When no one was looking, Homeira Qaderi added her own name to her son’s birth certificate. In Qaderi’s homeland of Afghanistan, it was a sign of heartbreaking defiance as well as love.
In “Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother's Letter to Her Son,” her lyrical new memoir and her first book written in English, Qaderi explains that the certificate originally listed her son’s name, his father’s name, and his grandfather’s name.
“I was irrelevant,” she writes to her son, Siawash, in one of several missives that frame the narrative. “I looked at you and I wanted to hide you back in my womb so that once again you could belong to me, too.”
We learn early in the book that Qaderi was torn away from Siawash when he was a toddler. Her husband divorced her when she opposed his plans to take a second wife – polygamy was common in his culture and allowed under Afghan law. The law also gave Qaderi no custodial rights; her son was told she was dead.
The bulk of Qaderi’s stories explain the beautiful and terrifying road that led her to that turning point, beginning in her childhood. They also wrestle with the ways in which a rebellious young girl tried to reconcile her love for family with life in a weaponized patriarchy. It’s hard to imagine at times how she faced her fears without breaking down under the pressure of it all. Like Malala Yousafzai, the women’s education advocate from Pakistan who was targeted by the Taliban as a schoolgirl, Qaderi takes on significant risks in the process.
In Afghanistan, her “Nanah-jan,” or grandmother, tells her “In this land, it is better to be a stone than to be a girl.” The saying hits home for Qaderi; she grew up during the Soviet-Afghan war with Russian tanks in the street, then lived in fear of Taliban soldiers wielding rifles as an adult.
Dangers and injustice shadow most phases of Qaderi’s girlhood, from encountering a pedophile religious instructor to the Taliban’s threat of a public whipping. Yet her stories are vivid and hopeful, with beauty and conviction – and, especially, bravery – outweighing despair.
When the Taliban take over Qaderi’s home city, Herat, in 1995, schools are closed to girls and women are beaten on the street “on any pretext.” Every night, Qaderi hears her mother crying. But in the day, her mother asks “Do you want to inherit only tears and weeping from me?” Instead, she urges Qaderi to turn their kitchen into a classroom and teach neighborhood girls. It is a dangerous plan for a 13-year-old girl, overseen by a mother who, despite her tears, embroiders colorful birds on cloth panels – defying the Taliban’s prohibition against any depiction of living things.
Qaderi goes on to teach a larger group of children in a mosque tent, and later challenges a group of young women to attend a life-threatening public protest in their burqas designed to make the Taliban to reopen their schools. A male professor, on her request, takes on the high-risk task of teaching a secret writing class.
For readers in countries that allow a greater degree of personal freedom, the risks and rewards of Qaderi’s life are especially poignant. Pastimes regarded as uncontroversial rights in many places – singing, dancing, even opening a book – are prohibited in Taliban-controlled Herat.
The family’s support can only go so far; they expect her to compromise as they have, settling into a life that is bearable if not happy. While they help her escape a frightening marriage to a Talib commander, they also support another match – when Qaderi is 17 – to a young man she does not meet until the ceremony is underway. Qaderi does come to love her husband and finds a haven of happiness and relative freedom in Tehran, where they both pursue higher education. However, little space is devoted to these nearly 15 years, making it harder to understand how her husband can so readily fall back into older traditions and so easily cast her off when they eventually do return to Afghanistan.
“I really owe him that he didn’t beat me even when I stood up to him,” Qaderi writes without sarcasm.
Through her eyes, the unbearable choice that led to her exile becomes understandable. It’s hard not to see Qaderi as a character in one of the fairy tales her grandmother tells her, or as one of the birds her mother created with needle and thread.
“She believed that one day, all those colorful birds would flap their wings and fly away, out of the stitches of the woven cloth into the clear blue sky.”