter—can restore social standing. Just as important, a bacha posh (a girl dressed as a boy) can work and contribute to the family income; an ordinary girl cannot. Stranger yet, a bacha posh is believed to emit magical properties, guaranteeing the future birth of a real son.
But what is the benefit to the child? Freedom!—unheard of for girls—to go outside, to play, to look people directly in the eye, to walk with an upright back, to laugh in public, and to speak out in class. This is another reason some parents want a daughter to become a bacha posh—to experience, even if just for a few years, the full range of humanity open to males only.
Of course, a logical question is what happens when the girl reaches puberty and must revert back to her feminine self? I’ll leave that for you to read about. But suffice it to say, there is no single answer.
Finally, Nordberg considers the practice of bacha posh as a potential force for liberalizing Afghan culture. Perhaps, but it’s hard to see how. Aside from those few enlightened parents who appreciate the assertiveness their daughters learn, the overwhelming reason for bacha posh seems to be accommodation—not resistance. In a remark more fatalistic than subversive, one woman utters, “We do what me must.” Still, I’d love to be wrong on this one—I hope I am.
The Underground Girls of Kabul is a terrific choice for any book club. Well-written, absorbing, and topical, it offers a meaty topic for discussion. Don’t pass this one by!
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.