Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Underground Girls of Kabul - Jenny Nordberg

The Underground Girls of Kabul
Title: The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan
Author: Jenny Nordberg
Publication Date: 9/16/14
Pages: 350
Genre: Political / Nonfiction
How I Found It: I've seen it several places since its release
Date Completed: 9/19/15

Summary: In a culture where being a woman qualifies you as little more than property, a not-so-unique phenomenon has been taking place for centuries. Parents desperate for the prestige and protection provided by the presence of a son are parading their daughters as boys - at least until the practice becomes unacceptable at puberty. Nordberg explores the motivations, emotions, and the real girls living as boys.

What I Thought: As I have grown into womanhood, become a wife and a professional, furthered my education, I have also become increasingly sensitive to the burdens of women around the world. I know I was blessed to be born into an imperfect, but charmed environment. So many, at home or abroad, would see my life as idyllic. I know that. At times, that disparity makes me feel guilty for my own blessed existence. Though I had no control over my destiny, it makes me want to help those who find themselves oppressed and trapped.

Now, I'll be the first to say that, in these past few years as this topic has become more important and interesting to me, I have done far more learning than acting. I read, I watch, I study, I gather information. But I have done little. It's hard to know what to do, at times, though, that certainly doesn't stop amazing women like Katrell Christie or Malala Yousafzai. Still, I know I need to go beyond the thinking and take action if I really care about these women and girls. I'm just not sure what that looks like yet - at least for me.

Reading books like this make my heart ache for the doing, not just the learning. I ache for learning all the time, about a plethora of topics. Few make my heart ache for doing like the plight of women and their devaluation. In this specific microcosm of gender disparity, Nordberg discovered Afghan families turning their daughters into "boys"' for their childhood in a desperate attempt to gain status and respect within their communities. 

The stories Nordberg shares are touching, funny, heart-breaking, thought-provoking, beautiful. They are an important reminder that Afghanistan does not consist solely of the Taliban or the religious extremists. There are real families and a "normal" completely different than our American minds can comprehend. Interestingly, their perception of Westerners (particularly Western woman) seems about as off-base as our perception of them. 

It was also interesting to get the Afghan perspective on much of the aid work that has been done in their country. The landscape is rife with corruption and politicization of progress. While Nordberg does recognize that some programs have worked, it seems the vast majority have been unsuccessful, often due to cultural misunderstandings or manifestations of the Western Savior complex. It was particularly fascinating to see Afghan women questioning why Westerners were so fixated on "women's issues" when they would have preferred a focus on electricity, elections, and education. These women understand that their "issues" and rights can follow once the more basic human rights are provided (see the quote below).

The hardest part of the book for me was coming to terms with how devalued women are. A daughter is practically useless to an Afghan family, except as a marital bargaining chip once she reaches puberty. These girls know it, too. Their self-worth cannot help but be affected by the culture's attitude toward them. Spousal abuse, honor killings, lack of education - all of these are acceptable ways to keep women in their place. 

Nordberg's research and experiences are just another small piece of the giant puzzle. The daily lives of many women around the globe are lived in fear or, at the least, a belief that she can never be or have anything more. I am so thankful for the husbands and fathers who stand up and value their daughters, allowing them to receive education, to work, to taste independence, even on small levels. These men are making a difference one piece at a time. 

So, where does that leave me? I know things need to change. The treatment and education of women on an individual level has the power to change the world (see quote below). I know I cannot always be content with crying at poems like the one that opens this book or nodding in agreement with the author's conclusion or talking about the need for change here. To whom much is given, much is required. I just need to figure out what my role looks like and how I can best affect change for other women - without stepping on their toes or brushing off their culture. They need to be given the power and tools to thrive in their own landscape, not in an American version of their culture. To do that, we need to get to know them and their culture. I suppose that's, at least, a good place to start. 

Quote I Loved:

  • "In Afghanistan, gender and power are one and the same."
  • "All the work that boys can do, women can do, too. I know, because I do it." -Zahra
  • "They think it's all about the burka. I'm ready to wear two burkas if my government can provide security and rule of law." -Azita regarding foreign focus on "women's issues" rather than bigger picture issues
  • "Political science scholars conclude that violence on a micro level - for instance between a husband and wife - is directly related to how violent a society is. Both within its borders and against outsiders. Countries that suppress its women are more likely to threaten their neighbors as well as other countries farther away. 

Rating: ★★★★☆
Will I Re-Read: I would imagine so
If You Liked This Try: Half the Sky / I Am Malala / Without You, There Is No Us

A Reduced Review: Nordberg beautifully captures the pain and pride that comes as these families take fate into their own hands.

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