Girls as Boys: Disguising Identity & Changing Gender in Afghanistan

9780307952493By Jenny Nordberg, author of The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan (Crown, September 2014)

Bacha posh, the practice of dressing a girl like a boy, offers a window into a system of severe gender apartheid—a system that exists not only in Afghanistan, but in many countries where women are oppressed. The Underground Girls of Kabul is about disguising oneself to survive in such a place.

Resistance to this kind of patriarchy has occurred throughout history when women were excluded from education and unable to freely choose who they married, or whether to have children. Many girls and women beyond Afghanistan, and in our own history, have had to pretend to be boys and men to reach for rights that society dictated were not theirs.

I wanted this book to be urgent. Because I am, frankly, angry that my own education did not include a conversation about why women have historically been seen as less valuable and less important than men—nor where these ideas come from. It was always presented as an accepted, unexamined fact. In my book, I’ve searched for the roots of these beliefs, in religion, biology and culture.

Some extremely brave Afghan women revealed their most intimate secrets to me. They spoke about what it feels like to have tasted life “on the other side” and to then be forced to let go of the privilege they found there. They have all infiltrated the world of men and boys in a real-life nature versus nurture experiment that question binary gender definitions, and whether we as humans can exist along a broader spectrum.

Their stories constitute a defiant piece of history that I hope will spur conversations about the discrimination that still remains in our part of the world and the culture of honor, which often requires girls and women to be pure and modest, while men are asked to be strong and protective. I also hope this book will provoke hard questions about why we go to war and whether we really are so different from those we fight.

Trying to be someone—or something—else has always been a way for those of a marginalized gender, skin color, religion or sexuality to escape discrimination. But what does it really do to you to deny who you are? And why should anyone ever have to do it?

So what is the difference between men and women? I have asked many Afghan women that and their answers often come back as a single word: Freedom. One gender has it, the other does not. And those with pants always come first.

From that point, my story begins. And so, I hope, do your own questions. I would love to be part of your conversations, in classrooms and in chat rooms and wherever they take place. You can find me at @nordbergj and I am very curious to know who else lives in disguise, and what that has been like—I know there are so many of us out there.


Jenny Nordberg.

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