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

A bacha posh (literally “dressed up like a boy” in Dari) is a third kind of child – a girl who will be raised as a boy and presented as a son to the world. Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke this story for The New York Times, constructs a dramatic account of Afghan women and girls clandestinely living on the other side of the gender divide that grants half its population almost no rights and little freedom.

Set against the violent backdrop of America’s longest war, The Underground Girls of Kabul follows Afghan girls who live disguised as boys through childhood and puberty, only to be expected by adult age to transform into subordinate wives and mothers. But the battle of nature versus nurture lingers, and some bacha posh will refuse to rescind their male prerogatives in what the UN calls the world’s most dangerous country to be a woman.

The book is anchored by vivid female characters who bring this ancient phenomenon to life: Azita, a female parliamentarian whose youngest daughter is chosen to pose as her only son; Zahra, the tomboy teenager who struggles with puberty and resists her parents’ attempts to turn her into a woman; Shukria, who was forced to marry and have three children after living for twenty years as a man; and Shahed, an Afghan special forces soldier, still in disguise as an adult man.

Offering a new and original story about Afghanistan and its women, The Underground Girls of Kabul investigates the hidden practice of bacha posh that has affected generations, while examining its parallels to our own history. The act of reaching for more freedom by impersonating a man is one that can be recognized by women everywhere.

Winner of the 2015 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize

The Underground Girls of Kabul is now available in paperback

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READ THE EXCERPT

“What is the difference between men and women?

In Afghanistan, it’s freedom.”

The Afghan Girls Who Live As Boys

Read The Atlantic Article

The Book

An Introduction from the Author

Welcome.

What do you do if you are in a war zone and you see something that you absolutely do not understand? And then what do you do when some of the world’s foremost experts on women, history and human rights tell you that it would be dangerous and stupid to pursue something that doesn’t exist anyway? And also, by the way, that you should leave.

If you are an investigative reporter, that’s when you stay.

You will also begin to wonder what else we may be missing, and if there might be more to Afghanistan than the often-told story of victims and perpetrators; of suppression and fundamentalism; of good and evil. Of men and women. Those questions have been on my mind for the past five years, and have become this book.

Discovering Afghanistan’s secret practice of bacha posh – where mothers disguise their daughters as sons, so they can escape segregation and reach for freedoms that their birth sex does not allow – became my life’s hardest research mission, straight into the unknown. I had to remain inside a deeply conservative society and explore questions about religion, gender and sexuality – all forbidden topics in Afghanistan. I also had to try and understand the Western world’s  involvement in the country and why we have so strongly desired to help women there. And how we have gone about it.

Some extremely brave Afghan women have revealed their most intimate secrets to me for this book. They have also spoken about how they define freedom and what it feels like to have tasted it and to have been forced to let it go. The women in this book have all taken a journey to infiltrate the other side – that of men and boys – in a real-life nature versus nurture experiment that I could hardly even have made up as a work of fiction.

Thank you so much for your interest in this book. Each reader will honor my characters’ attempts at helping us understand how bacha posh is a defiant little piece of women’s history that no one has gone looking for until now. These Afghan testimonies may also remind readers of how our grandmothers blood glucose control at times had to employ subversive methods that are very similar. And how we sometimes still do, just because some of us were born as girls.

With gratitude,

Jenny Nordberg

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