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Friday, June 27, 2014

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

The story is basically that of survival of a girl in Afghanistan - seemingly one of the worst places to be born a woman. 

Afghanistan is a country where the birth of a son is heralded as one of good luck and where the birth of a daughter is one of misfortune. The daughter would not be a problem if there are sons but if it is only a family of girls it is not just the child that is unlucky, the mother is considered unfortunate and a disgrace and even the husband is pitied.  In this story, even very educated women accept blindly the fact that sons are the protectors of the family, the guardians of the family honor and the person who will look after them in their old age. So the son is important.

In this backdrop we have the strange phenomenon of a girl of the family being designated as a boy to all intents and purposes - from dress, mannerisms and behaviour till puberty when she has to revert to being a girl. From Azita to Mehran to Shukria to Zahra this journalist unravels the story which is not acknowledged or spoken about of how families adapt their girls to either provide the escort the sisters need or in many instances to provide the "magic" element that them being a boy brings on the family because subsequent pregnancies bring only boys. The story of bacha posh shows how this third gender live  unacknowledged in society and whose families simply accept that it is best for the family, uncaring of the psychological or physical effects on the child concerned. It is the family unit that is most important, the honor and position of the unit, not the individual which is of prime importance.

We follow Azita's path - a female parliamentarian who has to trod a very narrow path between her constituents, her illiterate husband and her four daughters. She is trying her best to provide something to her supporters, provide education and some kind of normalcy for her daughters and also pacify her husband and in laws with money and material comforts so that they would literally get off her back. 

This is a very emotional read and one that makes me extremely glad I was born Sri Lankan. Sons are liked in my part of the world but the female infanticide prevalent in parts of India are non existent, and the attitudes of Afghanistan do not exist at all. The book shows the spirit of the Afghan woman in the context of the war in Afghanistan - both Russian and American interventions doing almost nothing for women. How this situation could be prevalent today in the 21st century is a sad indication of the fact that somethings just do not change. That men themselves would want to keep their women in servitude and submission and be so cruel and unforgiving is difficult to both understand and accept but that this is the plight of a lot of women who have no recourse to either justice or even familial support. The latter was one I found very difficult to understand because once the daughter was married she was almost thought of as an outsider and someone else's responsibility. Despite Azita's mothers entreaties and opposition, there was nothing she could do in her daughter's case, as it became a case of either accepting her husband's orders or facing divorce herself.

A subject handled with sensitivity and discretion - understanding on her side of the inherent characteristics of the situation and the position of women and definitely not being judgemental on each individual case. 

This was a book sent to me by Netgalley courtesy of Crown Publishing.


  1. Thank you for bringing up this title Mystica and a great review.
    I have a feeling most of us will find it an emotional read but perhaps it is an excellent thing that we are reminded how fortunate we are in the Western world.

  2. Hi, this seems like one that will make me an emotional wreck. And I love books like that.... Very thought provoking!! A good review!!

  3. This sounds like such a worthwhile and relevant book to read. Women's issues are dear to me heart and this sounds like a must read to me. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  4. Sounds like a book we all should read! Thanks

  5. Such an important topic and very thoughtfully reviewed. There is a memoir being published this fall by a woman who was bacha posh that also sounds interesting (I am Bacha Posh by Ukmina Manoori).

    I hadn't heard of bacha posh till I read The Pearl That Broke Its Shell. It is sad that things are so impossibly difficult for women and that girls have little worth in that part of the world.