Sunday, December 28, 2014

REVIEW: The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg


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 America’s 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.

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published September 16th 2014 by Crown (first published January 1st 2014)
ISBN 0307952495 (ISBN13: 9780307952493)

About the Author

Jenny Nordberg is a New York-based foreign correspondent and a columnist for Swedish national newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.

In 2010, she broke the story of "bacha posh" - how girls grow up disguised as boys in gender-segregated Afghanistan. The Page One story was published in The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, and Nordberg's original research in the piece was used for follow-up stories around the world, as well as opinion pieces and fictional tales.

Today, THE UNDERGROUND GIRLS OF KABUL is the only original non-fiction work on the practice of bacha posh, going deep into issues of gender and culture in Afghanistan. Jenny Nordberg is to date the only researcher in the world who has explored the practice of bacha posh in a systematic and comprehensive manner.

Together with The Times' investigative unit, Nordberg previously worked on projects such as an examination of the American freight railroad system; a series that won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, and U.S. efforts at exporting democracy to Haiti.

She has also produced and written several documentaries for American television, about Iraqi refugees, Pakistan's nuclear proliferation and the impact of the global financial crisis in Europe.

In Sweden, Nordberg was a member of the first investigative team at Swedish Broadcasting's national radio division, where she supervised projects on terrorism and politics. Nordberg has won awards from Investigative Reporters and Editors, The Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and Guldspaden; Sweden's premier investigative journalism award.

Jenny Nordberg holds a B.A. in Law and Journalism from Stockholm University, and an M.A. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Check out the author's website
Follow the author on Twitter

My Thoughts
The transition begins here.
Author Jenny Nordberg began to hear hints of something hidden in Afghanistan. Hidden within a culture that values men over women, and the birth of a baby boy is something to celebrate while the birth of a baby girl can lead to shame and public ridicule, there is a hidden tradition carried out by some families, whereby young girls are raised as boys. These girls are referred to as bacha posh.
Having at least one son is mandatory for good standing and reputation here…
A baby boy is triumph, success. A baby girl is humiliation, failure. He is a bacha, the word for a child. A boy. She is the “other”: a dokhtar. A daughter.
She says of a little girl baby only a few hours old: “...she is naqis-ul-aql, or ‘stupid by birth,’ as a woman equals a creature lacking wisdom due to her weak brain.
There are different motivations for having a daughter live as a bacha posh. Some do it in order to improve their reputation and standing after having only daughters, while others do it for the convenience of having a "son" to assist with things like running errands and escorting the other daughters in the family (in a society that forbids women and young girls to go out unsupervised without a male present). And yet others do it for the benefit of the girl, in order to allow her to have the experience and confidence that comes with living as a boy. They are entitled to sit with their father and his friends, to work, to play in the street. There are special benefits allowed young boys that girl's are not permitted.
That life can include flying a kite, running as fast as you can, laughing hysterically, jumping up and down because it feels good, climbing trees and feeling the thrill of hanging on. It is to speak to another boy, to sit with your father and his friends, to ride in the front seat of a car and watch people out on the street. To look them in the eye. To speak up without fear and to be listened to, and rarely have anyone question why you are out on your own in comfortable clothes that allow for any kind of movement. All unthinkable for a girl.
There have been attempts in the past to change the culture surrounding the subjugation of women. The royal couple Amanollah Khan and his queen Soraya in the '20s fought for women's rights, pushing for their education and banning their sale into marriage. However amid a backlash and the threat of a coup, Amanollah Khan had to abdicate in 1929.

Here in America we tend to oversimplify this issue. We think Afghanistan simply needs to change their culture of making women second-class citizens who live at the whim of the men in their lives. However we don't understand the complexity of the issue, in a society that views the years before puberty of both men and women as simply "preparation for procreation". Their economy is essentially based heavily on the ability to sell daughters into marriage and to form tribal alliances.

At one point, the author asks people about the differences between men and women. Men give a list of varied responses, such as women are more "sensitive" or more "emotional". But the majority of the women give the same answer...
Here is the answer: Regardless of who they are, whether they are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, Afghan women often describe the difference between men and women in just one word: freedom.
Which led me to think: In the West, we focus on things like women being forced to cover their heads. However it is so much simpler than that. The women would happily cover their heads as an expression of their faith, if only they could have freedom: the freedom to choose to leave the house, to travel, to go to school, to choose whether or not to marry and whom to marry, whether or not to have children. This is why every Afghan woman wishes she were a man. Men have freedom; women do not.

My final word: I absolutely loved this book! It made me realize how complicated this issue is. You can't just say, "Women should be treated equally..." and expect that is it. This is a cultural issue that has developed over thousands of years, and has economical implications as well as many other things. It is something that needs to be slowly changed, and it is something that needs to be changed from within by the Afghan people. The author uses the stories of multiple girls who have lived as bacha posh to illustrate the benefits and downfall of this practice. The book was well done, although the transition between subjects was sometimes difficult to follow, and you'd have to try and figure out who was being written about now. 

And while Afghanistan is a hard world for a woman to exist, it isn't much better for the men of Afghanistan.
This can be an awful place to be a woman. But it’s not particularly good for a man, either. -- Carol le Duc
This was an unquestionably fascinating read, and a favorite of 2014! 

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I received a copy of this book to review through Netgalley, in exchange for my honest opinion. I was not financially compensated in any way, and the opinions expressed are my own and based on my observations while reading this novel. The book that I received was an uncorrected proof, and quotes could differ from the final release.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

REVIEW: Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall


Amid the mayhem of the Civil War, Virginia plantation wife Iris Dunleavy is put on trial and convicted of madness. It is the only reasonable explanation the court can see for her willful behavior, so she is sent away to Sanibel Asylum to be restored to a good, compliant woman. Iris knows, though, that her husband is the true criminal; she is no lunatic, only guilty of disagreeing with him on notions of justice, cruelty, and property. On this remote Florida island, cut off by swamps and seas and military blockades, Iris meets a wonderful collection of residents--some seemingly sane, some wrongly convinced they are crazy, some charmingly odd, some dangerously unstable. Which of these is Ambrose Weller, the war-haunted Confederate soldier whose memories terrorize him into wild fits that can only be calmed by the color blue, but whose gentleness and dark eyes beckon to Iris. The institution calls itself modern, but Iris is skeptical of its methods, particularly the dreaded "water treatment." She must escape, but she has found new hope and love with Ambrose. Can she take him with her? If they make it out, will the war have left anything for them to make a life from, back home? Blue Asylum is a vibrant, beautifully-imagined, absorbing story of the lines we all cross between sanity and madness. It is also the tale of a spirited woman, a wounded soldier, their impossible love, and the undeniable call of freedom.

Hardcover, 288 pages
Published April 10th 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published January 1st 2012)
ISBN 0547712073 (ISBN13: 9780547712079)

About the Author

Kathy Hepinstall was born in Odessa, Texas, and spent a large part of her childhood two hours from the Louisiana border, where most of her relatives
reside. She lives in Austin, Texas. 

Check out the author's website

My Thoughts
When Iris dreamed of that morning, the taste of blood was gone, and so was the odor of gun smoke, but her other senses stayed alive.
Iris was sent to an asylum, because a group of officials (all men) deemed her mad. What brought on this diagnosis? Surely she did something terrible! Yes, she did! She dared to defy her husband, and only a mad woman would defy her husband or show displeasure with her life.

When she arrives, she is treated by Dr. Cowell, the resident doctor at the asylum on Sanibel Island, where he lives with his wife and his son Wendell. Dr. Cowell's wife is a bit loony herself, and Dr. Cowell just keeps her medicated. His son Wendell is troubled. Actually Wendell is a normal boy, but he thinks he is crazy, because he has raging hormones and obviously no one has ever explained "puberty" to him.

I didn't care for the way Wendell was written. The character thinks like a boy, but speaks like a very mature and proper man. The two just didn’t jive.

I liked the use of metaphors in the book. For example, there was the description of a strangler fig, and the way it grows up another tree, sapping it and eventually killing it, and then the term was used a couple of times in reference to women in the book. But I noticed that no men were never referred to as strangler figs.
Tawny, bare legs showed under her dress. Her breasts and lips were full. She was asking for trouble simply by existing, by growing up. No fault of her own. A strangler fig.
And there were other inmates in the asylum that obviously belonged there. My favorite was the woman who refused to be a widow, who continued to live in an imaginary world where her husband still lived, and they still danced together.
Morning arrived as it always did for the old woman who refused to be a widow. She turned on the bed and kissed her husband on the cheek, then smoothed back his white hair. 
My final word: This was a pretty enjoyable book. I had a personal connection, since Sanibel Island is located just a short drive from my home, and I am quite familiar with it. I loved the author's use of metaphors. I loved some of the asylum's residents. I did not like the doctor or his wife. You had to feel for his son Wendell though, who is trapped on an island as an only child, with no other children to play with. The only people around with whom he may interact are mentally ill. Then he meets Iris, who he senses is not really mentally ill. I thought this was a good story, if not especially exciting, and the author moved it along well.

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