Review | The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

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Well, if you’re looking for a bit of a punch to the gut, I’ve found it for you. The Underground Girls of Kabul is a very good read. Using her journalistic experience and a well-informed, extremely well researched knowledge base, Nordberg constructs an image of Afghanistan that isn’t readily available to the average reader.

The subject of The Underground Girls of Kabul is extremely interesting. Nordberg focuses in on the little-known phenomenon of young girls being raised as boys in Afghanistan. These girls, known as the bacha posh, aren’t often acknowledged by Afghan society. Nordberg noted them by accident, during an interview with a female politician in the Afghani parliament. When she went to gender studies experts in Afghanistan, no one had much to offer on the phenomenon. So, Nordberg undertook to discover more about who the bacha posh are, why they exist, and what the impact is on Afghani society.

In The Underground Girls of Kabul, Nordberg uses a combination of extended interview, narrative forms, and analysis to create a picture of what it’s like to be a girl raised as a son in Afghanistan, and more difficult, describe what happens to the bacha posh when these girls raised as sons are forced back into the traditional family lifestyle and rigid gender roles of womanhood. The story is engaging in and of itself, and Nordberg adds to the interest by writing in a forthright and contemplative manner. She relates the stories of many women who were raised as bacha posh and talks about the difficulties of the transition back to traditional womanhood, and shows the sometimes very tangible benefits of time spent as a son.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It’s the kind of book I find very appealing, and Nordberg doesn’t shy away from the complicated discussion of gender identity and rights that the subject matter invites. The bacha posh introduce a fascinating situation that lends itself to discussion of nature v. nurture, whether gender truly is a learned aspect, and if the international aid community is really achieving what it has set out to do in Afghanistan.

The story is approached in a first person narrative focusing around Nordberg’s experiences interviewing women who had been raised by sons. The tales she relays range the gambit from young girls only now being raised as sons to teens about to have to transition back to the role of daughter, to women who have and have not accepted the transition. It’s emotionally insightful.

While there is a lot of analysis going on, and a lot of interesting and informative sidebar discussions in the book, the women’s stories are the strongest point. Their personal lives are the true hook in the story. Nordberg runs a careful line of contextualization and over-explanation. Fortunately, there were only a few times where she ventures into too much explanation. When it does cross that line however, the analysis isn’t quite to the break down level I’d like. The case studies could have benefited from more depth in the analysis. Nordberg uses the cases as evidence for statements about the Afghan culture without always making the inferences in her argument clear. I’m a fan of challenging one’s assumptions in the course of creating an argument and sometimes I thought Nordberg could have done more to truly support what she was saying. The argument is also straight forward without much allowance for conflicting explanations or confounding variables.

The journalistic sense in the book, however, is excellent, with lots of background research and a very thorough attempt to detail her subjects’ lives. It’s also very emotionally impactful. Overall, I think it’s a good introduction to gender identity and societal influences, but may lead those with a stronger social science background wanting more.

*I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

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