The Underground Girls of Kabul [Book Review]

This book was one of the sources that opened my eyes the most about Afghan culture and made me see how far this culture – and the world as a whole – still needs to go to find something like equality.

The Underground Girls of Kabul

Book Description

An investigative journalist uncovers a hidden custom that will transform your understanding of what it means to grow up as a girl.

In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as misfortune. A bacha posh literally translated from Dari as dressed up like a boy is a third kind of child – a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world.

Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke the story of this phenomenon for the New York Times, constructs a powerful and moving account of those secretly living on the other side of a deeply segregated society where women have almost no rights and little freedom.

The Underground Girls of Kabul is anchored by vivid characters who bring this remarkable story to life Azita, a female parliamentarian who sees no other choice but to turn her fourth daughter Mehran into a boy Zahra, the tomboy teenager who struggles with puberty and refuses her parents attempts to turn her back into a girl Shukria, now a married mother of three after living for twenty years as a man and Nader, who prays with Shahed, the undercover female police officer, as they both remain in male disguise as adults.

At the heart of this emotional narrative is a new perspective on the extreme sacrifices of Afghan women and girls against the violent backdrop of Americas longest war. Divided into four parts, the book follows those born as the unwanted sex in Afghanistan, but who live as the socially favored gender through childhood and puberty, only to later be forced into marriage and childbirth.

The Underground Girls of Kabul charts their dramatic life cycles, while examining our own history and the parallels to subversive actions of people who live under oppression everywhere.

My Rating


We all know that equality is a struggle that is still in its infancy; people are oppressed for many reasons, from the color of their skin to who they love, and gender disparity is practiced worldwide.

This powerful, eye-opening glimpse into the lives of women in Afghanistan starts with a poem. But Not An Afghan Woman tells everything one might need to know about the struggle of living life as a woman in the world, and particularly in Afghanistan.

The author has chosen to tell this story about women in relation to the men who hold them up or hold them back. The four sections are “Boys”, “Youth”, “Men”, and “Fathers.” Each chapter delves deep into the life of a girl or woman who has been chosen or has chosen for herself to live life as a male. These bacha posh are honorary males, and often bring honor back to families who produce many daughters.

It is interesting to learn about how a girl’s life is forever changed when she is elected a bacha posh. One might imagine that the freedoms allowed a young boy would make it difficult for the girl, as she nears puberty, to return to headscarves and demureness. But the psychological impact of this hidden and surprisingly widespread tradition is much deeper than that.

From little bacha posh to the adult versions who live their lives in fear and secrecy, the author tells the tale of what it is like to be a woman in Afghanistan, and what some have chosen to do to make life more bearable in a society that undervalues, abuses, and auctions them off like cattle.

I give this book five out of five stars. It was a riveting, fascinating read that I highly recommend to anyone who can get their hands on it.

Buy it on Amazon | iBooks | Kobo

I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. These are affiliate links; buy your copy from my page, and I receive a commission to help pay for my hosting costs, but you don’t pay any extra.

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Want more reviews? Check out all the other things I’ve reviewed in the last three years on my book review master list.