Masuma Ahuja can vividly recall what she wore on her first day of school in the United States: black jeans and a gray and orange T-shirt. It was the early 2000s and her family had just moved from India to Pittsburgh. She remembers a boy at her middle school asking her, on that very first day, about what she was wearing.
“He was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that you wore [Western] clothes in India,” she says. “He thought India was very much a place where there were snake charmers and elephants on the street.”
The India that her classmate had pictured was pulled from storybooks and fantasy — but the reality was that Ahuja grew up in more affluent neighborhoods of Mumbai and Bangalore. Those misconceptions about the lives of those in different places — especially women and girls — stuck with her as she went on to become a journalist at The Washington Post and CNN.
And it raised a question — what is life really like for girls around the world?
She sets out to answer it in her new book, Girlhood: Teenagers Around The World In Their Own Voices. Published in February, it captures snapshots of everyday life from 30 girls around the globe in the form of diary entries.
Article continues after sponsor message
There’s Claudie, a 13-year-old surfer from Pango Village in Vanuatu who dreams of becoming a lawyer; Halima, a 17-year-old from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, who listens to Celine Dion and helps her father peel potatoes for his job before school; Sattigul, a 16-year-old who comes from a family of nomadic herders in western Mongolia, loves her pet eagle and wants to one day be an English translator.
Diza Saxena, 16, lived in Mumbai when she wrote her entries in 2019 — but moved to Dubai in 2020. Her contributions to the book discussed her wish to be “cute, cool and popular” at her school in Mumbai. Saxena says girls at her new school aspire to the same qualities. “The kids that don’t fit into that standard are always alone,” she says. “But when I spent time with them, we had so much fun.”
NPR talkrf to Ahuja about the inspiration and process behind capturing the girls’ ordinary lives: their hopes, dreams, anxieties and frustrations. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you choose to focus on girls’ “ordinary” lives?
I was in South Asia bouncing around [reporting] and I realized very quickly that the ways in which [Western media] told stories of girls generally fell into some set buckets: sexualization, victimization, gender-based violence, which are really important stories to tell.
On the other side of it, we had a lot of stories about exceptional girls fighting back, girls like Malala [Yousafzai], Greta [Thunberg], Emma Gonzalez, [who rose to the spotlight after surviving the Parkland shooting and standing up against gun violence]. But the vast in-between is where most ordinary girls’ lives exist. And there just wasn’t any representation of that. So that’s part of the reason I wanted to do this.
Why did you decide to use diary entries as a format?
Diary entries felt like a very natural way to get girls to tell their own stories and have ownership about how their lives and stories are represented.
Can you share an example of a girl’s ordinary life that you highlight in the book? What makes that girl’s story so special?
Chen Xi from Singapore writes about staying up late finishing her homework, her school and her teachers, her love of poetry and books, and her hopes to study English literature in college. Her story is unique to her — shaped by her circumstances, her community, her culture and her interests — but it’s also deeply relatable, whether you’ve lived in Singapore or taken the classes she did in school.
Naya Sarah, 18, lives in Berlin. Her family moved there from Damascus, Syria when she was age 13 to escape the civil war. Her diary entries, written in 2019, chronicle her rigorous schedule in the International Baccalaureate program at her school. Her final exams for graduation ended up being cancelled because of the pandemic. And she’s worried about how the pandemic may limit her opportunities.
What is universally true about girls from reporting your book?
Despite the differences in circumstances, cultures and identities between the girls in this book, often the day-to-day texture of their lives looked similar:the types of conversations they had with friends and family; the things they worried about; their big hopes and dreams for the future. And while girls’ circumstances vary, girls everywhere are growing up in a world that is not equitable.
How did you connect with the girls and decide who would be in the book?
Some of the girls I [found] through NGOs [nonprofit organizations]. I didn’t want to ever approach a girl, like direct message her on Instagram and say, “Hey, do you want to do this?” I wanted to go through someone they trusted or knew. My only real requirement in looking for girls was I wanted to include people who felt comfortable sharing their lives and wanted to share their lives.
What kind of instructions or guidance did you provide for the diary entries?
Everyone got the same instructions in their own language, which were like, “Here are some things you can write about. Also, you are welcome to ignore all of my instructions and write about something entirely different,” which often happens. And then I would ask more questions about things I wanted to know more about.
But it really varied girl to girl. The girl in Baghdad — Ruqaya — she would text me in the evening and tell me what was going on with her, so her diary entries were sent to me in real time. But on the other hand, Shanai from New Jersey pulled out her journal and was like, “Hey, I’m going to l take photos of three entries I’m thinking of exploring. What sounds good to you?” We talked through what she wanted to include, what she felt comfortable with, and she just sent me photos of her journal.
Raksa Hong, 20, is the first person in her family to go to college. She attends the University of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Her entries in Girlhood from 2019 look back on a happy childhood that she can’t help but miss amid the stress of school. Reflecting on her entries now, she says she hopes it gives people a glimpse of the sacrifices she’s made to get to where she is today.
Were there any stories that particularly stood out to you or resonated with you in a special way?
The cheesy answer is that I feel like I relate to all the girls in some way, and that was really surprising. I have moved many times in my life — I’m an immigrant many times over — and I am living on a different continent from my family at the moment.
I think back a lot to the girls who wrote about homesickness and moving away from their families right now. I remember when we were going through final edits, the two girls whose entries really resonated with me at that time were Ruoxiao from China, who is in the U.K. studying, and Varvara from Russia, who wrote about her wish to leave home in Saransk for Moscow.
They both talked about the very specific longing to go to a new place and live a bigger life and thinking that big, exciting things are happening elsewhere. There’s so much for me to do and I just can’t wait for it.
What do you hope readers take away from Girlhood?
I hope that every reader will find themselves reflected in unexpected corners of their stories. And I hope that every girl who picks up the book recognizes that her voice is important and belongs in the pages of a book.