Barker’s Book Blather, 2016.08 – Afghanistan Edition

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan – Jenny Nordberg. I decided to read this book in one of those “I’m just a head in a jar in some scientist’s lab” kind of moments. The same day that an interesting looking historical fiction came to my attention through an eBook daily deal email, I got an email from my alma mater about this book being selected for the Summer Reading Program as part of the University’s 2016-2017 intellectual theme: Women’s Power, Women’s Justice. This one is a non-fiction book about the same cultural phenomenon at the center of the fiction book. So I decided to start with the non-fiction, then move on to the fiction.

In essence, there is a long-time, perhaps ancient, tradition in Afghanistan in which young girls become honorary boys, assigned so by their parents – sometimes at birth, sometimes a little older – taking on the role, privileges, and gender identity of a male in Afghanistan. They are called bacha posh (from bacha, the word for child, to bacha posh – dressed up as a boy). In some ways, there are lots of different reasons why a family would choose to do this – after a long string of girls, a family desperately needs a boy for status and honor; a family simply needs a boy to be able to work and to chaperone the other daughters; as a kind of magical totem to bring the good luck needed to finally give birth to a real son through the power of positive thinking; and, sometimes, as a slightly subversive move by the girl’s mother and/or father to give their daughter a sense of power and freedom that she otherwise would never have.

But on another level, all of these myriad reasons are really just circumstantial details that can be reduced to one true reason. Generally speaking, women in Afghanistan are not valued for anything other than their ability to give birth to sons. They are not equal human beings to men, and having a son is important above all else. As Nordberg was describing her initial conversations with people in Afghanistan, as she was trying to come to an understanding of the role of women in Afghan society, it became clear to me well before she stopped describing this line of her questioning: she never makes this analogy, but women are basically livestock.

They are there to produce children, the goal being as many sons as possible. They are mares or cows. The only upside to having a daughter is that they are money in the bank. As soon as they are of marrying age – you know, 12-13 years old – they can be traded for a literal bride price that brings income into the family. Marrying them off has the added benefit of attaching the family to another male, which brings honor and security to the family. And that’s it. Women have no intrinsic value; the only worth they have is their ability to bear sons. A daughter, whose birth is usually seen as a disappointment, only has worth for the money and connections she can bring to the family when ownership of her is transferred to a husband.

Nordberg does a very convincing job of detailing why so much of the conflict in Afghanistan over the last decades has been centered on the role of women, in spite of the Russian/American/Allied Forces view of women’s rights as a peripheral issue. Again – women are money in the bank. Any effort to liberate them directly is an attack on the ruling position of men and their system of honor and economics.

Reading through the book, it also seems pathetically obvious that the well-intentioned efforts of foreign aid organizations to teach women to be proud and assertive and confident are missing a fairly vital component when they don’t involve men in their programming at all. It’s not that the women don’t need to encouraged and built up, but if you are only working with women to get them to recognize their rights and value, without also working with men to change their perception that women have neither, you are basically just setting those women up for epic beatings in the society of unenlightened men.

Most bacha posh are converted back to a female identity by their parents before they hit puberty, but some remain living as men for many more years. It seems that the girls who go back to being female before puberty have a relatively easier time of it, while the girls who wait longer are often much more resistant to changing back, and are more likely to have fully identified with the male gender. This is not an identification with male sexuality; it is male freedom that is internalized. In this, the book presents an interesting view of the nature of gender as a social construct.

In spite of the Afghan devaluation of females and the need to have sons, it seems like they don’t really worry about a child’s gender identification until s/he gets close to puberty. Because women’s sexuality is the real danger, the society seems much less focused on male-female differences before that sexuality can be an issue. So, when Nordberg was trying to understand how parents could simply swap their daughters’ gender back and forth without any concern about the effect on the child, the common response was basically “she’s a child, why are you so hung up on her gender anyway?” Yes, the boys have more privileges, rights, and freedoms than any female of any age, but there’s nothing sexual at that point, so a girl can be randomly assigned a male life as well, at least for a time. In some ways, this could almost be seen as a more progressive outlook than we tend to have in America where baby girls and boys are assigned pink or blue blankies as soon as they are wiped down.

But, of course, any sense of progression is so totally annihilated by the rest of the reality that it just causes a minor bout of cognitive dissonance before it’s swept away.

Nordberg interviews several different women and girls who are living or have lived as bacha posh. Some are children, some are teenagers, and a rare few are in their thirties, hoping desperately that they’ve officially made it to old age and their brothers won’t be able to marry them off. The stories are all moving and heart-breaking. There are brief flashes of hope for these women, and at one moment about halfway through, Nordberg has a moment of optimism. After all, as one well-adjusted former bacha posh says about the value she found in the experience, “It’s only important to be a bacha posh in the head, to know you can do anything.” But the women’s balancing acts are so tenuous that, all too often, they experience a fall that brings them quickly back to “their place”. Because, no matter what, the final decision about how they continue to live belongs to their fathers, or other male relatives in the absence of a father, and they could find themselves converted back to a female and engaged to a man they don’t know at any moment.

Lest we get to feeling too superior, Nordberg has a very insightful moment after a day spent at an Afghan wedding, the first time the bride and groom have ever met. After describing all the traditions at the wedding and the ritual of the older women using the opportunity to spot potential brides for their sons, Nordberg goes back to her hotel to find people watching with rapt attention the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton. In the matter of a paragraph describing the rituals and expectations at play in that wedding and marriage, it becomes clear that our histories are not so different from each other’s. The roots of patriarchy run deep. While we have made a lot of progress, our own traditions and values may not be so far removed as we’d like to think they are.

One weakness I found in the book was with Nordberg’s attempts to tie the bacha posh to efforts of other women and girls posing as men and boys in other places throughout history. While it is true that the lesser status of women has forced many individual women to pose as men in order to go to school, fight in war, get a job, or simply to survive, the bacha posh system seems inherently different in its broad acceptance in Afghan society. It’s not openly discussed, but it lies just beneath the surface. Once Nordberg scratched that surface, she found many people knew someone who had lived as, or had a child currently living as, a bacha posh. It’s not spoken of because it’s seen as a private family matter, only of concern to the broader community if a girl is allowed to continue in a male role into puberty. Parents are sometimes even advised by their mullahs to pass their newborn daughters off as sons from birth.

Plus, many of the girls Nordberg interviewed really take on a male identity. They are not simply posing as a boy; some of them come to really think of themselves as male.

Nordberg’s efforts to link this to a broader phenomenon is further undermined when all of her examples of other places in the current world where girls are passing as boys include descriptions of fierce religious and government crackdowns on these efforts. In other places, it seems more like the desperate act of individual families and women, and less like the shared deceit of a society pulling a veil across their eyes. That this practice is so commonplace is perhaps a tacit acknowledgment that the lives of women in Afghanistan are particularly horrendous.

Nordberg ends the book with a beautiful moment when, alone in their room at the end of the day, her female guide and translator asks her to teach her how to “couple dance” like men and women she’s seen in pictures. Nordberg leads her around the room in a waltz, thinking about all the women she’s met and their fate should Afghanistan again fall into civil war and take another turn back to fundamentalism. Finally, she writes, “I think about how I should dance more when I return to my world.”

If you are lucky enough to live in a place where you have the right to live your own life, then go to college, live alone, drive a car, have a career, choose who you want to marry, decide whether or not you even want to marry, plan the number of children you’ll have, speak your mind, and dance. Never let anyone take those rights away from you. And never forget about or stop trying to help the women for whom none of these things are possible.

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell – Nadia Hashimi. This is the fictionalized story of a bacha posh and seemed a fitting follow-up to The Underground Girls of Kabul; Hashimi was inspired to write this book after reading Nordberg’s original story in the New York Times. Pearl follows the story of Rahima who, for a short time, lived as Rahim in her pre-teen years before she and two of her sisters were married off to local warlords. Rahima’s story is told in parallel with that of her great grandmother, Bibi Shekiba, who also spent time as a bacha posh, although in much different circumstances. Bibi Shekiba’s story is told to Rahima by her aunt, Khala Shaima, in what becomes a clearly subversive move to expand Rahima’s notions of what is possible for her life.

Rahima’s story is told in the first person, while Shekiba’s is a third-person narrative. Once I got used to this, it wasn’t a problem to switch back and forth, and it makes sense once you accept the fable-like role of her story underlying Rahima’s.

Although the book spends relatively little time on Rahima’s days as Rahim, with the vast majority of it taking place during her married life, it is clear that even the short time she spent living as a boy, combined with the stories of Bibi Shekiba, eventually give Rahima the confidence and ability to free herself. I was reminded in this of the line I called out in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn last month when Francie is able to go to a better school:

It was a good thing that she got herself into this other school. It showed her that there were other worlds beside the world she had been born into and that these other worlds were not unattainable.

Shekiba’s story was different than Rahima’s. She had been badly disfigured in a kitchen accident as a small girl and this had made her unmarriable. When her whole immediate family died, she was passed around, property-wise, by her extended family as a way to pay a debt. Eventually she wound up living as a man for a time, as one of the guards of King Habibullah’s harem. The king had determined that no man could be trusted to guard his women, so he dressed women as male guards. Shekiba’s life would eventually take another turn, but her story ends with a bit of hope for the future as the new King Amunallah and his wife Soraya attempt to modernize Afghanistan and advance women’s rights.

That these efforts would be so completely obliterated after the reactionary uprising that removed him from power, and the decades of war at the end of the 20th century, and that the lives of women in Afghanistan a hundred years later could be just as bad, if not worse, is depressing indeed. Although Rahima’s story ends with possibility and optimism, it is clearly still a life of danger and uncertainty, and it is not without cost.

A solid story, and one that expanded my knowledge of the history of Afghanistan and the role of women in the region, but I honestly felt more attached to the women in The Underground Girls of Kabul. I felt that Nordberg did a better job of really drawing me in and communicating the realities of women’s lives in Afghanistan. I have a feeling that the characters and stories in Pearl were a bit too broad in their detail, and the characters a bit too one-dimensional. My reading of it was clearly influenced by my reading of The Underground Girls of Kabul, and I could see more in it based on that experience than I think I would have otherwise.

If you are only going to read one of these books, read The Underground Girls of Kabul. If you read them both, which I don’t discourage, I think it’s best to read this one second.

When the Moon is Low – Nadia Hashimi. Hashimi’s second book is almost like reading three books in one. When the Moon is Low starts with a lengthy description of Fareiba’s life as a young girl in 1970s Afghanistan. The first third of the book details her life growing up in Kabul. Her mother died in childbirth and her father quickly remarries, needing a new wife to care for his daughter and, of course, hopefully to have sons. Fareiba’s young life isn’t nearly as perilous as that of Rahima’s, but she is persistently treated as a second-class family member by a father who can’t look at her without seeing his beloved first wife and a step-mother who clearly puts her own children before Fareiba.

In spite of the clear inequalities, Hashimi is able to portray a life and culture that is almost charming. Although Fareiba is held back from school to help her stepmother, her sisters go and, eventually, she does, too. She goes to college and becomes a teacher. Her marriage is arranged, but it turns out to be quite happy. Certainly, not all arranged marriages turn out so well, but then, neither do all marriages directly chosen by both participants. This is a different story than the one we’ve heard before and it’s lovely. Unfortunately, the Taliban rises to power and the novel takes a turn as Fareiba and her children flee and become refugees trying to get to London.

At this point, the book splits into two new stories. Fareiba’s tale is still told by her in the first person, but it feels like she is a brand new person. Gone is the confident, happy, fashionable, educated woman. While still having a core of strength, we now see a Fareiba who has to stay behind with her younger children, who doesn’t know the language of the countries she is in, and who is reliant on her oldest son Saleem to provide for her and her other children. As a refugee, she has become a different person. So much has been taken from her.

At the same time, as he matures, Fareiba says it is time for her son to start telling his own story and the narrative splits between them. But, Saleem’s story is strangely told in the third person, rather than the first. This made sense in Pearl since Shekiba’s story was being told to Rahima, but Saleem is supposed to be telling his own story here, so I don’t understand this choice.

At any rate, Saleem changes, too, at this point, having to grow up very fast, finding food and shelter for his family and work, when possible. His path becomes more perilous when he gets separated from his mother, who still has the forged documents that would have eased his passage across Europe.

When the Moon is Low does a very good job of bringing the reader into this world of a refugee and connecting us to the different phases of the journey. I was very caught off guard by the abrupt ending, though, and wish Hashimi had taken Saleem one step further on his path. I understand the choice to end before a happy family reunion took place, emphasizing the uncertainty of the refugee experience. But the chosen spot of the ending was just a smidge too early in my view to be satisfying. The book ends with Saleem in the very middle of a particularly dangerous part of the journey. He has just survived a specific danger and feels like he’ll surely be able to make it through this part of the trip, and maybe he will. But I would’ve much rather seen him make it safely to the other side of this obstacle, even if his journey was still uncertain and unfinished, and the book didn’t end with him falling into his mother’s loving embrace.

Another good but not perfect book, well-worth the read, especially in this time when the status of refugees is so prominently being debated by our “leaders”.