What a fascinating read!

Jenny Nordberg is a Swedish journalist who goes to Afghanistan in search of one story, and finds something completely different. What she uncovers, bit by bit, is an ancient custom that bends all the rules of this highly stratified society and allows its most oppressed, suppressed, abused members a few years of freedom.

The book follows several Afghani women who’ve lived part of their lives – usually young childhood – as boys. The reasons are varied and complex. Sometimes, it’s like a good luck charm meant to ensure that the next child will be a boy. Sometimes, it’s a mother’s attempt to give a daughter self-confidence. Sometimes, the family needs money for food and there’s nobody else who can work.

It’s a sad book, made absolutely tragic when we meet one woman’s father and see how difficult his choices were, too.

I love how, in typically Nordic fashion, Nordberg states hard truth bluntly. She gives no quarter or concession. Nothing is sugar-coated. Naturally, some of the hardest are about Afghanistan, and deservedly so. Equally deserved are the hard truths she also tells about Europe and North America. It’s jarring, in a refreshing, wake-you-up kinda way, to be reminded that the comfortable line we draw between ‘them’ and ‘us’ isn’t as well-defined as we might think.

Nordberg blunts that edge a bit with individual stories to help us connect. She wastes no effort on the fiction of journalistic objectivity, choosing instead to immerse herself and us in a totally compelling phenomenon.

Don’t get me wrong: Nordberg journalistic rigour shines through in every question she asks, every fact she checks, every lead she chases down. Somehow, she balances the two – the personal and the professional – with exquisite precision.

I didn’t have high hopes for The Underground Girls of Kabul, based on descriptions. But I loved it. Absolutely worth a read.