Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul

David Smithers discusses The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan

Jenny Nordberg, Crown Publishers, New York 2014
Jenny Nordberg, Crown Publishers, New York 2014

The class war is older than capitalism. It began with the agricultural revolution and the rise of patriarchy, when women became slaves to procreation and men – especially ruling class men, but even the poor – assumed comparative economic advantage. That advantage, according to the bocha posh (literally “dressed up as a boy” in the Dari language) women of Afghanistan that Swedish journalist, Jenny Nordberg, followed between 2009 and 2014, is freedom.

“Regardless of who they are, whether they are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, Afghan women often describe the difference between men and women in just one word: freedom.” (p.211)

The history of women is unwritten, like a lot of oppressed peoples’ resistance is. The resistance that bocha posh girls and women present is even more hidden, but in plain sight of many Afghans who are fully aware of its existence.

The immediate backdrop is the present war and foreign influence, first from the Soviets and now the American-led war. The root of the practice of presenting a girl as a boy probably goes back many centuries to the wider region’s pre-Muslim magical belief system growing out of Zoroastrianism. That belief is that a bacha posh will actually spur the birth of sons. Beyond that, a bacha posh often serves to protect and preserve a more valued object: a younger brother. She may protect him and often do the work a boy would do.

Gender is an idea and a choice. Nurture becomes nature. Bacha posh are living testimony of gender fluidity, beyond male and female; this fluidity finds expression in almost every society. Generally a girl assumes a male identity in childhood and converts back to a woman by puberty. But not always. And even then, the experience makes that woman a much different and fuller person than she otherwise would have been.

Homosexuality does not necessarily enter into this practice, nor in much of what is open, in Afghan society. The practice of male dominance over other males, in powerful men raping boys, mostly demonstrates the open sexuality of men versus the repressed sexuality of women, rather than a true division between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Lesbian homosexuality does exist, but it is far more hidden. Women are, for the most part in this highly patriarchal culture, asexual.

The author does a good job of examining and describing the life courses of her subjects life challenges, including that of a composite subject. One is a female parliamentarian who turns her fourth daughter into a boy; a tomboy teenager who refuses to turn back into a girl; a mother who lived twenty years as a man; and two who remain in male form as adults.

The center of control for this opening up of gender possibilities are fathers. “Men are the key to infiltrating and subverting patriarchy… I believe most Afghan men, on an individual level, are far from extremist or fundamentalist… Hope rests with those men who control what happens to their daughters.” (p.303)

Nordberg advises that many Western-funded gender projects “might have been more effective if they had also included men.” (p.304)

The author first broke this story in the New York Times in 2010 and was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism for a television documentary on Afghan women. In the article1, Nordberg writes: “The practice may stretch back centuries. Nancy Dupree, an 83-year-old American who has spent most of her life as a historian working in Afghanistan, said she had not heard of the phenomenon, but recalled a photograph from the early 1900s belonging to the private collection of a member of the Afghan royal family.”

This longstanding division between women and men does not really serve the humanity of either or the civilization they construct. As long as this division exists, with all people mechanically shoehorned into one category or the other, the human race will never evolve into its full potential.

That evolution is suffering as Western presence (which itself reinforced the oppression) in Afghanistan fades and the Taliban stricture returns. But it is a resistance that will continue, as it begins and ends with patriarchy. That has been and is a longer struggle for humanity that is not contained by borders or regimes.

Before “workers of the world unite”, there is, perhaps, “genders of the world unite.” There are and always have been more than two genders. Most certainly, a continuum of gender and sexuality, between and among individuals and never really constant throughout any person’s life. That is why the Red Party supports gender and sexual liberation. The class struggle exists not just in the workplace or on the streets, but at home and within the family.





(From The Red Vine.)



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