Books

Jenny Nordberg
The Underground Girls of Kabul

Mehran is a spiky-haired, rather stroppy seven-year-old, living in a middle-class suburb of Kabul, doing what boys do when not at school: he flies kites, climbs trees, talks to other boys, fights, laughs out loud and looks people in the eye as he walks around the streets in comfortable clothes. There’s nothing odd about Mehran – except that he is not a boy, but a girl, and girls in Kabul don’t do any of those things. 

Everyone knows Mehran is a girl – at home, at school, the neighbours – but everyone agrees she’s a boy. After all, in Afghan society a family without a son is weak and vulnerable. If God, drinking black tea and magic rituals don’t lead to the birth of a son (and even the doctors Jenny Nordberg meets believe in prayer, potions and magic rituals), a daughter may have to stand in as one until puberty. Although few will admit it, there are thousands of bacha posh (as cross-dressing girls are called) all over the country.

What the Swedish journalist Nordberg wants to know is why. Why does a sophisticated, widely travelled woman such as Mehran’s mother, Azita, believe that having a son, even one with female genitalia, is mandatory for her family’s good standing? What is the connection with Islam? And does living as a boy until a marriageable age psychologically scar a young woman or, on the contrary, make her stronger? 

Over several years Nordberg meets and gets to know dozens of women and girls such as Mehran and her mother, Azita, a parliamentarian who was also brought up as a bacha posh. Out of these friendships and conversations comes this compellingly argued, spirited book. 

The key word in understanding the phenomenon of bacha posh is bloodlines. In today’s Afghanistan, as in ancient Greece, patriarchy, or the male control of bloodlines, is not just a custom, but the basis of the entire economic order. In the absence of the rule of law or any stable institutions, what other social structure can men rely upon to stay alive?

For this control to work, the sexes must be segregated absolutely and implacably. On one side of the ruthlessly patrolled boundary between the sexes, males work, fight and protect whatever economic unit is vital to their survival. They also do all the things Mehran does, walking around in comfortable clothes looking other people in the eye, playing sport and laughing out loud. A man cannot be a whore. On the other side of the boundary, females are hidden away, producing more males – and patrolling the dividing line just as fiercely. Wherever you have total segregation of this kind, Nordberg argues, some of the powerless will try to pass as members of the dominant group – or be forced to.

In today’s Afghanistan women are not just powerless but, according to Azita, little better than farm animals. It’s true that the percentage of women in parliament is higher than in most Western countries, but this is a constitutional requirement, not an indication of the representatives’ real power. An Afghan woman, if Nordberg’s informants are to be believed, is above all a walking womb, owned first by a father, then sold to a husband to bear sons. She may later be discarded (or worse, much worse) if found unable to bear a son. Divorced, she loses all reason for existing.

At no point can a woman display signs of sexual feeling – only a whore enjoys sex in Afghanistan. Nor should a woman read poetry or books, fall in love or even speak with passion instead of just gossiping. A woman should not even laugh, as was the case in Catholic Europe until recently. 

Why not? Because in Nordberg’s Afghanistan these behaviours point to a proclivity for whorishness, dishonouring the family.

One of the problems with this order of things is that, while men have all the power, they can’t actually do without women if they are to produce sons. Men, even Taliban leaders, can and do sodomise young boys for their own sexual pleasure, but boys won’t bear them sons. Consequently, there seems to be a simmering resentment, even hatred, of women right across society. The contradiction is ancient. The Greeks dealt with it through their myths of women behaving like men (the Amazons, the Gorgons, and others). Islam does not welcome myth.

Nordberg does not, however, blame something called “Islam” for creating this deeply dysfunctional society in which even a girl dressed as a boy is better than no son at all. At the root of all these practices, she suggests, lie much more ancient traditions that arose once farming took hold in the Middle East and property needed to be protected. An uneducated Islamised population has incorporated them into its own way of life, mistakenly decreeing them Koranic. 

Interestingly, Nordberg sees traces of Zoroastrian beliefs in Afghan practices: Zoroastrianism, keeping even older Indo-Iranian beliefs alive, held sway for a thousand years in the lands between Turkey and the Indus. Muslims have succeeded in almost totally exterminating it – through wholesale slaughter where necessary.

Despite the unrelenting bleakness of the lives she documents, Nordberg’s belief in the eventual achievement of the rule of law in Afghanistan seems unwavering. She writes about the people she meets with verve, affection and generosity of spirit. By the time you finish The Underground Girls of Kabul you feel as if you’ve just spent a month in Afghanistan, the worst place in the world to be born, according to the United Nations index. You can smell it, hear it, taste it. You weep for it. Everything from Greek myths about monstrous females to Tolstoy’s (as well as our prime minister’s) attitude to women slots into a wider pattern much more complex than simple subjugation. The pitiless world we live in now starts to make more sense.  PP

Hachette, 320pp, $29.99

 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 27, 2014 as "Jenny Nordberg, The Underground Girls of Kabul ". Subscribe here.