Tuesday 12 November 2019

The lives of Afghan girls who live as boys

The Underground Girls of Kabul
The Underground Girls of Kabul
Carol Hunt

Carol Hunt

Being born entirely without power, journalist Jenny Nordberg tells us, forces innovation in women, who must learn to survive almost from the moment they are born. In order to do so, some of them become "bacha posh", literally "dressed as a boy". Since the most recent western interventions in Afghanistan we have become used to tales of what the UN describes as "the worst place in the world to be born a woman".

The status of women - or rather lack of - in this constantly war-torn country has been regularly highlighted as one of the justifications for continued intervention. As Azita, former parliamentarian and bacha posh herself tells us; "They are still like servants. Like animals. We have a long time to go before the woman is considered a human in this society". But in this enlightening investigative story, The Underground Girls of Kabul; In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, Nordberg uncovers an age old tactic whereby some women have circumvented the constraints of being born a woman into this rigidly patriarchal land - by dressing and behaving as a boy and therefore taking the powers and freedoms denied them purely by virtue of their gender.

There are many reasons for a family to take part in this subterfuge; the shame of a wife continually giving birth to girls; the "luck" that a bacha posh bestows on a family by often ensuring that the next child will be that precious boy; the need for a family to have a child who can work outside the home - as no girl would be permitted to do; and the desire of many girls to have the freedoms of their brothers, freedoms denied to them purely because of their sex. Azita has four daughters and no sons. Reared by educated parents during the relatively enlightened years of Russian control, she was nevertheless married to an illiterate cousin, who already had a wife - and who was allowed beat her. With the optimistic post-Taliban Afghan constitution which mandates 25pc of parliamentarians as females, she stands for election and wins. To solve the problem of her lack of male issue, her youngest daughter has her hair cut, dons trousers and, hey presto; a boy, Mehran, is born. Azita's public standing is immediately enhanced. If her neighbours or friends suspect, nothing is said. The entire community collude when a family feel the need to produce a bacha posh. At puberty, when the charade can no longer continue undetected, the bacha posh should return to womanhood; some do so gratefully, many reluctantly and some, dangerously, not at all. Inevitably, many suffer the psychological consequences of changing from a boy - with all the freedoms and power that entails - to a girl who has few rights or freedoms in this society.

Nordberg finds and introduces us to Afghan women who have experienced all of the above. The women in Nordberg's stories are not oppressed, burka-clad, victims in need of salvation from outside forces, but dynamic, active women who use all the opportunities at their disposal to create a better life for themselves and their families. The tradition of the bacha posh, they tell us, pre-dates the arrival of Islam into Afghanistan. Billions have been poured into Afghanistan by international agencies, eager to educate and advance the position of women in this patriarchal society. Most have failed miserably. They have failed to persuade, not so much the women, but more importantly, the men of this society. Without the men co-operating,nothing will change. As Azita tells us, "We know what it's like to be men. But they know nothing about us".

Carol Hunt

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In search of a hidden resistance in Afghanistan

Jenny Nordberg

Virago, €14.20

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