“The girl who writes must read stories.”
—Homeira Qaderi’s father
Homeira Qaderi’s 2020 memoir, Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to her Son, is a reminder of the power of storytelling and the commitment and sacrifices made by women like her. It is also an evocative portrait of life in Afghanistan outside the Western war narrative.
Qaderi’s profoundly personal story intersperses letters to her young son, who was taken from her when he was nineteen months old, with vignettes about her life in Afghanistan. The separation marks the sad climax to the tale of a girl growing up being asked why she wasn’t like the other village girls when she dared to question why she didn’t get the same food as her brother or wasn’t allowed to play in the fields. From her point of view, it didn’t matter who was in power—the lives of girls and women did not change that much.
The bulk of the book is a series of vignettes, beginning in childhood, that shows how the author ended up at the turning point that led to the loss of her son. She runs across a pedophile religious instructor and witnesses a Russian soldier assaulting a neighbour girl. And as a brave, intelligent teenager, Qaderi chafes against the harsh rule of the Taliban and struggles to get an education. Finally, her mother urges her to begin secret classes for students in the neighbourhood. Soon, with the rest of her family as co-conspirators, she starts a school inside the tent that serves as a neighbourhood mosque.
Without minimizing the impact of misogyny, Qaderi’s sketches show how conflicted many Afghans are about their society’s religious and social conservatism. For example, at significant personal risk, a male professor agreed to teach a secret writing class in her impromptu school. Her father is an avid book lover who buried his library under a tree for safekeeping when the Taliban took power. However, he digs up his books when his tenacious daughter demonstrates her literary talent, saying, “the girl who writes must read stories.” Despite their constant fear of punishment by the Taliban, her parents do their best to support her quest.
Despite their support for their daughter, Qaderi’s parents did expect her to compromise to fit into society. So, at seventeen, she entered into an arranged marriage. Qaderi’s husband initially had liberated views. She grew to love him when they moved to Tehran, where he supported her writing and teaching. After he decided to pursue a political career in Afghanistan, however, his position on the role of women changed. When Qaderi refused to accept his plan to take a second wife, he divorced her by text message. Then, he and his new wife took her son and told the child his mother was dead.
Ultimately, Qaderi’s story has a bittersweet denouement after the publication of her memoir. Following a two-year court battle, she reunited with her son. When Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021, they sought refuge in the US, but her extended family remains in Afghanistan. Now an internationally acclaimed author, she continues to be a vocal activist for Afghan women.
Dancing in the Mosque is worthwhile reading for anyone who wants to understand Afghanistan beyond the headlines.