Winner of the 2015 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize

The Underground Girls of Kabul is now available in paperback




“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

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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 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

Q&A with Jenny Nordberg

Bacha posh

Who are the bacha posh of Afghanistan?

Bacha posh” is the term for a girl who is “dressed up like a boy.” These children are part of a hidden practice in which parents disguise daughters as sons. Instead of wearing a headscarf, and a skirt or a dress, a little girl will get a short haircut and a pair of pants, and she’ll be sent off into the world as one of the boys. The bacha posh look like boys, they learn to behave like boys, and to those around them who don’t know, they are Afghan boys.  

Why are girls disguised as boys in Afghanistan?

It’s a creative, some would say desperate, way to buck the system in a suppressive, gender-segregated society.  In Afghanistan, men make most of the decisions and women and girls hold very little value. From the moment she is born, an Afghan girl has very few rights and little control over her own life. She often cannot leave the house without an escort. She must guard her behavior and appear modest at all times.  (Just for a girl to ride a bike, for instance, would be seen by many as inappropriate.) 

For Afghan girls, posing as a boy opens up a whole new world. It affords a girl freedom of movement; for some that means a chance to go to school, for others the ability to work and support their families.  In every case, it allows her to see and experience things most girls and young women in Afghanistan never do. 

Most bacha posh are forced to become girls before they hit puberty, sometimes after living their whole lives as boys. What kind of lasting impact — if any — did this have on the women you interviewed?

My research, based on interviews with dozens of bacha posh, shows that the impact on adult females depends very much on when their transition back to the female gender takes place. A few years as a boy when they were children may be remembered as an empowering experience. But for those who go through puberty and beyond as young men, things quickly become much more complicated. Aside from the psychological conundrum, those who are nurtured as boys and young men though their teens and beyond can see a delay in the development of female identity and even the onset of puberty. It’s an example of how the mind affects the body. Bacha posh really is a unique, current-day nurture versus nature experiment. 

Living, working and writing in Afghanistan

When you first broke the story of Afghanistan’s bacha posh in a 2010 New York Times article, it drew millions of views and a massive response from readers worldwide. What drew you to this topic and inspired you to expand the article into a full-length book?

This is the story of a lifetime. How often does a journalist come upon an actual secret, which holds the promise of a journey straight into the unknown, where no one has gone before? It also cuts right into the most difficult questions of human existence: war, oppression, and the difference between men and women.  When I first discovered and started researching the bacha posh, I was frustrated to find that none of the Western experts on Afghanistan I asked had any idea about this practice.  In time, I realized I had to become the expert. 

Furthermore, as a woman, the experience of bacha posh opens a window onto a very raw form of patriarchy, where my kind is unwanted, despised and abused. Writing a full-length book gave me the space to go much more in-depth on this issue and to try to understand why that is. 

I also hope that my book will reach an even broader audience; as a reader of my original Times’ piece said: “What woman hasn’t,” she wrote, “wondered how life would have been different if she had been born a boy?” Her comment helped me realize that this is not just a story about Afghanistan – it’s a story about all women, and the history we share,, which should be read and understood by women (and men) everywhere.

To research and write this book, you spend a great deal of time in Afghanistan over the past few years. What was it like?

Working in a country at war can be physically and mentally exhausting; you’re on high alert most of the time. There’s a feeling that there is no time to lose, because who knows for how long you can be lucky, and not be in the wrong place when a blast goes off? Imagine how Afghans feel, who have lived with this for more than thirty years. The good side of it is that Afghans are extremely polite and hospitable, and that there is very little time for indecision or procrastination; interactions are much more immediate. With the constant presence of potential disaster, life takes sharper contours. And you laugh a lot together.

You reported this book from Afghanistan and worked closely with its subjects. Did you become friends with the women you interviewed for the book?

A classic tenet of journalism says that a journalist should not make friend with her subject. But I believe you can be a professional and a human being at the same time. With all my main characters, I have developed an intimate, respectful bond. Over the past years, I’ve asked them to tell me things they have never spoken of before, about their bodies, about sex, about religion – all the forbidden topics. In return, I have also shared some of my secrets with them. 

At the same time, there were no blurred lines about who the journalist was, and who the subjects were. Each of these very brave women made a conscious choice to be part of this book, and I have tried to honor that by offering a lot of transparency about my work. For instance, when I had a somewhat finished book manuscript in the summer of 2013, I went back to Kabul to see each of them again. We read it together, and for those who could not read, I read out loud. Some details were added; others taken out. Together we have tried to be careful and protect their families. In the end, hope I have done them and their courage justice and they have told me they hope people will want to know about them. This is a dispatch from inside extreme oppression, from those who just happened to be born in the most dangerous place on earth to be a woman.

“[A] searing expose…Nordberg’s subtle, sympathetic reportage makes this one of the most convincing portraits of Afghan culture in print.”

—Publisher’s Weekly [starred]

Read the Review

Reviews & Voices

Elle Review + Author Q&A

“Five years of intensive reporting have yielded this gritty, poignant, and provocative collage of intimate portraits…Nordberg conveys captivating nuance and complexity; just when you feel some kind of judgment or conclusive opinion is within reach, she deftly turns the tables, leaving us to reexamine our own prejudices and societal norms as we struggle with questions that are perhaps unanswerable.”


Booklist [starred]

“A stunning book… Nordberg has done some staggering work in this unique, important, and compelling chronicle. Book clubs will be riveted, and will talk for hours.”

Kirkus Review

As affecting as the stories of these women are, Nordberg’s conclusion—that women’s rights are essential to “building peaceful civilizations”—is the most powerful message of this compelling book. An intelligent and timely exploration into contemporary Afghanistan.


Michelle Goldberg

Author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World

“The Underground Girls of Kabul is a groundbreaking feat of reportage, a kaleidoscopic investigation into gender, resistance, and the limits of cross-cultural understanding. Jenny Nordberg is a riveting storyteller and she has an astonishing tale to tell.”

Robin Morgan

Author, founder of Ms. Magazine and contemporary U.S. feminism

“Jenny Nordberg has given us a fascinating look into a hidden phenomenon of extreme patriarchal societies: a form of gender-bending far riskier and more rewarding than Western academia’s trendy, abstract gender categories. Nordberg’s reporting is thorough and sensitive, her writing vivid and insightful. You will not forget this book; it will haunt you.”


Jennifer Clement

Author of Prayers for the Stolen

“The Underground Girls of Kabul is a riveting, firsthand account of what life as a girl is like in Afghanistan and how it often means becoming a boy. Jenny Nordberg has written a compelling and important work that exposes the profound gender prejudice that exists, in different forms, all over the world.”

Lauren Wolfe

Director of Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege

“Forget everything you thought you knew about gender and what it means to be a woman or man. Jenny Nordberg’s exquisitely reported look at why Afghans choose to raise their girls as boys is nothing less than heartbreaking, mind-bending, and mesmerizing—not to mention timely.”


Valerie M. Hudson

Professor/George H.W. Bush Chair, The Bush School of Government & Public Service, Texas A&M University

“Nordberg brings to light a world that no Afghan speaks of, but everyone knows: the world of girls raised as boys, usually until puberty. In a society where being a girl means living as chattel, and where families without boys are shamed, the bacha posh tradition arose, as it has in other highly patriarchal societies. Going deeper, Nordberg discovers that the bacha posh, once adults, become a subversive force: having tasted freedom and opportunity, these women can never go back. They stand up–for themselves, their daughters, and their country. The former bacha posh may yet change Afghanistan for the better . . . Nordberg’s book is a pioneering effort to understand this hidden world.”

Sari Kouvo

Co-director of Afghanistan Analyst Network

“The investigation into bacha posh gives a new and unique perspective on the women’s situation, gender and resistance in Afghanistan. The author tells the story with empathy and respect for the women who have let her into their lives. This book will interest both those who want to learn about Afghanistan and those wanting to understand how gender works, and it is a must-read for both Afghanistan and gender specialists.”


New York Times Book Review

“Through extensive interviews with former bacha posh, observation of present ones and conversations with doctors and teachers, Nordberg unearths details of a dynamic that one suspects will be news to the armies of aid workers and gender experts in post-invasion Afghanistan.”

Washington Post

“Jenny Nordberg has produced a striking and nuanced work that explores the current status of Afghan women through one of their subcultures…[A] finely written book.”

Razia Iqba, Independent

“Amazing depiction of women fighting for simple freedoms: Five years of research, and an almost novelistic approach to her findings, has produced a book full of fresh stories.”

The Observer

“This fascinating study sheds new light on what it’s like to be female in the country declared the worst in the world to be a woman . . . This powerful account of powerlessness resonates with the most silenced voices in society.”

Prizes & Praise

Winner of the 2015 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize
A Salon 2014 Authors’ Favorite Book
One of Buzzfeed’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2014
A Business Insider Best Book of 2014
A Columbus Dispatch Best Book of 2014
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2014
A PopMatters Best Book of 2014
An FP Interrupted Best Book of 2014
An IPI Global Observatory Recommended Book for 2015
A TruthDig Book of the Year, 2014
Finalist for the Goodreads Choice Award, Nonfiction

The Author

Jenny Nordberg is a New York-based investigative reporter and author.

In 2010, she broke the story of “bacha posh” — how girls grow up disguised as boys in gender-segregated Afghanistan. The investigation was published in The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, and Nordberg’s original research in the piece was used in other stories and books – nonfiction as well as fiction.
Today, THE UNDERGROUND GIRLS OF KABUL has been translated into more than ten languages, and it is the only original non-fiction work investigating and documenting the practice of bacha posh.

The book was awarded the 2015 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and The Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, which stated that Nordberg’s work “is much more than a hard-won investigation populated with diverse characters and potent scenes. It’s also a careful surrender of assumptions about gender and patriarchy and the Western lens on a troubled country—a book through which readers emerge both challenged and changed.”

At the New York Times’ investigative unit, Nordberg worked on projects such as an examination of the American freight railroad system; a series that won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, and U.S. efforts at exporting democracy to Haiti.

She has also produced and written several documentaries for American television, about Iraqi refugees, Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation and the impact of the global financial crisis in Europe.

In Sweden, Nordberg was a member of the first investigative team at Swedish Broadcasting’s national radio division, where she supervised projects on terrorism and politics. Nordberg has won awards from Investigative Reporters and Editors, The Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and Guldspaden; Sweden’s premier investigative journalism award.

Jenny Nordberg holds a B.A. in Law and Journalism from Stockholm University, and an M.A. from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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