Book Talk: Women in Afghanistan, through a looking glass

2014-10-30 00:00

WHEN Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg visited the home of an Afghan parliamentarian, she was surprised to hear one daughter declare: “It’s true, he is our little sister.”

The comment exposed a striking truth about Afgan girls, the world’s worst place to be born female, according to the United Nations (UN).

The more she investigated, the more examples Nordberg found of Afghan parents raising daughters as boys to escape, at least until puberty, the harsh reality of life as a girl. The practice has a name, “bacha posh, which means “dressed like a boy” in Dari. The result after years of investigation is The Underground Girls of Kabul. Reuters spoke to her.

How difficult was it researchi­ng the boo k?

I talked to the experts on Afghan history and culture ... and was thoroughly dismissed, but still knew ... there had to be others.

It turned out every Afghan I asked knew someone — cousin, great-grandmother, teacher or doctor. It became clear this was something Afghans were very aware of. What was difficult was connecting to them. It took skilled Afghan interpreters. Afghans are polite and welcoming, but will not offer secrets right away. They had never been asked about this before and they had never told anyone about it.

Did it help to be a female reporter?

As a woman reporter you are a neuter. Men speak to you almost like a man, but women let you in. Many conversations were intimate and I had to offer myself. It helps if you are open in that way.

What does that say about how much Westerners knew about what was going on in Afgha nistan?

A lot ... more than anything it raised the question what else are we missing there?

We’ve now been there for 13 years. Many times we came in ... to change things; export democracy and done the same thing with things like gender rights, women’s equality.

I was speaking to an Afghan woman working for the UN in Afghanistan and asked her — you work on gender projects, did you ever think of bringing this up to foreigners?

She smiled and said, you know the foreigners like to come here and speak to “us” about gender. That was symbolic ... Afghanistan has always kept its secrets to itself.

One element of the book is that Western intervention may have backfired in terms of women’s r ights.

There is nothing wrong with intention, but it is unfortunate in some quarters women’s rights are perceived as a stand against men; as an infidel issue or a something brought as a Western import.

About educating little girls: we all want that, but we also want them to have a safe road to travel. Azita [a parliamentarian] said something brilliant: ‘They [foreigners] think it’s all about the burkha. I’m ready to wear two burkhas if I can have security and rule of law’.

How empowering was this dressing up as a boy for gir ls?

If girls grow up as boys before puberty, those women bear witness that it left some empowerment.

Will the West forget about Afghanist an?

While I hope Afghanistan will not be dismissed. I hope my story will interest people.

It happens in every society with extreme segregation.

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