Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg (Book Review #97 of 2014)

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan
Jenny Nordberg (her website) discovers the practice of "bacha posh," a Dari term meaning "dressed up like a boy," a practice that was apparently previously unknown, or at least undocumented, in Afghanistan. She finds rumors of it while interviewing Afghans but is also cautioned to avoid looking further into it. She later discovers that even her "bacha posh" contacts are often unaware of others like them. The author raises the valid point: if the West has missed this custom, what else is it missing in dealing with Afghan culture? In the course of her investigation, she's given incredibly intimate access into the lives of a diverse group of Afghan families of differing ethnicities and languages. The access is remarkable given that she is a foreigner relying on a translator and they are engaging in a practice that is not widely acknowledged or accepted. She doesn't just document this practice, she documents life as a female in Afghanistan generally. I know people who have laid down roots in these places, become fluent in the language, and yet were still not granted the same access. That makes me skeptical of some of her reporting, particularly where she relays events she would have heard in the third-person as though she was a witness herself. In her afterword she acknowledges that the translator character in the book is actually a hodgepodge of several real-life translators she used, each with varying backgrounds.

I have lived in rural Central Asia, though not in Afghanistan, and can attest that many of the cultural norms she describes are very much prevalent. Her descriptions of the nikah, the bride price, weddings, relations with the mother-in-law, syncretism etc. all brought back memories. While anthropological research and sociological commentary make up only a tiny fraction of the book, it's very helpful to the reader. The impact of ancient Zoroastrianism in the world ranging from Afghanistan to the Balkans and its syncretism within Islamic life in these areas is well-described. The practice of "bacha posh" is found in many patriarchal cultures and Nordberg even supplies examples from Western history.

Bacha posh solves a problem for families in highly patriarchal cultures with no son. One knowledgeable expatriate relays the story of a woman who was the seventh daughter of a son-less family and the village mullah deemed her a boy and blessed her parents' decision to raise her as such. As an adult, she is now an "honorary uncle" in the family and gets to act as a go-between for the genders. "Better a pretend son than a girl," it is said, and even if relatives and neighbors are wise to the child's real gender they tacitly approve of and respect the family's decision. It solves the practical problem of sibling girls not having a male escort when going out. It Helps families be more socially acceptable and also gives these girls freedom to run, play, be educated, fly kites, etc. But it also causes problems in a culture with strict rules about segregation and can be potentially dangerous if the truth is known. Typically, the boy is turned back into a girl when she reaches puberty or marrying age. One father comments that his would-be daughter will be even better at marriage having lived part of her life as a male.

Nordberg's transgender friends vary in their practices. Some eagerly return to being girls, others choose to remain female. Some are in a limbo. One woman, Shukria, worked as a male nurse at a hospital where her future husband saw her and decided she'd make an industrious wife after learning her true gender. But Shukria found that she does not feel comfortable being intimate with either men or women, and while it produced children he divorced her. The ease of divorce for males-- just speaking the word-- is contrasted with the illegality of female-initiated divorce. Nordberg documents the domestic violence that occurs in these families, including beatings from the mothers-in-law as well as the husbands.

The author lucks into a good relationship with Azita, a female parliamentarian who sees no other choice but to turn her fourth daughter Mehran into a boy. Azita is an interesting story in herself. She's a Parliamentarian, was raised in the city but forced to marry uneducated villager cousin despite an upbringing by her progressive parents hoping she'd become a doctor or some other profession. She is married off as the second wife to an illiterate husband for desperate economic reasons. She's beaten by mother-in-law and her husband, negotiates with the family through her remorseful father, and deals with life. Eventually, she gets elected from her village and the reader is given some insight into this part of modern Afghan culture. Azita lacks the status of someone from important city or with powerful backers, gets daily threatening phone calls, and eventually loses her bid for reinstatement.

There is also Zahra, a tomboy teenager who struggles with puberty and refuses her parents’ attempts to turn her back into a girl and Nader the undercover female police officer who trained with U.S. special forces. All have fascinating stories. Other things I learned are that Jack Bauer & 24 were quite popular in Kabul and what it's like to watch the wedding of William & Kate from an Afghan perspective. Nordberg also includes some analysis of the failure of foreign aid to lift country's standard of living: "Too much money, too many cooks in the kitchen." Afghanistan is essentially a working laboratory to experiment with foreign aid. One wonders what will happen to these would-be women when the U.S. troops fully withdraw and the NGO presence dwindles.

I give this book four stars out of five. Much of what she wrote rang true in my own experiences in Central Asia, but I'm skeptical how much is actually true given (particularly when the men open up to her about domestic violence) from her background as an infidel foreigner working through a translator. 

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