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

They dress like boys, act like boys and have the same rights as boys. A ”bacha posh” is a girl in Afghanistan that from an early age are brought up as a boy, and thereby changes her gender identity.

The parents have many reasons for this. There's pressure to have sons, to give their daughters another perspective and self-confidence, and superstition - if a girl is dressed like a boy, the next baby will be a son. Regardless of the reason, these girls get more liberty. Until puberty.

Azita, a politician and former member of the parlament, was a bacha posh and is now dressing her daughter as a son. Mehran holds her father's hand learns to speak her opinion. She lives in a different world from her sisters. In Afghanistan, where bacha, child, means boy and dokhtar, the other, means girl, the possibilities for women are limited. 40% of the girls are married before they turn 18. Afghanistan is, according to the author, the worst country in the world to have a baby. The life expectancy for women is 44 years, many of which consists of pregnancies. 

The bacha posh phenomenon is an indication of a patriarchy that forces women to take the role as men to survive. This is not unique for Afghanistan. The concept of gender is considered relevant in most parts of the world. To show a baby's gender by dressing it in blue or pink was invented in the US as a sell trick in the 1940's. Before that, babies were dressed in white. Rules for clothing has always been a tool to maintain the patriarchate order, according to Nordberg. In France, the law to forbide women wearing pants, was formally abolished as late as 2013. Bacha posh is a universal phenomena and seems to arise in segregated and uncertain places. It existed as early as the middle ages, in many places in the west, including North America and Sweden, according to the author. In Sweden, an orphan named Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar dressed like a man, went into the army and fought the Russians to provide for her sisters and escape a forced marriage.

The book gives birth to questions about gender identity and gender differences. According to the men interviewed, women are vulnerable and caring. According to the women, to be a woman means absence of freedom. A greater context is whether or not a person is born into a gender identity. The bacha poshes that Nordberg met are convinced it is formed by the environment.

Jenny Nordberg tries to understand without coloring her words. She gives the reader a piece of the puzzle that might make it easier to view the complexity of the structure. Her book indicates that it's the people with economic power that hold the key. Nordberg thinks that men have to realize that women are not a threat, and that a daughter or wife with education and a job, are a benefit for the family and society as a whole. The organisations that try to improve the situation for women by speaking to women should instead turn to the men, since the ultimate power lies with them.

Nordberg explains that women rights have become an issue for the elite, and associated with the west, something nationalistic and islamistic people feel they have to distance themselves from. Another problem is that when the foreigners are withdrawing from the country, the people that sympathized with them, also leave. The people left are conservative and therefore it's difficult to improve the situation. The books also indicates that it's more difficult to improve women's conditions during uncertainty and war. When Azita was young, she wanted to continue her education and had dreams, but was forced to marry an analfabetic cusin in the countryside. The price was 1000 dollar and some property. Azitas father is an academic and liberal, and his dreams during the communist era were shattered by the talibans, and the family had to flee. He wanted Azita to be able to achieve her goals in life, but considering the dangerous time, he felt he had to marry her off to protect her. She wasn't a traditional woman and her father had to convince her husband to allow her to work. Later, Azita became a politician. This indicates that war is preventing human rights, and that a place has to be peaceful to become more equal.

The book is professionally written. The statements are backed up by facts. Everything from UN and other organisations for human rights, to theories by Sigmund Freud and world leading research on gender identity. But, in the end, what makes this book really special is that as a reader, you are transferred into Afghanistan and becomes the little girl, the teenager, the daughter, the wife, the politician, the warrior and the taekwondo teacher. They all have something in common. Everyday is a battle.

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