Illustration: Jenny Williams

Women We Read This Week

Jenny Nordberg’s “The Afghan Girls Who Live as Boys” in The Atlantic

At school, Mahnoush is known as Mehran; at work, Niima is called Abdul Mateen. These girls do not know each other, but they do know what it is to have an open gateway into the world around them—as boys. They are bacha posh, girls dressed as boys, an uncommon but not unusual practice in Afghanistan, and the topic of “The Afghan Girls Who Live as Boys,” Jenny Nordberg’s feature in The Atlantic.

Nordberg introduces us to a few of these girls, who inevitably represent many others. We begin to learn the individual whys behind their temporary transformations: to get an education, to keep a family together, to keep a family fed. Their stories, though, are not historically singular. Nordberg reminds us of this, but also raises a question. She wonders, “Who would not walk out the door in disguise—if the alternative was to live as a prisoner or slave?” The piece, adapted from her forthcoming book, The Underground Girls of Kabul, left me contemplating freedom, gender, and having to choose between the two in a society where these girls have little control of either.


Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist

Roxane Gay’s essay collection, Bad Feminist, accumulates Gay’s popular writing on sites like The Rumpus, Salon, and BuzzFeed with new work, all radiating from the same brilliant centerpoint: what it means to be a bad feminist, to live and name feminism’s failings along with its triumphs. With unrelenting self-disclosure as well as a sweeping, keen critical eye, Gay acknowledges her education and upward mobility as benefits of feminism’s influence, yet also acknowledges how feminism has fallen short for her as a queer woman, a black woman, a child of immigrants. Voraciously, she tears apart subjects ranging widely but intersectionally: the privilege wars and Lena Dunham’s Girls; Sweet Valley High, likeability, and the paradigm of the Cool Girl; rape culture and The Help. Blending memoir and criticism, name-checking her peers and besting her predecessors, Gay veritably creates a new genre of feminist theory: an obsessively readable chronicle of how one woman’s feminism has felt to live it, feminism itself as a living thing, as flawed and earnest as ourselves.

“I try to keep my feminism simple,” Gay introduces her own anthemic, incisive voice in the title essay. “I know feminism is complex and evolving and flawed. I know feminism will not and cannot fix everything…I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves. I believe women not just in the US but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like.” Many of the essays are eminently quotable: “Some women being empowered does not prove the patriarchy is dead. It proves that some of us are lucky.” One might only hope that Gay’s own particular brand of wit, intelligence, reflection, and yes, luck, won’t end with Bad Feminist.

Laura Goode

Leslie Jamison’s “52 Blue” in The Atavist

In this e-single from The Atavist, Leslie Jamison tells the story of 52 Blue, also known as 52 Hertz – a male blue whale who sings at an unheard-of frequency for his species. Scientists have observed his annual migrations for more than two decades, and he always appears to be alone. He is, presumably, unable to communicate with other blue whales.

Over the years, 52 Blue has become an Internet phenomenon, and Jamison explores the community of people who’ve become attached to the whale: empathizing with its presumed loneliness, or admiring its individuality. Each of them has their own reasons for fixating on 52 Blue; each of them ascribes their own meaning to his story. And that, really, is what the story is about, more than the mystery whale itself: the ways in which we assign meaning to the natural world, depending on our own needs or desires. It’s a thoughtful read.


Claudia Smith’s “In My Clothes” in The Rumpus

“There is a pile of pretty dresses on my bed, hand-sewn, bright…” Beginning and ending with a dress, Claudia Smith takes us through a lifetime of sartorial choices. This essay details green smocking and embroidered ducks, Lilly Pulitzer pillowcases, soft bunny fur coats, waist-less school uniforms, watermelon prints and sailor patterns, Vanna White cream gowns, Doc Marten’s and burgundy cloches, gray and pink pencil skirts and handmade veils. There is no lack of lushness here and, like Gatsby’s rain of vibrant cotton dress shirts, Smith’s list builds and builds in meaning until all the cotton, silk, rayon, and polyester stands in for something else entirely. This essay includes a lifetime of clothing but it also includes more—the lifetime that fills that clothing, the transition of bodies, from birth to death—and the very naked way we live.



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