Great Read: The Underground Girls of Kabul

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan written by: Jenny Nordberg

I’ve been reading a variety of books lately both fiction and non-fiction. I picked The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg because I’ve been wanting to learn more about cultures in the middle east as well as issues they may be facing. I wasn’t sure what to expect out of this book, in fact, I think I was thinking it was going to be similar to Reading Lolita in Tehran – women helping other women in an underground type movement, but it was nothing like I expected.
It was incredible to see the lengths families would go to protect their reputation, and within that, how culture and society roll with the choices that are made, just acknowledging that these decisions have to be made for the sake of the family, whatever may happen.

There was a lot of discussion last year on what defines gender. Is it parts you are born with or how society defines boy vs. girl? I found it comical as my son was in his toddler/early elementary years because he was drawn to the most random things – favorite color? Pink for a good while. Favorite toys? We had a My Little Pony phase. I’d raise my eyebrows, but roll with it. We saw McD’s one too many times to get those My Little Ponies…and who can blame him, really? I LOVED them as a kid…It even gave me a chance to pull some of MY old toys out of the attic. Everything was a phase. I’ve always felt that if my kid was concerned about his sexuality in elementary school, then I had a problem. Kids are kids…or they should be to me.

But then I read this book…It didn’t change my feelings on how I’ve been handling favorite colors, tv shows, toys, etc. but it did make me wonder how gender as a whole works. I do believe that we are made with certain qualities that tend to “group” us into one category or another – women may be more nurturing…boys more destructible. (That being said, please note that I am fully aware that there are lots of destructible girls and nurturing boys)…but I’ve had my fill of stitches and broken bones that my friends with girls just have not had to deal with! I believe that God intended men to be one way and women to be another so that we could support and care for each other perfectly…and then there was sin which totally jacked up that situation.
In The Underground Girls of Kabul parents in some cases choose their children’s gender based on societal pressure. To have not had a boy by the third or fourth child, a family could be pitied or cursed. It tarnishes reputations, in some cases, leading to job loss.

So, they make their girl a boy.

Let that sink in.

At birth a female child will be born and the parents will say “It’s a boy!” Doctors will nod and go with it. Or at five, the parents will see that issues are piling up as they have not had a girl yet (or perhaps can’t get pregnant again)…so they will call in their daughter, and discuss transitioning them into a boy.
Then wrestle with the fact that one day the girl, who has been made into a boy by cutting their hair short, allowing them to wear pants and run around with other boys, will one day have to turn back into a girl (around puberty) so they can resume another societal norm.

This is an amazing read. Regardless of where you fall on ideas around gender, this book will definitely enlighten on multiple levels and reveal layers of questions with which to wrestle. What would I choose? What if I was the girl having to be a boy? So many questions, but not many answers…amazing that today these are issues that families have to deal with in Afghanistan. Granted it may not be everywhere or commonplace, but I would be intrigued to see the actual numbers if families could admit it without retribution.
If you choose to read this, let me know your thoughts – what did you wrestle with (or did you)? I’m appreciative of Jenny Nordberg for boldly asking questions that are difficult to answer – and seeking the stories from those willing to share them with us.

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