Interview: Jenny Nordberg, Author Of 'The Underground Girls Of Kabul' In a new book, journalist Jenny Nordberg writes about the bacha posh, young girls who dress up like boys to enjoy the freedoms of being an Afghan male for as long as they can.
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Why Afghanistan's 'Underground Girls' Skirt Tradition To Live As Boys

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Why Afghanistan's 'Underground Girls' Skirt Tradition To Live As Boys

Why Afghanistan's 'Underground Girls' Skirt Tradition To Live As Boys

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In many families of in Afghanistan, the birth of a girl is mourned. Boys are considered blessings. Girls are considered burdens. They're forced to live a strict life of limited options. They cannot leave the house alone. They are not educated for a future. And some young girls, maybe more than we know, find a way to fight that for a few years. In 2010, Jenny Nordberg wrote the first stories about girls who are called bacha posh - girls dressed up like a boy, to live as a boy, as long as she can. The stories appeared, to much interest and acclaim, in the New York Times. She has now expanded her reporting into a book - "The Underground Girls Of Kabul" - in search of a hidden resistance in Afghanistan. Jenny Nordberg, who's reported for the New York Times and many other publications from around the world, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JENNY NORDBERG: Thank you.

SIMON: The book opens. You pay a visit to a woman named Azita, who is a real walking emblem of success and progress in Afghanistan. She's a member of parliament. She goes around the world, gives speeches as that emblem of progress. But her twin daughters reveal a family secret to you.

NORDBERG: Yes they do. This was the very first time I was invited to her house, and I came to interview her about being a parliamentarian in Afghanistan, as there are very few. And I thought that would be interesting. And I was with the two little twin girls. And they spoke a little bit of English, like a limited English, and we had a conversation that was mostly about what color do you like? What you want to be when you grow up? And all of a sudden one of them said you know, our brother is really a girl. And I looked at her and I was like, yeah I know. And the other said - somewhat annoyed that I didn't take her seriously - she said no, no it's our sister. And at that point I hadn't met the youngest in the family. She had four children altogether. And I knew them as three girls and a youngest boy.

SIMON: How did you begin to appreciate how many families are doing this?

NORDBERG: Every single Afghan I have spoken to - except for those who have been abroad for a very long time and are essentially expatriates - they will know of someone. They will have a neighbor, someone in their extended family, a great-grandmother, a colleague, there should be one in a school, in more conservative areas there might be more. But every Afghan will know about this and every Afghan has a story to tell.

SIMON: Forgive the naivety, but how do you make - how do you disguise a girl as a boy?

NORDBERG: Oh it's simple. You know, it's a child so who can really tell the difference? When I first met Mehran, who is Azita's daughter, she walked into the room - she's a six-year-old child and where as her sisters are very girly and giggly and, you know, have all those typical sort of feminine traits - this is a boy. She walks in with a short haircut, a denim shirt, hips forward, much of an attitude, points a toy gun at me. It's a whole different character. I mean, it's important to, I think, understand that in an extreme segregation - where men and boys are given almost all the rights - it's very important for that system to be upheld that boys look like boys and girls look like girls. So in a sense that makes it easier to pass over to the other side.

SIMON: So what happens when an Afghan girl living as a boy reaches puberty? Tell us, for example, the story of the Zahra?

NORDBERG: In most cases, this is when Afghan girls are supposed to become girls again, to take on the very traditional path of Afghan women, which is that you are married off to a husband of your parents' choice, and you will become a mother, ideally have sons of your own. So it's very important for these girls not to go through puberty as boys.

Zahra is someone who's pushed it farther than that. She was 15 when I first met her, and she's a tomboy. She said to me, I see how women are treated here. Why would I want to be one of them? So she goes to great lengths to disguise herself as a boy. And she has constant daily arguments with her parents, who beg of her, can you become more feminine? Can you grow out your hair? And she refuses. She will walk in a hunched-over way, in an exaggerated male fashion, and very much take on the attitude of a young man. This is how she's grown up, and this is what feels natural to her. So there are a few who actually are able to resist, but most of the time, you don't go against your parents.

SIMON: You say several times in this book that - you liken the attitude of a lot of Afghans to the bacha posh as don't ask, don't tell. As long as they don't ask about it and nobody puts it in their face directly, they're fine living with it.

NORDBERG: That's true and that's how I came to see it. It's very much a human rights issue and that's why I think the don't ask, don't tell works well for the situation. It's something that I would say most every Afghan is aware of. And the concept of a childhood and gender and, you know, children's rights don't exist in the same way that they do in our world.

This is also a very close society and it's a country at war. And you don't get involved in other people's business. They will, however, when we're talking about teenagers, and that's why there are much fewer of those because it becomes risky not to say - dangerous to try and pass as the other gender when you become of age as a woman.

SIMON: Overwhelmingly, those of us who are listening to this broadcast live in a part of the world in which women have been secretaries of states and CEOs and generals and surgeons and head of the IMF, but you think we could still stand to learn from the experience of the bacha posh?

NORDBERG: Oh, I think it's a story about oppression, and I think that's a universal story. This is something that women and girls have done throughout our own history. There are women who join the civil war here as men because women were not allowed to get an education, to become doctors. It's a story of passing and how to buck the system in an impossible society. And the bacha posh really shows this. I mean, how creative is this? Something that women have been doing for generations, OK. You know, you're going to make it this difficult to be a girl or a woman, well let's try this. Let's try and just make someone into a boy.

SIMON: Jenny Nordberg, her new book "The Underground Girls Of Kabul: In Search Of A Hidden Resistance In Afghanistan." Thanks so much for being with us.

NORDBERG: Thank you.

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