Sunday, August 23, 2015

Book Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

ISBN: 0307952509
Published: July 14th, 2015 (first published in 2014)
Publisher: Broadway Books
Read from August 15th to 22nd, 2015
Synopsis from Goodreads:
An investigative journalist uncovers a hidden custom that will transform your understanding of what it means to grow up as a girl
In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as misfortune. A bacha posh (literally translated from Dari as “dressed up like a boy”) is a third kind of child – a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world. Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke the story of this phenomenon for the New York Times, constructs a powerful and moving account of those secretly living on the other side of a deeply segregated society where women have almost no rights and little freedom.
The Underground Girls of Kabul is anchored by vivid characters who bring this remarkable story to life: Azita, a female parliamentarian who sees no other choice but to turn her fourth daughter Mehran into a boy; Zahra, the tomboy teenager who struggles with puberty and refuses her parents’ attempts to turn her back into a girl; Shukria, now a married mother of three after living for twenty years as a man; and Nader, who prays with Shahed, the undercover female police officer, as they both remain in male disguise as adults.
At the heart of this emotional narrative is a new perspective on the extreme sacrifices of Afghan women and girls against the violent backdrop of America’s longest war. Divided into four parts, the book follows those born as the unwanted sex in Afghanistan, but who live as the socially favored gender through childhood and puberty, only to later be forced into marriage and childbirth. The Underground Girls of Kabul charts their dramatic life cycles, while examining our own history and the parallels to subversive actions of people who live under oppression everywhere.


This book is one of the best I've read this year. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect going into it, but the situations described in the book are fascinating. Even though it's non-fiction, I found myself getting very attached to the people described in the book, which is unusual for me. They felt so real, and I found my emotions responding a lot to what happened to each of them over the course of the book.

Inside the book, stories of a wide number of girls who disguise themselves as boys are presented. A lot of times, those switches don't work well for me as I feel disconnected from everyone due to the constant switching. I didn't feel that with this book at all. Somehow, I managed to connect with every single character in the book, although some did particularly stand out such as Azita.

One of the things I loved most about the book was how deep the exploration of gender, how it's constructed in different societies, and how patriarchy has affected how gender is experienced. It's such an important topic and one that is very complex and difficult to condense. It's interwoven extremely well with the characters' stories and really helps expand on what it is that is happening in Afghanistan and even other countries.

While these issues are very important in what they say about gender in Afghanistan, it's very difficult to read the book and not think about the same sorts of issues in other countries around the world and how it's both alike and different. I would highly recommend this book to everyone as I think this book helps add to a very important discussion and is honestly just a very moving book to read.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

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