Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother's Letter to Her Son

Image of Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother's Letter to Her Son
Release Date: 
December 1, 2020
Reviewed by: 

Homeira Qaderi’s Dancing in the Mosque starts with a mother’s “Once Upon a Time” folkloric Afghan fable for her son about a magical lamp that will grant his wishes. But then she writes about the harsh realities of her life of war, oppression, poverty, and heartache. And about why his mother is in exile, living in California and forbidden to see her only son. 

Qaderi is a rebellious young girl in the brutally patriarchal culture and of her generation “of dejected and disgruntled youth, waiting forever for dreams that will never come true.” She grows up in perpetually war-torn region of Afghanistan, during the Russian occupation and when those tanks and the country plunge into civil war as different factions take over and the mujahedeen seize her town. Women are forbidden to be out in public and are considered the property of their husband, father, or religious elder. After the Taliban seizes the town and closes the schools, girls and women are ordered to read only the Quran and forbidden to go unescorted by a male after they reach puberty.    

Young women are consigned to spend their time embroidering, studying the Quran, and waiting to hear their fates in arranged marriages, often bartered to much older men of wealth. 

Qaderi rejects that fate and secretly starts to teach the other girls how to read and write in the makeshift tent as the women’s mosque, where they are only supposed to be studying the Quran. To avoid being caught learning other things by Taliban patrols, the students are ready to recite sacred prayers when Qaderi signals them. She is so committed to teaching that she even lets some boys in the class, also forced to study only Islamic law and Islamic militancy.

Her classes are discovered by a Taliban conscripted soldier, but he keeps it quiet. He becomes a sort of lookout, and they strike up a furtive friendship. Later, when she expresses her anger at the Taliban oppression, the youth tells her he was forced to join. He tells her he couldn’t read or write and desperately wants to write to his mother to tell her how he is doing.

Predictably, as more girls start to come to the makeshift tent classroom, it is more at risk of being exposed, so Qaderi switches her classes to the women’s bathhouse that is decidedly more private.

She rallies for her students to petition the ruling Amir to reopen the town’s schools. A small band marches to his compound to protest but is stopped at the gates by soldiers who threaten their lives and order them back to their homes.  

Qaderi gives an unflinching account of her family members and friends as they live in constant fear of being tortured, killed, or disappeared. Qaderi writes of the closeness of her brothers and sisters and the courage of her parents, who nurture the quest for their daughter to “tell her stories,” as they try to protect her from the dire realities of their lives.

Even in the constant environment of violence and oppression, the girls and women seize moments of joy, breaking out in traditional dances in the bathhouse/classroom, despite the brutalities of a patriarchal clerics who oppress and forbid any form of equality for Afghan women. Qaderi recounts two incidents of being stalked and physically assaulted by elder men in her neighborhood when she is a teenager.

At age 17, Qaderi is about to be forced into a marriage to a Taliban commander, but the wedding is delayed when he is sent to a military hotspot. Then she is betrothed to a young, Afghan businessman with more liberated views of women’s roles. He is able to build their life in Tehran, Iran, that was for a time a more liberated city. Qaderi becomes a full-fledged teacher and starts to publish her books.

Her husband decides to move to Afghanistan to pursue a political career; once there he embraces the strictures of Islamic repression of women’s roles. When he tells her he will be taking a second wife, something she refuses to accept, he declares they are divorced just by saying the word three times. And he and the state forbid her to have any contact with her infant son.

Qaderi seeks asylum in the US. Now an internationally acclaimed author, she continues to be a vocal activist for women’s rights in Afghanistan. This is the author’s first book published in English.

Qaderi’s escape to freedom comes at the terrible cost of being ripped from her newborn child. It is ultimately a gut-wrenching journey of courage and sacrifice. Dancing in the Mosque is a very private memoir addressed to her son, published as an open letter to him because it may be the only way he will eventually know the truth of how their lives have been brutally torn apart.