A little over three months ago I bought “The Underground Girls of Kabul” from Bridge Street Books in D.C. I read about 40 pages of it, started grad school and didn’t pick it back up again until this past Monday. What an incredible read full of so many interesting, some heart-breaking, stories about girls and women whose families raised them as “honorary boys” in various parts of the Middle East.
Some families decided to raise their daughters as sons because, with only daughters born previously, a son would bring honor and security to the family. Others raised their daughters as sons because it was said to have magical influences on the womb. By looking at a son, a mother-to-be could give birth to a boy. A woman who has sons is a good, respectable wife. A woman who bears daughters is somehow defective.
The honorary boy status that the girls enjoyed made them more confident, outspoken, and in their words, free, in a society that they perceive only values and respects the words, opinions, actions and bodies of men.
For others the transition from boyhood to adolescent girlhood was painful and confusing. And others decided not to transition back at all but continue to live as men, determined to retain the freedom they had grown to enjoy.
The author, journalist Jenny Nordberg, draws parallels between gender inequality and war, poverty and education. She also makes a case for foreign human rights campaigns to not only focus their teachings on women’s rights on women, but men as well. Men, after all, are the current power brokers in many places. If the men in any nation can be convinced that women–their education and physical freedom–are not a threat to society but an asset to the economic growth and political strength of a country, then positive changes may occur.
The author also makes an interesting observation that is likely universally true across cultures: women are the bearers of honor, and men are the protectors of that honor.
On its face, this concept seems noble, balanced even; as if two pieces of a puzzle complete the other in performing a certain duty. But, as in anything, there is room for distortion. At its most extreme the distortion of this concept can lead to justifying shame and violence toward women.
Being born, raised and socialized in a country where I enjoy many freedoms as a woman, the stories in “The Underground Girls of Kabul” made me wonder about my own definition of womanhood. I don’t automatically associate my ability to have children with my identity as a woman. To many of the girls and women in the book, without a husband and children a woman–even with all the anatomical parts–is simply not a woman at all.
“Right now I am nothing. I was nothing and I am nothing. I was never a man and never a woman. I was a wife and now I will not be a wife anymore. When he takes my children away from me, I will not be a mother, to whom of I have value? Can you tell me–to whom?” (Nordberg, 261)
At almost 25, with no husband and no children, I would surely be an outlier.
Like many of the women documented in the book, however, I too draw a deep correlation between physical attractiveness and attention from men to womanhood.
Without long hair, curves and a boyfriend, I of course, would still be a woman. So how can more women healthily identify themselves without feeling somehow obligated to have husbands, children, flowing locks and hairless, hourglass-shaped bodies?
I don’t plan on cutting my hair anytime soon, I like working out because it makes me feel strong and one day I would like to be a wife and mom. Those things, while contributors to a sense of joy and self-confidence, should never make a woman feel like nothing in the absence of them.
My womanhood is intelligence, compassion, strength, and spiritual mindfulness. It is respect for my body, my mind and my soul.
I am somebody, and woman, so are you.