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Searching For The ‘Underground Girls Of Kabul’

Swedish Journalist Jenny Nordberg, author of "The Underground Girls of Kabul."
Swedish Journalist Jenny Nordberg, author of "The Underground Girls of Kabul."

Jenny Nordberg is a New York-based foreign correspondent and a columnist for the Swedish national newspaper “Svenska Dagbladet.” She has reported extensively on the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan, and in her upcoming book, “The Underground Girls of Kabul,” tells the stories of Afghan families that practice bacha posh, in which female children are dressed and raised as boys to increase the opportunities available to them or, in some cases, help families escape the social stigma associated with not having male children. RFE/RL’s Afghan Service correspondent Farishta Jalalzai spoke to Nordberg about Afghan society and Afghan women.

RFE/RL: How did you become interested in the practice of bacha posh?

Jenny Nordberg: When I came to Afghanistan I was very interested in the situation for women, girls, and children, and I was trying to do research about that. One day, I met a family, and it turned out that a young boy in the family was actually a girl. I wanted to know why they had a daughter who they dress like a son. And through the explanation to this question I learned more about Afghan society, which is one of the most gender-segregated and conservative societies on earth.

RFE/RL: Is the practice of bacha posh a reaction to how bad life is for women in Afghanistan?

Nordberg: It’s not my place to judge if it’s good or bad, but according to the UN it is one of the worst places in the world to be born a girl. Boys will be the first to go to school, and men will inherit the property. Sons are more important in Afghanistan. For that reason, it’s very difficult to be born a girl there, and all of the international organizations agree on that. Add to that the high child and maternal mortality rate, the poverty, and the illiteracy. There are very educated urban areas, but most of the country is still poor with high unemployment. These things make life difficult for everyone in Afghanistan.

It’s striking how common domestic violence is. There have been surveys that 9 out of 10 women in Afghanistan will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives. The issue of rape is another one. When someone is accused of rape, sometimes the victim will be the one to go to jail. As a woman, it is especially frightening to see that women have very little freedom. They can make very few decisions about their own lives. As a woman, you are beholden to your father and family, and your family will choose whom you marry. You cannot decide for yourself in many cases if you want to be married or if you want to be pregnant--many times these are the decisions of men. For me as a journalist and as a woman, in many cases an Afghan woman’s life is more restricted than mine, and I found that difficult with the people I got to know. I was always treated respectfully by both men and women, but I’m a foreigner, so there are not the same demands placed on me that an Afghan woman has.

RFE/RL: When I grew up in Afghanistan there was absolutely no sex education. How do these families practicing bacha posh understand sexuality?

Nordberg: These are very intimate and difficult topics and they’re also very taboo, but we did speak about this. But remember, these are questions that Westerners struggle with as well. ‘Am I more male or am I more female?’ We all struggle with the definition of gender and who we are. [The Afghans] actually taught me a lot about gender. They said that I’m very much like a man in an Afghan context because I travel alone, I speak loudly and look people in the eye, and they thought I was very masculine sometimes. Sexuality is a part of that, but it’s the most difficult thing to talk about.

RFE/RL: What do you hope Western readers will take away from your book?

Nordberg: The focus of my book is also to try to explain Afghan customs and culture to Westerners. Many European countries, and certainly America, have for the past decade tried to understand Afghanistan. They’ve been there with the military, and the diplomats, and the historians, and the experts, and the aid workers--all these foreigners trying to understand Afghanistan and explain it to others. And maybe my book is a small contribution to that. There were no books about this topic and no documentation that I could find. The story of bacha posh is a window into understanding more about Afghan culture and society.

RFE/RL: What do Afghan women and Western women have in common?

Nordberg: There are a lot of differences, and it’s hard to compare. The life of an Afghan woman is much harder. The perception of a Westerner about Afghanistan is often that it’s so exotic, and so strange, and secretive, and that there is nothing there that could be anything like us or our culture. And there are also prejudices that everyone is a fundamentalist or extremely conservative. None of that is true. Afghans are very much like everyone else. They want an education and a job and a better life. That’s universal.

Many of the difficulties Afghan women face in their struggles for their rights, we Western women have that in our history as well. It’s been changing slowly in the West [as the result of] many sacrifices.

It seems very strange at first that a girl would be dressed and raised as a boy, or as a woman, to pretend to be a man. But this is what women have always done throughout history. When you close certain avenues to one gender, or it could be one ethnicity, there will always be those who try to come over to the other side. This is very normal for humans to try to do this. I think that’s the greatest thing that we have in common.

RFE/RL: What was it like to work in Afghanistan as a foreign journalist and a woman?

Nordberg: My experience of working in Afghanistan is a good one. As a foreign woman it’s an advantage being in a conservative culture because I was received by men who would speak to me as they would speak to other men, and I was also received by women. When we got to know each other and developed some trust, they were very open with me about their lives.

Not everything in Afghanistan is bad or violent, as it is often portrayed in Western media. We also laughed a lot together, and there were funny, quirky moments. These are women who have been through decades of war and many hardships, and they can still laugh. I hope that comes through in the book.

RFE/RL: What inspired the women you met to tell their stories?

Nordberg: As a journalist, I believe everyone wants to tell their story. Maybe not right away and maybe not all of it, but it’s important to all of us that someone else knows about you and that you’re not alone. This book took several years. You can’t just approach someone and say ‘ok, tell me about your life.’ We spent a lot of time together learning to trust each other. They interviewed me about my family and where I come from so they could feel comfortable with me. It’s almost like we’ve [written the book] together. And that’s the way it should be.

Traditionally in journalism you’re not supposed to talk about yourself--you’re supposed to let the other person talk. That was new for me when I realized that I needed to share with them as well. I had to be completely open with them.

It’s important not to pass judgment. The women I met would ask ‘do you think I’m strange?’ or ‘is it bad that I’m doing this?’ Or parents who have a daughter they are raising as a bacha posh would ask me ‘do you think we’re doing the right thing?’ I would say ‘you’re the parents, and this is your choice. I have met different families they all make different choices.’

RFE/RL: Having traveled to Afghanistan several times over the years, do you think things are improving for women? How do you see their future?

Nordberg: Things are changing, but very, very slowly, and it’s frustrating. But as long as there is war and insecurity, it will be very difficult for women to move forward. There is always this argument that girls shouldn’t go to school, women can’t go out, and that argument becomes easier to make when there is a state of war. You need a longer period of peace before things can really start to change for Afghan women.

--Farishta Jalalzai