(WOMENSENEWS)–We move back into the living room, where she pulls out two albums from under a rickety little desk. The children look at these photos often. They tell the story of how Azita’s family came to be.
A few album pages later, the twins pose with Azita’s mother, a woman with high cheekbones and a strong nose in a deeply lined face. Both Benafsha and Beheshta blow kisses onto their bibi-jan, who still lives with their grandfather in the northwest of Afghanistan. Soon, a third little girl makes her appearance in the photos. Middle sister Mehrangis has pigtails and a slightly rounder face. She poses next to the twin mini-Azitas, who suddenly look very grown up in their white ruffle dresses.
Azita flips the page: Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in 2005. Four little girls in cream-colored dresses. All ordered by size. The shortest has a bow in her hair. It is Mehran. Azita puts her finger on the picture. Without looking up, she says: "You know my youngest is also a girl, yes? We dress her like a boy."
I glance in the direction of Mehran, who has been skidding around the periphery as we have talked. She has hopped into another chair and is talking to the plastic figurine again.
"They gossip about my family. When you have no sons, it is a big missing, and everyone feels sad for you."
Azita says this as if it is a simple explanation.
Having at least one son is mandatory for good standing and reputation here. A family is not only incomplete without one; in a country lacking rule of law, it is also seen as weak and vulnerable. So it is incumbent upon every married woman to quickly bear a son–it is her absolute purpose in life, and if she does not fulfill it, there is clearly something wrong with her in the eyes of others. She could be dismissed as a dokhtar zai, or "she who only brings daughters." Still, this is not as grave an insult as what an entirely childless woman could be called—a sanda or khoshk, meaning "dry" in Dari. But a woman who cannot birth a son in a patrilineal culture is—in the eyes of society and often herself—fundamentally flawed.
The literacy rate is no more than 10 percent in most areas, and many unfounded truths swirl around without being challenged. Among them is the commonly held belief that a woman can choosethe sex of her unborn baby simply by making up her mind about it. As a consequence, a woman’s inability to bear sons does not elicit much sympathy. Instead, she is condemned both by society and her own husband as someone who has just not desired a son strongly enough. Women, too, often resort to blaming their own bodies and weak minds for failing to deliver sons.
The character flaws often add up about such a woman in the eyes of others: She is surely difficult and obnoxious. Perhaps even evil. The fact that the fatheractually determines the sex of a child, as the male sperm carries the chromosome makeup for each child and determines whether a boy or a girl will be born, is unknown to most.
For Azita, the lack of a son stood to impede all she was trying to accomplish as a politician. When she arrived with her family in Kabul in 2005, sneers and suspicion about her lack of a son soon inevitably extended to her abilities as a lawmaker and a public figure. Her visitors would offer their condolences when they learned about her four daughters. She found herself being cast as an incomplete woman. Fellow parliamentarians, constituents and her own extended family were unsympathetic: How could she be trusted to accomplish anything at all in politics when she could not even give her husband a son? Without a boy to show off to the constant stream of visiting political power brokers, her husband also grew increasingly embarrassed.
Azita and her husband approached their youngest daughter with a proposition: "Do you want to look like a boy and dress like a boy and do more fun things like boys do, like bicycling, soccer and cricket? And would you like to be like your father?"
She absolutely did. It was a splendid offer.
All it took was a haircut, a pair of pants from the bazaar, and a denim shirt with "superstar" printed on the back. In a single afternoon, the family went from having four daughters to being blessed with three little girls and a spiky-haired boy. Their youngest would no longer answer to Mahnoush, meaning "moonlight," but to the boy’s name Mehran. To the outside world—and especially to Azita’s constituents back in Badghis—the family was finally complete.
Gaining More Approval
Some, of course, knew the truth. But they, too, congratulated Azita. Having a made-up son was better than none, and people complimented her on her ingenuity. When Azita traveled back to her province—a more conservative place than Kabul—she took Mehran with her. In the company of her 6-year-old son, she found she was met with more approval.
The switch also satisfied Azita’s husband. Tongues would now cease to wag about this unlucky man burdened with four daughters, who would need to find husbands for all of them, and have his line end with him. In Pashto, Afghanistan’s second official language, there is even a deprecating name for a man who has no sons: He is a meraat, referring to the system where an inheritance, such as land assets, is almost exclusively passed on through a male lineage. But since the family’s youngest took on the role of a son the child has become a source of pride to her father. Mehran’s revised status has also afforded her siblings considerably more freedom, as they can leave the house, go to the playground, and even wander to the next block, if Mehran is along as an escort.
There was one additional reason for the transition. Azita says it with a burst of low laughter, leaning in a little closer to disclose her small act of rebellion: "I wanted to show my youngest what life is like on the other side."
That life can include flying a kite, running as fast as you can, laughing hysterically, jumping up and down because it feels good, climbing trees to feel the thrill of hanging on. It is to speak to another boy, to sit with your father and his friends, to ride in the front seat of a car and watch people out on the street. To look them in the eye. To speak up without fear and to be listened to, and rarely have anyone question why you are out on your own in comfortable clothes that allow for any kind of movement. All unthinkable for an Afghan girl.
But what will happen when puberty hits?
"You mean when he grows up?" Azita says, her hands tracing the shape of a woman in the air. "It’s not a problem. We change her into a girl again."
Adapted from "The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan." Copyright © 2014 by Jenny Nordberg. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Jenny Nordberg is an award-winning journalist based in New York with a long record of investigative reports for, among others, the New York Times, where she contributed to a series that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. She has reported extensively from Europe and the Middle East, and in 2010, she was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism for a television documentary on Afghan women. Follow her on Twitter @nordbergj.
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