The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

Source:  LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Hardcover, 368 pgs
On Amazon and on Kobo

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg is a perfect book for book clubs who want to discuss social and cultural issues.  Nordberg is a journalist in Afghanistan, and she stumbles upon a family with a son who is not what he seems.  He is bacha posh or dressed up as a boy in Dari — it is a technique used by families to save their families’ honor when they have only daughters.  The pressure on low-income, middle-income, and even rich families to have sons is great, and while there are rules in place, they can be bent.  Some families take their youngest girls and dress them as boys, and these girls are then allowed the same privileges as true sons — which means education, sports, being outside unescorted, and wearing boys clothes.  While these privileges only last a short while, the daughters mostly enjoy their time as sons, but there are some who prefer to be girls and wear dresses, but do what they must for their families to survive in society and earn the money they need to live.

“Often, as we have seen in Kabul, it is a combination of factors  A poor family may need a son for different reasons than a rich family, but no ethnic or geographical reasons set them apart.  They are all Afghans, living in a society that demands sons at almost any cost.  And to most of them, the health workers say, having a bacha posh in the family is an accepted and uncontroversial practice, provided the girl is turned back to woman before she enters puberty, when she must marry and have children of her own.  Waiting too long to turn someone back could have consequences for a girl’s reputation.  A teenage girl can conceive and should not be anywhere near teenage boys, even in disguise.”  (page 68 ARC)

Nordberg consistently brings in outside data about the culture of Afghanistan, and she admits that her efforts to apply logic to the situation is pointless, and yet she keeps trying.  These women have defined beliefs and adhere to their culture, even if they wish certain traditions and customs regarding women were different.  Even one female politician adheres to the culture because to outwardly thwart it would bring dishonor to her family and particularly to her husband.  Each of these women knows that to survive they must work within the system, and sons are regarded above everything, though women are considered property and as good as cash when making advancements in society — which is why many women were sold off into marriages at very young ages.  While some aspects of the culture are less arcane, it is clear that Afghanistan is resistant to “Western” ideas and ways, and when the Taliban is in charge, things are even more dire for women.

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg touches upon a phenomenon that is more widespread than expected, but it is not documented, as these girls dressed as boys are considered acceptable so long as the secret is not widely broadcast.  While many would see this as a form of resistance in a rigid society, the women in these families do not see it that way in many cases.  It is merely a way to survive and maintain a honorable reputation in the eyes of society, and if dressing a girl like a boy magically results in a son being born, so much the better.

About the Author:

Jenny Nordberg is a New York-based foreign correspondent and a columnist for Swedish national newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.  In 2010, she broke the story of “bacha posh” – how girls grow up disguised as boys in gender-segregated Afghanistan. The Page One story was published in The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, and Nordberg’s original research in the piece was used for follow-up stories around the world, as well as opinion pieces and fictional tales.  Check out her Facebook page and follow her on Twitter.

Mailbox Monday #274

Mailbox Monday, created by Marcia at To Be Continued, formerly The Printed Page, has a permanent home at its own blog.

To check out what everyone has received over the last week, visit the blog and check out the links.  Leave yours too.

Also, each week, Leslie, Vicki, and I will share the Books that Caught Our Eye from everyone’s weekly links.

Here’s what I received:

1. The House on Mermaid Point by Wendy Wax for review.

Maddie, Avery, and Nikki first got to know one another—perhaps all too well—while desperately restoring a beachfront mansion to its former grandeur. Now they’re putting that experience to professional use. But their latest project has presented some challenges they couldn’t have dreamed up in their wildest fantasies—although the house does belong to a man who actually was Maddie’s wildest fantasy once . . .

Rock-and-roll legend “William the Wild” Hightower may be past his prime, estranged from his family, and creatively blocked, but he’s still worshiped by fans—which is why he guards his privacy on his own island in the Florida Keys. He’s not thrilled about letting this crew turn his piece of paradise into a bed-and-breakfast for a reality show . . . though he is intrigued by Maddie. Hard as that is for her to believe as a newly single woman who can barely manage a dog paddle in the dating pool.

2.  The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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 to “dressed up like a boy” in Dari) 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.

3.  One Evening in Paris by Nicolas Barreau, an unexpected surprise from St. Martin’s Press.

Alain Bonnard, the owner of a small art cinema in Paris, is a dyed-in-the-wool nostalgic. In his Cinéma Paradis there are no buckets of popcorn, no XXL coca-colas, no Hollywood blockbusters. Not a good business plan if you want to survive, but Alain holds firm to his principles of quality. He wants to show films that create dreams, and he likes most of the people that come to his cinema. Particularly the enchanting, shy woman in the red coat who turns up every Wednesday in row 17. What could her story be? One evening, Alain plucks up courage and invites the unknown beauty to dinner. The most tender of love stories is just getting under way when something incredible happens: The Cinéma Paradis is going to be the location of Allan Woods’ new film Tender Memories of Paris. Solène Avril, the famous American director’s favourite actress, has known the cinema since childhood and has got it into her head that she wants the film to be shot there. Alain is totally overwhelmed when he meets her in person. Suddenly, the little cinema and its owner are the focus of public attention, and the red-plush seats are sold out every evening.

What did you receive?