Gender Identity in Afghanistan

Sep 2014

It’s hard to imagine an underground resistance at work in Afghanistan made up of a world of girls dressing to be boys. That’s is exactly what I did discover  when I read the Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Norberg. Gender identity in Afghanistan is a confusing, complicated subject. I was familiar with the issue of girls being regarded as second class citizens in both India and China, this was something quite different.

underground girls of kabul afghanistan jenny nordberg

This month’s book group selection is packed with information I previously knew very little about.  It was an eye opening and thought provoking story about gender identity and the idea of nature versus nuture.  The author, an investigative journalist, turned some of my understanding of what it means to grow up a girl on it’s head, and confirmed other ideas about what it means to be a woman. I was a little leery of the read, as I had visions of rape and beatings when the girls were discovered in their state of bacha posh, but I found this secret way of life to be in some places, a part of their lifestyle, a underground society that men, women and children might whisper about, but for the most part accept.

In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is a cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as 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 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 title freedom.

Through the  female characters, we get a taste of this life and the consequences of living like a boy and then trying to revert back and ‘become’ a girl again. While here in the US we certainly don’t have to subvert our identities, their is an underlying current of gender development as soon as a child is out of the womb.  We are swaddled in pink or blue blankets with a little cap to match in the nurseries. Toys are geared towards one sex or the other.  Rooms are painted appropriate  colors.  Yes, it starts early.  I tried to raise my own children as neutrally as possible. “No toy guns in our house”.  At age three my son would pick up any stick he could get his hands on and play shoot or have a mock sword battle.  Where does that come from? Is it this nurturing that is responsible? Did he come out of the womb ready to battle? Today it is common belief that we are born gender specific.  Norberg illustrates, more than once, girls being raised immediately at birth as sons, make a successful transition.  Some love it, others can’t wait to return back to the other side.  It is hard to know whether the status of men in their society, or the nurturing of the characteristics is responsible.  In any event, it muddies the waters when it comes to thinking about teenagers in crisis with identity issues in our own country.

As the oldest of three daughters, there was always much pressure on me to achieve.  I often wonder if we had a brother how things would be different.  My father, a successful entrepreneur, never asked one of us to go into his business.  Would that have been different if he had a son? I attended a college that had recently gone co-ed.  The unhealthy male/female culture  was full of mysogynist behavior  and Title IX beginnings.  This is all part of my make up, and has shaped me into the woman I am today. I perhaps go a bit overboard to  insist on letting my daughter and her friends know they can accomplish anything they put their minds to.

It feels superficial to even be comparing any of what I have experienced to what strong girls in Afghanistan live on a daily basis.  However, it does help to understand why parents would go so far to help their daughters achieve a better life. All of this is a process. I can project that in the same circumstances I would allow my daughter to be raised as a son, with limitations. As a parent I would go to great lengths to help either of my children have a better life.  I don’t think I could ever go so far as to insist, if she wasn’t in favor of the plan.

There are so many layers to this complicated issue, but in the end, I ask myself is this action of the parents in Afghanistan helpful?  In a culture of violence and severe segregation, I find the bacha posh to make sense, and I understand why it happens.  By allowing girls to attend school and learn, even though they are dressed as a boy, it is a step towards education and in turn a step towards ending the cycle of oppression and poverty.

This post was inspired by The Underground Girls of Kabul by journalist Jenny Nordberg, who discovers a secret Afghani practice where girls are dressed and raised as boys. Join From Left to Write on September 16th as we discuss The Underground Girls of Kabul. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.


  1. noel says:

    What an interesting read, it is amazing at this time and place there is still so much to be done for equality in the world. I would love to read this some day

  2. Your review of The Underground Girls of Kabul had me so intrigued that I pre-ordered the e-book from Amazon and am looking forward to reading it. I can understand why parents must resort to this ruse if it means that their daughters will receive an education and certain freedoms that would be denied to them solely on the basis of being born female. I firmly believe that education is the most important path to achieving equality and this story seems to portray one route to that goal.

  3. What a fascinating concept! I like the way you wove an analogy between the extremely oppressed societal norm in Afghanistan and the more liberal western attitudes. Obviously, we’re influenced by our own perspectives, but as none of us can reasonably say we’ll be traveling to Afghanistan in the near future, it’s important to be informed and aware of the experience of our sisters. Thoughtful and inspiring post.

  4. Shelley says:

    Very thoughtful post. I can imagine myself doing whatever is possible to provide my daughters with an education, to give them some hope of a better future. The Underground Girls of Kabul sounds like a fascinating read that explores this issue in a complex society.

  5. I’ve added The Underground Girls of Kabul to my must read list. The right to an education should be the right everyone has no matter what gender.

  6. Alicia S says:

    I enjoyed your take on the book. Sometimes I wonder if we as woman believing we can have it all means that we have to do it all? I am a professional woman and have always worked outside the home, yet when I was married it was my job to do everything. I would say it was the type of man I married, but I see that in almost all the married women that I know, they are breadwinners but also the ones that have to be in charge of the cooking, cleaning and child rearing with the men “helping out”.

  7. Savvy says:

    Prior to reading I too was afraid the book was going to be about the violence against the girls if discovered. I am so happy that it is not. I have a niece who was the only girl in her day care class. From very early she refused to play with dolls and only wanted to play with boys. She loved football and baseball. She’s now 13 plays soccer and has tons of girls as friends. I wonder if we as adults worry more about gender roles in children that we have to. If handled in a healthy manner I would think these girls will turn out okay – except for the ones that miss the freedom.

  8. Thien-Kim says:

    I agree with you that every little step helps. I hope that the bacha posh who received an education are able to instill some of their dreams and beliefs to their children and those children to their children. Sometimes big changes take lifetimes.

  9. Kate says:

    I was struck by the one portion of the book where the author asked what she would need to do to be a male, so to speak, and was told she already was one. And then you read of US history when women were shocking by showing their ankles (!) or wearing pants (!) … and it makes me think that we’ve only achieved this freedom very recently. Bacha posh might be a small rebellion, but it’s a start.

  10. I have always marveled at the seemingly innate gender characteristics of both my boy and my girl, while at the same time find myself amazed at how each have also picked up characteristics typically aligned with the opposite sex. I so believe in raising our children to be true to themselves, no matter what gender. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  11. Sounds like a fascinating tale that takes the reader into another culture.

  12. This book has been recommended to me by two other people. I am a big reader and belong to two book clubs. Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough post!

  13. What a fascinating review Alison about a society we will never truly understand. It’s so sad to hear what women go through in some countries to get what should be a basic right – an education.

  14. Michelle says:

    It is heartbreaking to think what a woman or girl’s life is like in Afghanistan. It does make me feel better that steps are being taken by some to help these girls get an education and have a future.

  15. What an interesting peek into another culture! Thanks for sharing.

  16. I’ve heard of this but didn’t know there was a book about it. Just added it to my reading list. Thanks!