The Underground Girls of Kabul

December already? Seriously…how does this happen?? And why is it that I say that every month?

November ended up being a less than stellar reading month. Maybe because I felt like I read all of the books in October. Maybe because I finished Drood, and it sucked, and put me in a bad mood. Maybe because I was all excited about Revival, and while it didn’t suck, it didn’t exactly make me do cartwheels, either. Whatever. It was still a good month in other ways, just not when it came to books.

Except. I read The Underground Girls of Kabul and it pretty much rocked. Mostly because I had no idea.

underground girls

No idea that there was such a thing as bacha posh. Bacha pash means dressed up like a boy, and there are many families in Afghanistan who will turn a daughter into a son. This happens for a variety of reasons. A boy can offer protection to his siblings. A boy can work. A family with no boys can be a shameful thing, and therefore a girl will be turned into a boy for family honor. A boy is also thought to bring more boys…sort of a lucky charm. A boy has more freedom, and can play outside and be loud and outspoken and experience life in ways that a girl never can. Almost always, the bacha posh is turned back into a girl before puberty. Which means that there are women in Afghanistan who have fond memories of their time as a boy, and there are those who are resentful that they had to become a woman, and there are those who remain ambivalent about becoming a woman. There are families who expect their daughters to be boys, and then expect them to be women…no questions asked. And who then just can’t understand why their daughters are so reluctant to give up their lives as boys. And there are a handful who encourage them to remain as boys and then men…and not always for the reason that they will live a life with more freedom. Usually it is for economic reasons…a man can work, and for a family without any born sons, a bacha posh who continues into adulthood as a man can provide the family with the security that only a man can provide in Afghanistan.

In the book, Nordberg focuses on a handful of women and their experiences as bacha posh. But she also explores the Afghani ideas of gender and sexuality. It makes for a fascinating read, and it messes a bit with preconceived Western ideas. Not all bacha posh return willingly to life as a female, but most do, because it is the expectation that Afghani women will marry and have children. As hard as it is for a Westerner to hear and understand, that is the culture, and it was never so apparent to me as when women who were once bacha posh never question that society dictates that their ultimate fate is marriage and motherhood and a life of no rights, and often domestic violence. It is a distressing fate for any woman, but it is jarring to know that these women who spent years with the same freedoms usually reserved for Afghani boys, will still end up with the same fate as their sisters, and that most people in society see nothing wrong* with any of it.

*And by wrong I mean the lack of freedom, and the domestic violence, and the confusion some of the bacha posh experience when they are expected to meekly submit to either becoming a son or turning back into a daughter.



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5 responses to “The Underground Girls of Kabul

  1. Wow! I’ve read a lot about Kabul and Afghanistan, but I’ve never heard of this. Sounds like a fascinating read. I’ll have to see if my library has a copy!


  2. This sounds so interesting. “I want this book NOW!” kind of interesting. But sad.


  3. This sounds like my kind of book! I thought I had it but just discovered I don’t so it’s going on my wish list.


  4. I had no idea what this book was about until now. Never heard of bacha posh either.


  5. Beth F

    I’ve heard about this book but didn’t really know what it was about. Sounds fascinating.


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