From Sweden, Jenny Nordberg is an investigative journalist based in New York. And she’s an ace. In 2005 she contributed to a series for the New York Times that won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Keeping her Pulitzer company is the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism which she received for a television documentary on Afghan women. You know, the usual household items.
She landed in Afghanistan in 2009. That is where her journey with Azita started and has culminated in The Underground Girls of Kabul.
FPI: Your book The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan tells the story of a number of girls who pretend to be or else live as boys/men. How did you come upon this story?
I arrived in Afghanistan in 2009. The country piqued my interest primarily because of how it had been cast as a place defined by good and evil. I had read and heard about tremendous crimes and extreme abuses against women and I wanted to understand what the situation really was. That curiosity led me to produce a small television documentary, and in my research I interviewed Afghan women from different parts of society. I talked to activists, victims of crime, academics, and professional women. The latter have sprouted up in the past decade again, as a visible sign of progress.
Someone had recommended I speak to Azita, one of the rare female members of Afghanistan’s parliament. She doesn’t come from a wealthy family or powerful connections. She’s a moderate – not the barricades but not a silent member either. After reaching out to her, she invited me to her home.
When I arrived, Azita received a call that she took in another room. That left me in the living area with her daughters. She has three daughters and a son, who is the youngest. Because each attended a private school in Kabul, they spoke a little English. The girls were excited to practice with me. At first we exchanged basic questions, such as, “What is your favorite color?” After a few moments, however, one of the girls leaned in and said, “Did you know that our brother is really a girl?”
Thinking it was just a matter of mixing up gender pronouns, I carried on the conversation, asking the girls what they wanted to be when they grow up. “No really he’s our sister,” one of the girls insisted. The little brother then suddenly appeared, with short spiky hair and an attitude – hips forward, and looking at me straight in the eye. He definitely had a different body language than the sisters. It made me wonder – is this a boy or a girl? It could have been either. But I was scared to say anything or ask questions, because I didn’t want to offend my host.
When Azita finally returned, we resumed our conversation. I made no mention of what her daughters had told me. After a while, however, she mentions that she actually has four girls – that she dresses the youngest one as a boy. I asked why, and that was the moment that started this whole process.
FPI: Why did Azita dress her youngest as a boy?
In her work as a parliamentarian and politician, Azita was constantly being asked why she did not have a son. You are considered to be a failed woman and a failed family if you don’t have a son. So one reason she did it was to stop those questions.
A second reason was that having a son opens up the world for all the children and family. With a male “escort,” Azita and her daughters could move around easier. A son facilitates mobility.
Thirdly, Azita said to me ,“I want my youngest to know what life is like on the other side.” That was a subversive streak she showed – it was fascinating.
FPI: Were you conflicted about writing about it?
Absolutely. This was a family secret she told me. In a conservative place like Afghanistan, revealing such a secret could be dangerous to her, and to her family. So I treated everything with utmost caution. It’s not just what they want to tell you – it’s that this information could potentially be shared with the whole world. After she told me, I left and didn’t say anything to anyone. I called her the next day and offered her to withdraw the story. But she told me, “I think we should write the truth.” She thought people would be interested to know that this is what life is like in Afghanistan. We’ve had versions of that same conversation for the past five years. I’ve told her when the details she shared were too personal – and warned her about not going further than she was really willing to go. Ironically, it was reverse negotiation, because as a reporter, my job is to get as much information as possible. With Azita, I wanted to take care about how much she was telling me. It was important for me to be respectful and cautious with these women. When I had a manuscript ready, I shared it with them to make sure that they were okay with its contents.
FPI: Tell us about your time in Afghanistan – and the challenges and/or benefits of working as a female correspondent.
I’ve been fortunate to have had excellent people to work with. There are two ways to work in that environment: you have a big footprint and travel around in a big car with lots of security, or you keep a low profile. The latter means moving around in a battered car together with local colleagues. Afghans are very polite and respectful of women. I was never harassed or bothered in any way. To me it’s an advantage to be a female foreigner in a segregated environment like that, in that you are treated as a separate entity. That gave me access to the women and men. It’s more difficult for male reporters to get access to Afghan women.
And, of course, there are challenges – it’s a country at war, so you have to do your homework and not walk into dangerous situations. I also listened to Afghans, always taking their advice.
FPI: Much has been made about the plight of women in Afghanistan – why is it important? What will happen to the role of women in the years to come? (What can the US or others do to improve the situation for women in Afghanistan?)
First of all, Afghanistan is considered to be the worst place to be a woman, and to be a born as a girl.
One of the things the Bush administration put forward when they went into Afghanistan – particularly First Lady Laura Bush-was the prospect of dethroning the Taliban and uprooting terrorism. Part of the rationale for that was to liberate women. It was a Western objective, and something we wanted to take credit for– that we were going to change things for women there. Not only were we going to turn around the entire country and bring them up to speed, we were going to create a democracy, and rebuild and modernize the country. Part of that vision was to institute our version of gender equality and turn around the situation for women there. That made it personal for those of us in the West.
The vision of little girls who had been in dark rooms with the curtains closed and no access to education – to see them come out and carry little back packs with school books – was huge for us.
However, it became clear that there was a limit to what we could do. Bacha posh offers a window into how deep the segregation goes and what that means. Did we actually change things for women there?
FPI: Do you think we did?
We certainly facilitated and made it possible for these brilliant young women to sprout up in urban areas – to get an education and professions. In terms of changing the course of life for the majority of women – no. But maybe that wasn’t reasonable to begin with. Overall, the progress for women is modest and is easily reversible. The rights that Afghan women have gained are in danger of being rolled back. The women there are very scared. They know they’ll be the first to go if darker times come back, whether it’s war or the Taliban. The voices of provocation target women first. It’s a precarious time there.
There needs to be a longer period of peace in Afghanistan before you can have a breakthrough on women’s rights there. Practically speaking, the issue of sending girls to school can’t come before building the roads to those schools, for instance. You can’t send any child anywhere if there isn’t the infrastructure or the semblance of peace.
FPI: What do you hope readers take away from your book?
As strange as bacha posh may seem, you’ll see that we are them and they are us. We are similar and all that they experience, we have in our own history. The practice of bacha posh is very logical; whenever there is segregation and oppression, there will be always those trying to get to the other side. This is the universal reaction to all kinds of segregation, which deems one group despised and disgusting. We in the West have had our own version of bacha posh. How many women in European history were not allowed to get an education, put on a pair of pants, join the army, or become doctors? How many times have I tried to be “one of the boys” – to get in the door, and be present? I would love it if people wouldn’t view this as very exotic and strange. We’ve seen it, too. That will stop us from buying into the idea that Afghanistan is so far away, so hopeless, and so impossible to understand.