Jenny Nordberg lectures at Chatham

In partnership with several prominent Pittsburgh organizations, Chatham University’s Women’s Institute brought investigative journalist, Pulitzer Prize winning contributing author, lecturer, soon-to-be professor, and highly regarded author of groundbreaking book “The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan” Jenny Nordberg to Chatham University.

Imagine if the news of whether or not you would have a son or daughter meant more than if you would be decorating a nursery in pink or blue. If it determined not just the choice between “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl” signs at baby showers, but the status of your family. If being a girl determined everything about your life the moment you were born, from whether or not you would get an education to what sort of diet you would have.

Nordberg took the audience back to 2009, when she was in her own words heartbroken, angry, and still covering the United States’ long lasting War On Terror. The journalist, being interested in the “women’s issue,” observed American politicians’ tendency to use Afghan women as pieces in a never ending game of political chess — the “liberation” of Afghan women being a constant selling point.

Feeling troubled by the crimes being committed against women — “against my own kind, in my own time” — Nordberg convinced her editor to send her abroad.

As a reporter Nordberg spent time talking to anyone who was willing to speak with her. From victims to activists to the wealthy to the poor to the devout, trying to go outside of the categories in which Americans see Afghan women: fundamentalists and the oppressed.

While researching and attempting to challenge her own perceptions as well as western perceptions of the Middle East, Nordberg wound up speaking with Azita, one of the few Afghan women who had made her way into parliament. During a routine interview, while speaking with the parliamentary member and her daughters, she learned something surprising. Despite all appearances her youngest child was not a little boy, but a girl.

To be clear this child and children like her are not what most Americans would consider transgender, but a bacha posh. The literal translation of that term is “dressed up like a boy.”

Why would a parent do this? Not being able to produce a son is seen as a failure — something that impacts a woman’s credibility and “usefulness.”

“All you have for security as a parent is your son,” Nordberg explained to the captivated audience.

There are a number of reasons why families (with the fathers on board) chose this route for their daughters: for status, for their children to have a chance at getting an education, so that female children can travel freely either as boys or with their “brother,” and to help provide an income for a family.

However, as the author would explain, there is an expiration date on the freedom being a boy will provide. Once puberty takes away this façade, the girls who have spent years pretending to be boys must be thrust back into womanhood — womanhood that must happen without the benefit of having really gotten to be a young girl.

Through pictures and anecdotes Nordberg explained the after effect of being a bacha posh. Some never want to “turn back,” unwilling to give up their freedom. Some are able to successfully transition and, because of the confidence acquired growing up male, know their value in one of the most sex segregated places on earth.

Although this may seem unorthodox while telling this story about gender that turned into a story about oppression, the journalist who spent so much time with these women and girls wanted to make it clear that this is not something parents do lightly or cruelly.

It is simply that, “Living in a rigid society makes for creativity,” Nordberg said.

She went on to point out that the practice of “passing” for a not subjugated group of people is not something exclusive to Afghanistan.  

Nordberg was candid throughout the lecture, from her discussion of feeling protective of her subjects, to the surprise she felt when she was told by an Afghan woman that she herself was a man (because she was well educated and free to go where she wanted when she wanted).

The experience was enlightening for Nordberg, and her talk was enlightening for all those who ventured to Chapel Hill to hear her speak.

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