Imagine that your family, your community, your country, valued your gender so little that in order to live a life past the walls of your house, you would have to live as a male.
That’s the very real situation Afghan women find themselves in. The practice of a daughter living as a son, as a bachem posh has been spotlighted in The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg and serves as the inspiration for Nadia Hashim’s The Pearl That Broke Its Shell.
I want to read the former but it’s the latter that we’re talking about today.
Rahima is the third in a family of five daughters. Her father is addicted to opium and “works” for a notorious warlord in the area. Her mother makes the decision for Rahima to become Rahim, free to attend school and to run errands for the family that make all the difference for them. Women are forced to live inside the walls of the family home, they are governed by incredibly strict rules of conduct which means that it’s rare for women to be seen out on the streets. If they are outside, they are covered in a burqa. But rather than having Rahim blend into the streets as just another high-energy boy, she attracts the attention of the warlord with disasterous consequences for her and her sisters.
Rahima isn’t the first woman in the family to live as a bachem posh. Generations earlier, her great-great-grandmother Shekiba found herself doing the same thing, under very different circumstances. Rahima’s outspoken, crippled aunt tells her the story of Shekiba, who as a child was burnt on half of her face and ends up being the lone survivor of her family after an outbreak of cholera. Her uncles and grandmother give her away as a servant to another family who then give her away to the King. At the palace she finds herself living as a man, guarding the King’s harem.
Through Rahima and Shekiba we see different eras of Afganistan’s history come to life. The story weaves back and forth, chapter by chapter, between Rahima and Shekiba’s lives. I will confess to being a little annoyed by that – I wanted more time with each woman. It felt a bit like just relaxing in your favourite chair only to be pulled back out of it because the doorbell rings.
But there was a lot to redeem this book for me. Rahima is hungry to experience the world, to be a part of rebuilding Afghanistan and when she finds herself in Kabul she takes advantage of a resource centre set up just for Afghan women to learn. When she learns how to use a computer for the first time, when just learning how a mouse works excites her so much, I burst into tears. Something so small, something we take for granted, gave her so much hope.
This book is full of horrible things happening to women as a matter of course. Beatings at the hands of relatives are normal, husbands raping their wives, women being stoned for adultery, giving away female relatives to pay debts – none of these things are strange. Rahima and Shekiba both have to learn to navigate the world on their own, praying that their husbands won’t beat them too much, hoping to bear sons because daughters are worthless.
After reading The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, I definitely want to read The Underground Girls of Kabul. And I want to do something concrete that will help girls like them. If you feel the same way, consider donating to any of these worthy organizations: