In her book "The Underground Girls of Kabul" Jenny Nordberg was able, in a mere 311 pages to educate me, inspire me and force me to reflect on the big and the small things that I take for granted far too often as a woman living in the West.
The iron fist of the Taliban no longer rules Afghanistan but many of the laws implemented during their rule regarding women are still followed. For many women, leaving home without their husband or a male relative is still forbidden and when they are able to go out they are required to wear a burka so that they remain unseen. Marriages continue to be forced, rape victims are punished harshly for “adultery” and many of these victims are forced to marry their rapists to avoid prison time for their crimes. Domestic violence is a common occurrence and is always the fault of the victim, honor killings are also common and females are still used by their fathers as a way to pay off debt. Even in the more progressive regions women are subjected to domestic violence, and forced marriage and while they are able to drive and move about in the community they must be covered at all times to hid the shape of their bodies and must not behave in any way that might be seen as flirtatious toward men. Women are seated in separate areas in restaurants, they celebrate weddings in separate rooms and while they are allowed to drive it is usually safer for them not to as many times angry men will attempt to run them off the road. All girls, even those who are lucky enough to receive an education are raised with the main goal of marriage and motherhood and if they are lucky their husbands will be kind.
It is in an Afghan woman’s best interest to follow the rules, be a good wife and bear sons for her husband. Even in this day and age, it is still believed that the woman is responsible for the sex of her children both biologically and by choice. A woman who does not produce sons is seen as defective and it brings great shame to the family and invokes the anger of her husband whose violence is more than justified in the eyes of family and community since a man with no sons is one of the most shameful things to be in a patriarchal country where the male lineage is of utmost importance.
While in Afghanistan doing research for a television documentary she was working on regarding Afgan women, the author met to interview a woman who serves as an elected member of Parliament. Azita is a married mother of 4 children, and because her father (who was once a University Professor in Kabul) understands the importance and power of an education Azita is well educated and fluent in several languages. In 1992 her family was forced to moved from Kabul to their family village to escape the worst of the war. The rules of the Taliban then imprisoned her and other women indoors, only able to be outdoors with a male family member as an escort, and only if wearing a heavy burqa.
In spite of her education, and her many talents she is a woman. Merely a woman. Her father gave her the gift of education, but followed that gift with a forced marriage to her uneducated cousin. When women marry in Afghanistan they become the property of their husband and their husbands family and she was no different. She went from an elite family and a comfortable home to the role of the second wife in hut in a remote village. The very same education that had opened her mind caused her to question situations occurring in the home and earned her the physical abuse of both her husband and her mother in law.
Her father insists that his decision was made for her safety during civil war as being an unmarried women was a great danger. He also acknowledges that her marriage was a means to solidify the reputation of the family and the feelings and desires of individual family members are not important at all in the larger picture. The most important thing is the family as a whole and while he imagines a day could come in the very distant future where individuals can strive for their own personal happiness now is not that day. His honest feeling is that while yes, her marriage was forced and yes, her husband is uneducated he did what was best for the family and Azita should be grateful that her husband allows her to work as she has more freedom than many women in Afghanistan. He admits he is aware of the abuse his daughter has suffered and will likely continue to suffer but justifies this as a societal norm, he is not happy that it happens to his daughter but feels it should be understood that it happens to so many women in Afghanistan including those in better positions in society than Azita. It is simply the way it is and it is not possible to change society.
It was during the author’s initial meeting with Azita in the home she shares with her husband and children, that the author learned the family’s youngest child, a 6-year-old rambunctious boy named Mehran is in fact, a daughter.
This revelation opened the door to many other questions and then to a very common yet very well hidden practice. Many families have daughters that they present as sons and not only is it relatively common, it has been happening for many generations. When asked about this phenomenon, government officials, members of the United Nations and experts from other organizations who are all very concerned about the plight of women in Afghanistan declared it was unheard of and likely a rare incident. All the experts agreed that if such a thing actually did happen it would be well known and since segregation of the sexes in Afghanistan is so strictly followed that the very idea of this is odd but also this practice would be incredibly unsafe for the girl and family in question. Often, even experts have much to learn.
The practice of dressing girls as boys in Afghanistan is not new, in fact it has occurred for so long and is so common that there is a term for these girls, bacha posh “dressed as a boy.”
Many families do this because they believe that there is magic in it, an unwanted girl baby dressed and passed off as a boy is a sign to God that the family greatly desires a boy and it is believed that by doing this, future children will be sons. It also serves to provide a sense of honor for families who have been shamed by only having daughters, for these families, it is a matter of protecting their reputation and maintaining their standing in the community and for families without naturally born sons, these girls provide much needed labor .
These girls are not only dressed as boys, but they are treated as such. They are not made to do female chores in the home and they are able to leave the house freely and act as escorts for their mothers and sisters. While their sisters and neighboring girls watch from the windows, the bacha posh run, ride bikes, climb trees and play happily enjoying the small freedoms of childhood taken for granted elsewhere in the world.
When these girls reach puberty and are of age to be married they are “switched back” into girls and are expected to marry, bear children and move on as though the days of freedom they had been allowed to experience never happened.
As is to be expected, the consequences and ramifications of this practice are many. There are some girls who refuse to go quietly in the darkness of womanhood as expected and they are often dragged kicking and screaming there while others go along quietly and meet the same fate. There are of course rare instances of these women being married to men who are better educated and more open minded than most who understand the difficulties their wives face and do the best they can to help them along but even those men understand the fundamental role of the woman is to care for the family and to produce sons.
I am haunted by the stories of these girls and women in the book. I have told so many people about the book and that has led to some deep and reflective conversations about this practice, the role of women in the world and how far we have still to go. It is unacceptable that we live in a world where women need to be disguised as men to be allowed to feel the sun on their face.
I not only highly recommend this book, I really do think it should be required reading. You can get your copy here. I am really interested to hear what you think!
I received a free copy of the book from Blogging for Books for my honest review.