In The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, journalist Nordberg investigates the secret world of the bacha posh—girls who are dressed and raised as boys by their parents—to understand Afghanistan’s harsh culture of gender apartheid.

What’s behind this unusual custom?

It’s rooted in extreme gender segregation. In Afghanistan, sons are what count. Land is inherited through males, men work and take care of families, and women don’t participate in public life. If a family has only daughters, it’s a failure. Making others think that there is a son raises a family’s stature; the mother is seen as a complete woman and the husband, a real man.

What happens when a girl becomes a bacha posh?

It’s like opening a door to the world. A bacha posh can do all the things a girl can’t: go outside, work, hang out with boys, ride a bike, climb a tree. She’s not a vulnerable creature who needs to be locked up. Some mothers say, “I want her to see what life is like on the other side”—it’s a kind of subversive resistance, and concession, to an impossible system of patriarchy.

You write about an adult bacha posh who went out driving one day wearing a woman’s head scarf. What happened?

Male drivers honked their horns and hollered, “You shouldn’t be driving!” They even tried to force her off the road. Women are allowed to drive, but it’s just not done. It’s a freedom of movement that women are not supposed to have.

A central figure in the book is Azita, who was elected to Afghanistan’s parliament yet still subject to her husband’s physical abuse.

Her success is the story we want to hear about Afghan women, but there are more layers to her life. She’s married to this man, they have four children, and there’s a second wife and child. Azita has gone as far as a woman possibly can in Afghanistan, but she still functions within a culture of pervasive domestic violence. She told me, “We’re fighting for human rights here, but I can’t change my husband.”

What do Afghans make of Western women like you—are you a kind of bacha posh to them?

To Afghan women, I have all the male characteristics! The way I walk, for example. When you wear a burqa you have to tip-toe or you’ll trip. You’re supposed to be very small in your physical presence, so you bow your head and take small steps like you’re not supposed to be there. A man will stride forward with big steps, going somewhere specific and looking straight at other people—that’s how I walked, according to Afghans. They thought the way I speak is assertive and probing: I don’t lower my voice, I don’t seem embarrassed, and I don’t giggle. If I put my hands on my hips women would say, “Oh, don’t do that! That’s very rude. It’s a sign that you’re demanding something.” Which it is! Like Pippi Longstocking, you put your hands on your hips and go, “Yeah, I’m here now!”