Nonfiction Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, Jenny Nordberg

Published July 14th 2015 by Broadway Books

Paperback, 366 pages

Source: Blogging for Books

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

The Underground Girls of Kabul is anchored by vivid characters who bring this remarkable story to life: Azita, a female parliamentarian who sees no other choice but to turn her fourth daughter Mehran into a boy; Zahra, the tomboy teenager who struggles with puberty and refuses her parents’ attempts to turn her back into a girl; Shukria, now a married mother of three after living for twenty years as a man; and Nader, who prays with Shahed, the undercover female police officer, as they both remain in male disguise as adults.

At the heart of this emotional narrative is a new perspective on the extreme sacrifices of Afghan women and girls against the violent backdrop of America’s longest war. Divided into four parts, the book follows those born as the unwanted sex in Afghanistan, but who live as the socially favored gender through childhood and puberty, only to later be forced into marriage and childbirth. The Underground Girls of Kabul charts their dramatic life cycles, while examining our own history and the parallels to subversive actions of people who live under oppression everywhere.

I would love to be anything in nature

But not a woman

Not an Afghan woman.


Kabul, 2009

This poem at the beginning of The Underground Girls pretty much sums up my feelings on this book.  I think I would love to be anything in nature but an Afghan woman.  I feel so very fortunate for my life and for my daughter after reading this.  This book was completely fascinating, and at the same time totally heartbreaking.  The women that spoke to Nordberg were so brave despite the horrors and violence that are so often a part of everyday life in Afghanistan.  Their stories of their everyday were completely compelling.  

Nordberg met the family of an Afghan politician, specifically her 3 daughters and her 1 young son.  The daughters reveal that their brother is actually their youngest sister and Nordberg was off on the hunt of the tradition of the “bacha posh,” girls being raised sometimes from infancy as boys.  Honestly, when you read what life is like in Afghanistan for women this tradition kind of makes sense.  Women can’t go out alone, girls can’t run errands, and I learned that couples that don’t have sons are shamed by society and also by their own families.  

When one gender is so unwanted, so despised and so suppressed, in a place where daughters are expressly unwanted, perhaps both the body and the mind of a growing human can be expected to revolt against becoming a woman.  And thus, perhaps, alter someone for good.”

How exciting it must have been for Nordberg to realize this practice hadn’t really been published on! I keep trying to imagine what it must have felt like for her to be on the hunt for the bacha posh – to find the women who would talk about this practice.  It was fascinating to realize that many of the Afghan women Nordberg encountered who were empowered in small ways had been bacha posh and so felt able to take some power for themselves as women.

I am happy God made me a girl, so I can become a mother.  In my heart I am still a boy, but it is my choice to wear women’s clothing now.  It’s only important to be a bacha posh in the head, to know you can do anything.”  

This book made me hope for the women of Afghanistan, even as it also made me fear for them.  What a way to live – and what a stage of life to transition from.   So much to think about.  This is definitely a book to read and discuss.  I have a list of friends I’m pushing my copy onto!  

5 stars

Thank you Blogging for Books for this copy in exchange for an honest opinion!


  1. I’m looking for more nonfiction books by women to read in 2016…I think this’ll have to go on the list. I feel like semi-recently there was a novel about this type of practice, but I don’t remember what it’s called.

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