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Book review: Reporter reveals secret lives of Afghan women

“The Underground Girls of Kabul” by Jenny Nordberg

Investigative reporter Jenny Nordberg uncovers what it means to be female and free amidst the violence of America’s longest war in Afghanistan.

In a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a girl is mourned while the birth of a boy brings honor upon a family. Through extensive in-depth reporting and first-person interviews, Nordberg uncovers the bacha posh (literally translated as “dressed up like a boy” in Dari) — the practice of temporarily raising a young girl as a boy until she reaches adulthood.



Nordberg originally uncovered the phenomenon of the bacha posh in her award-winning series for the New York Times, and she continues her work in “The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan.” The practice of bacha posh has been unheard of until recently, and many in Afghanistan still deny the existence of families choosing to present their daughters as the opposite gender.

Nordberg writes a poignant and gripping account of the secret lives of the women who survive and struggle to thrive in the deeply segregated society that the United Nations calls, “the most dangerous place to be a woman.”



Colorful characters are the core of Norbert’s nonfictional account. She focuses on individual women’s separate accounts.

The book begins with Azita, a female member of Parliament and mother who resolves to present her 6-year-old daughter as a boy in order to protect her family and allow one of her children the freedom and education that being a male offers.

Zahra, a teenager, struggles with coming adulthood and refuses her parents’ attempts to reintroduce her to society as a woman. Another woman, Shukira, lives for 20 years pretending to be a man and is now a married mother of three.

The women of “The Underground Girls of Kabul” courageously chose to practice bacha posh and defy their society to bring honor to their families rather than shame, to attain an education that would otherwise be unfeasible and to walk freely in public without the fear of violent retaliation.

No book has never stayed with me after I had finished it as much as this one. Nordberg writes so beautifully and eloquently of the heart-wrenching tragedies and injustices Afghan women face every day while simultaneously guiding the reader to an understanding, and, eventually an appreciation of the culture from which the bacha posh originates.

“The Underground Girls of Kabul” examines what it means to be human through an entire life cycle of Afghan women. Nordberg is a riveting storyteller and has a unique story to tell in its extraordinary perspective as well as its essential need to be heard.

Shannon Ross is an Off the Beaten Path bookseller and a senior at Steamboat Springs High School.

This book is available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore; e-book can be found at http://www.steamboatbooks.com.


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