Speech Object #3 (from The Bacha Posh Project)
Magnifying lens, convex mirror, wire, dimensions variable, 2018.
”Now this is a fascinating story, really fascinating! How did you first learn about the bacha posh?
I was in Afghanistan to do an entirely different story. I happen to be talking to two twin girls, they were ten years old and their mother was a parliamentarian and one of them said our brother is a girl, he’s our sister. At that point I had no idea and I thought we had a miscommunication. I was afraid to bring it up with their mother for a while, because I thought that if it is true maybe I’m not supposed to know about it and that this is a family secret.
Part of the story is intimate interviews with these families, exclusive individual interviews. How did you gain their confidence to talk about this story?
It takes time, the first thing is to find them. It’s hard to be introduced to families, every Afghan will know someone or heard of someone and slowly through a chain of introductions you might be able to visit a family finally. And then you take it slow, very carefull, very respectfull, sometimes they wanted to interview me before I could speak to them. This is each families private matter, you don’t usually get involved in other familie’s businesses there. You can’t just walk in and say I understand that your son is actually a girl, now tell me about it. It takes a while, it takes building of trust and many cups of tea and patience.
Is this phenomenon, does it cut across all economic classes or is it mainly poor Afghanes who do this?
No, my research shows that this cuts across geographical lines, ethnicity, level of education, income, every family has a different reason for doing this. But what they all have in common is the need for a son. The lack of a son, but also it could be the need for a second son or a third son in the family.
Is their intention to deceive with this practice, do the families really believe that the outside world will think the daughter is a son or is it something that’s understood and accepted.
This is why I think of them as underground girls, they are right there in front of us, just under the surface, the point is more to disappear in the crowd, a form of shared deceit in Afghan society, everyone will know about this, it’s a don’t ask don’t tell type of thing.
This is a big change when a girl becomes a boy in a society that the UN calls the most dangareous country for women. How do they take, do they accept it, do they welcome it?
It’s a parent’s decision most of the time, it’s little children, they don’t really have a choice, they’re nurtured as boys, as sons, they will have little to do with other girls, they will be seeing more the sky, being out, riding bikes, flying kites, moving around, jumping and running, the way little girls don’t do, this a nature versus nurture experiment if you will, they won’t know much else, the hard part comes later when they are presumed and expected to become girls again.
What happens then? The transformation back to girls after they’ve lived as boys. The subjects that you covered how did they respond to it?
That’s where the resistance comes in to. Most commonly they are turned back to girls before puberty, because then they are supposed to take the traditional trajetory of Afghan women to get married and have children of their own. Some girls try to push it to stay longer as boys and young men because they see how girls are treated and they don’t wanna go there they don’t wanna do that. And they frankly know of nothing else, why would they want the world to shut down again.
Is this practice subversive of the patriarchical society, does it change it or does it enable it?
Both, there is an element of resistance, there are practical reasons mostly, sometimes they are supersticious, sometimes it will enable freedom of movement, or for girls to go to school, you could say it’s a concession to an impossible society that doesn’t value girls and women. My main character said to me: I wanted to show my youngest what life is like on the other side. So there is certainly an element of resistance to that.
Modified transcript of an interview with Jenny Nordberg, author of “The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan”