'Imagination will take you everywhere'
Mehran is a seven year old Afghan boy. He has a chubby face with dark bushy eyebrows and jet black hair, cut short.
Mehran runs free. He goes out to play with other boys in the neighbourhood; kicking up dust in the hot streets of Kabul, watched by the veiled faces of girls in windows.
But Mehran is not what he seems. He is actually a girl.
Zahra is the same – although a little older – she dresses as a boy. A headstrong girl who experiences the freedom that her gender rarely has in this misogynistic society. They both live in what the UN calls ‘the most dangerous place to be a woman’.
Afghanistan is a country asking to be written about. Its dramatic history, unstable politics, strict beliefs, and tragic wars have served as the perfect backdrop in both fiction and non-fiction. But most pertinent are those novels which depict moving tales of fortitude, brought to life by writers such as Khaled Hosseini, Atiq Rahimi and Andrea Busfield.
Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul is different from all of them. The book delves deeper into the much-written about lives of Afghan women by exploring the secret phenomenon of bacha posh – literally “dressed up like a boy” in Dari. The only way girls truly know what life is like on the other side.
Swedish journalist, Nordberg, broke the story of bacha posh for The New York Times in 2010, after spending five years investigating. This is long-form journalism at its best; a series of intimate portraits of current and former bacha posh, woven expertly together to reveal voices that are usually silenced. Each case is different, spanning class and age; illustrating what life is like for a bacha posh and their family, along with the consequences.
“They are still like servants. Like animals. We have a long time before the woman is considered a human in this society.”
Azita is one of 68 women in Afghanistan’s 249 member parliament; she grew up as a bacha posh and now so is her youngest daughter, Mehran. She believes her childhood as a boy triggered her strong resolve to get into politics, and believes Mehran’s time as a bacha posh will make her into a woman who “can push society even further”. Having sampled freedom in their early life, the bacha posh generation will become a strong-willed force for change. It is this revolt which demonstrates how these women are not just adapting to survive in a patriarchal culture, but learning how to prosper. And this book is the mouthpiece for those women defying repression.
But being a bacha posh is not all positive; the psychological ramifications on the child’s mind can be overwhelming. Zahra is one of the oldest bacha posh girls that Nordberg spoke to. At fifteen she is at an age where marriage is the norm. But Zahra is defiant; she will never get married. Her dream is to study and work. For girls in Afghanistan, teenage life revolves around learning how to be the perfect wife and eventually being married off – some as young as thirteen. Bacha posh children return to dressing normally as a girl before they reach adolescence and their body changes. But Zahra simply refuses to acknowledge her birth sex, much to the disappointment of her exasperated mother, Asma. “Your sister will wear a dress” says Asma, “She is beautiful. She is a girl. You look like a monkey compared to her.”
For Zahra, the transition back to being a girl is not going to be easy. She declared that she wants surgery so she can be “rid of this body”. All Zahra has ever known is life as a boy and to change that would be to start life all over again.
Shukria was a bacha posh until twenty, and is now married with three children. An example of how the late change is still possible, although she admits it was extremely difficult, “I had to change my thoughts and everything inside my mind.” It is almost impossible to imagine the sudden shift from having complete freedom to none at all – like a reversed metamorphosis where the butterfly turns to a caterpillar. Nordberg harnesses her subject’s trust to give a deep insight into the emotional impact on the individual; exposing their vulnerability but also their determination. These passages are the most effective – drawing the reader into a world starkly different to the one Westerners inhabit, where freedom is taken for granted.
It is clear how passionately involved Nordberg has become with this underground culture – she is not objective. Nordberg’s flowing reportage is so vivid that it often reads like fiction. Her intrigue and warmth for the interviewees radiates through each page, while bursts of humour are a welcome relief from the heart-breaking subject.
This book is a powerful one. Nordberg shines a light on how dysfunctional Afghan society is; where girls feel they must disguise themselves in order to feel accepted. It leaves the reader cheering for their rebellion against the system, whilst also making us look at gender roles within our own society. Compelling, brave and shocking. You will not forget these characters, or indeed, this book.
The Underground Girls of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys. By Jenny Nordberg. Published by Virago, September 2014, £14.99