Cross-Dressing in One of the World’s Most Conservative Countries
In the deeply conservative, traditional society of Afghanistan, there’s a surprising practice that somehow seems to both contradict our idea of Afghan custom regarding women, and reinforce it beyond our imagination.
The Underground Girls of Kabul begins with Author Jenny Nordberg’s unexpected discovery of Afghanistan’s fascinating hidden secret- bacha posh, or girls who pose as boys. The book unfolds like a mystery as Nordberg unearths surprising and thought-provoking information along her journey.
Although little was known in the United States of the existence of this practice at the time of Nordberg’s travels, it was actually quite well-known and accepted- even respected in Afghanistan, where, in a family, having a bacha posh “boy” was better than having no boy at all. There, a woman’s function in life was not complete until she could bear a son, and if it didn’t happen, she was shamed.
Sons could also do many things a daughter couldn’t- play, run around town freely, wear comfortable clothing, and yell- and work. When families needed income, it was often best for them to have a daughter pose as a boy to earn money during tough times.
Nordberg covers factors of reasoning for the practice, as well as complicating factors such as puberty, and how individual families handled them. A strength of the book is how Nordberg did not try to impose western ideas onto the Afghani people. She used the terminology they used, and let them speak for themselves. The Underground Girls of Kabul is a book that should be added to everyone’s summer reading list, and will leave the reader with an entirely new concept of gender itself.