JWU College of Arts & Sciences

Uncovering the Underground Girls of Kabul with Jenny Nordberg

 Jenny Nordberg speaking at JWU Providence

Investigative reporter Jenny Nordberg never suspected a casual conversation she had with the children of an Afghan parliamentarian would lead to a groundbreaking story, let alone an award-winning book that would eventually be translated into more than 10 languages.

During the most recent Cultural Life Series lecture hosted on JWU’s Providence Campus, Nordberg described her first trip to Kabul. After reporting on the war in Afghanistan from abroad, Nordberg decided she wanted to cover the story on the ground. Choosing to focus on the lives of local women, Nordberg began seeking out those willing to share their stories. That’s when she met Azita.

A female member of the “new parliament” that was put place after the Taliban was overthrown, Azita invited Nordberg to her home where she was introduced to her 4 children. While chatting to Nordberg in broken English, Azita’s twins revealed that their youngest sibling was actually a girl who dressed and acted like a boy.

Jenny Nordberg speaking at JWU Providence

“I have 4 daughters, and I’m very proud of that,” Azita told Nordberg. She then went on to explain that in their society, which is “ruled by men,” not having a son is seen as an embarassment to the family, so the decision was made that her youngest daughter would take on the role of her “son.” Her hair was cut short, her name and wardrobe changed.

Known as “bacha posh” — which is the literal term for a girl who is disguised as a boy — Nordberg soon found this practice was widespread. While her initial research on the topic didn’t yield any results, once she began speaking with Afghan doctors and other locals she discovered the practice was quite common.

“In my mind, this was something that spoke of Afghan society in a way that could explain something about women and gender and what was going on [in Afghanistan],” Nordberg said.

So Nordberg kept digging. She interviewed young girls, teenage girls, and even a woman who had lived the first 20 years of life as a man. “She had been completely socialized as a man,” Nordberg explained. “She had no idea how to cook or to greet other women ... she still felt like a man inside.”

She also discovered there are any number of reasons families choose to dress their daughters as boys. For some, it’s a matter of being able to send their child safely to school, for others, a male child is needed to support the family financially.

Nordberg compiled these interviews and findings into “The Underground Girls of Kabul,” which is, to date, the only nonfiction work investigating and documenting the practice of bacha posh.

Learn more about Nordberg’s work at BachaPosh.com.

Jenny Nordberg fielding questions from JWU students

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Topics: Providence Cultural Life Series