A life unconquered by Taliban rule in ‘Dancing in the Mosque’

As a girl, Homeira Qaderi watched the Taliban take over her home city in Afghanistan. As a young woman, she took a dangerous stand.  

HarperCollins Publishers
“Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother's Letter to Her Son” by Homeira Qaderi, Harper, 224 pp.

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.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to A life unconquered by Taliban rule in ‘Dancing in the Mosque’
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/Book-Reviews/2020/1215/A-life-unconquered-by-Taliban-rule-in-Dancing-in-the-Mosque
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe