October 23, 2014 / 6:18 PM / 3 years ago

Book Talk: Women in Afghanistan, through a looking glass

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - When Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg visited the home of an Afghan parliamentarian, she was surprised to hear one of the politician's daughters declare of another child she had assumed was her six-year-old brother: "It's true, he is our little sister."

The comment exposed a striking truth about girls growing up in Afghanistan, the worst place in the world to be born female, according to the United Nations.

The more Nordberg looked into it, the more examples she found of Afghan parents raising daughters as boys to escape – at least until puberty - the harsh realities of life as a girl. The practice has a name: "bacha posh" which means "dressed like a boy" in Dari.

The result after several years of investigation is "The Underground Girls of Kabul", published by Crown Publishers in New York. Reuters spoke to the author about her research.

Q: How difficult was it to research the book?

A: At first I talked to the experts on Afghan history and culture ... and I was thoroughly dismissed by them, but I still knew ... that there had to be others. It turned out every single Afghan I asked knew someone - 'my cousin, my great grandmother, or a teacher, a doctor'. It became clear right away this was something Afghans were very aware of.

What was difficult was to connect to them. This is a closed society. To get the actual introduction took a lot of time. It took some very skilled Afghan interpreters. Afghans are very polite and welcoming. But they will not offer secrets right away. They had never been asked about this before and they had never told anyone about it.

Q: Did it help to be a female reporter?

A As a woman reporter you are a neuter. Men will speak to you almost like a man. But at the same time women will let you in. But it is also about being a good enough reporter ... Many conversations were very intimate and I had to offer up a lot of myself. It helps if you are open in that way.

Q: What does that say about how much Westerners knew about what was going on in Afghanistan?

A: It says a lot. More than anything it raised the question: 'What else are we missing there?' We've been there now for 13 years. Many times we came in with the ambition to change things there, to export democracy and we've done the same thing with things like gender rights, women's equality.

I was speaking to an Afghan woman - it is in the book - who worked for the U.N. in Afghanistan. I 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.

I think that was very symbolic ... Afghanistan has always kept its secrets to itself.

Q: One of the things in the book is the sense that Western intervention may have backfired in terms of women's rights.

A: There is nothing wrong with the intention but it is unfortunate that in some quarters women's rights are perceived as a stand against men, as an infidel issue or a something that has been brought upon them as a Western import. If we go and moralize it can be tricky and backfire in Afghanistan.

About educating little girls: we all want that, but we also want them to have a safe road to travel on. Azita (the parliamentarian) said something I thought was 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'.

Q: How empowering was this dressing up as a boy for girls?

A: If girls grow up as boys before puberty, those women do bear witness that it left some kind of empowering feeling. They know they can speak up, be strong, talk to men.

Q: Will the West forget about Afghanistan?

A: In the past summer the world has been exploding. While I hope Afghanistan is not going to be dismissed or forgotten, I hope my story is going to also interest people.

This just does not happen in Afghanistan. It happens in every society where there is extreme segregation between women and men. It is a global phenomenon that's been going on a very long time. We just didn't see it.

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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