When Jenny Nordberg meets 10-year-old twins Benafsha and Beheshta at their home in Kabul and they tell her their younger brother Mehran is actually a girl, the New York-based journalist initially believes there has been a glitch in their English. It slowly transpires, however, that the spiky-haired, exuberant child is a result of Afghanistan’s covert tradition of : girls who dress as boys – at least until puberty, when they must relinquish their relative freedom for the crushing limitations of Afghan womanhood. Nordberg’s investigation into the phenomenon carefully unpicks the threads of history, religion, culture and economics that lead families to redefine their daughters as sons, and her findings repeatedly underscore the appallingly low status of women in , where the failure to produce sons is a matter of profound shame. Female and foreign, Nordberg often finds herself on shaky ground, yet she manages to reach into the silence to access the stories of the , conveying the textures of Kabul’s domestic life with the same delicacy and deftness she uses to untangle the gender politics of a damaged country.
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