Friday, November 28, 2014

Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul

The Underground Girls
by Jenny Nordberg

Why did you choose this book? I read a fictional account of Bacha Posh and wanted to learn more
When did you read this book? November 2014
Who should read this book? readers of historical fiction with a Titanic obsession
Source: Blogging For Books
Here is a synopsis of The Underground Girl of Kabul 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 Kabulcharts their dramatic life cycles, while examining our own history and the parallels to subversive actions of people who live under oppression everywhere.

My Review

When I read The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi last spring, I learned about the custom of bacha posh, or of a family effectively changing their daughter into a son. The story was fascinating, and I wanted to learn more. So when I saw The Underground Girls of Kabul, a nonfiction account of bacha posh, I knew I would read it. I was very excited to be offered a review copy through Blogging For Books!

In this book, the author follows several girls and women who either are now living as a bacha posh, or have at one time lived as a bacha posh. While this is a nonfiction book, it read very much like fiction with a nice flow. The author did her research, but rather than being presented as dry facts, we really got to know the women whose stories she told.

Much of what was told in this book echoed the experience of the fictional women in The Pearl That Broke Its Shell. I was able to feel the ‘freedom’ the girls were able to experience as they lived as boys, and to witness the cruelty they suffered at the hands of men, simply because they were women.

I think the author made some interesting points about why the girls felt compelled to ‘be’ boys, and how hard it was for some of them to give up their newly discovered freedom as the became young women. She also drew parallels to the experiences of women in other countries. She lost me with some these comparisons, and I felt she stretched a bit sometimes to draw the comparison, taking one isolated study and accepting it as fact.  But overall, I enjoyed this book a lot. If you enjoy learning about other cultures, and particularly, if you read and enjoyed The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, I highly recommend you pick this one up!

My Rating:  ★★★★     4 Stars

I was provided a review copy of this book through the Blogging For Books program. My honest review appears above.
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  1. I have yet to read The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, although it was on my shelf before this one. I really enjoyed The Underground Girls of Kabul and I love reading fiction and nonfiction takes on the same subject, so I'll definitely have to move The Pearl that Broke Its Shell up on my to-read pile :)

  2. I'm curious about The Pearl That Broke Its Shell now. I also recently read and reviewed The Underground Girls, it was such a gripping read, and at times found myself having to put the book down because it was so deeply emotional.

    1. I think if you enjoyed (and I'm not sure that is the right word) learning about the experiences of these women, you will find The Pearl That Broke Its Shell worth your time. Even though it is fiction, it will give some historical context to the concept of bacha posh. That said, you will also find it a difficult read, as the women in this story also experience cruelty and abuse.

  3. I felt the excitement as i read the blurb and your review. I should definitely get my hands on this one. Thanks for sharing!