Dancing in the Mosque is a memoir of the author’s experiences growing up in Afghanistan during the war with Russia and then under severe oppression by the Taliban. Interspersed with details of her childhood, teenage years, marriage and eventual emigration are letters written to her son. The child was forcibly removed from Homeira by his father while still an infant, and the author’s motherhood revoked by the courts. Women have few rights in this riven country. Any abuse they suffer – and the abuse detailed here is both shocking and horrific – is blamed on their existence and behaviour.
For all that women in the UK complain about how they are treated by some men – and in saying this I do not deny that much could be improved – this book brings home how privileged we are that, thanks to the accident of birth, we live in a place where freedom and equality are still mostly aspired to. From an early age Homeira was aware that she and her sisters were not valued as highly as their brothers. The stories told to girls in childhood encouraged them to be quietly compliant and follow the rules that oppressed them. Boys, on the other hand, were told stories of adventure, hunting and exciting feats of derring-do.
“My grandmother believed that one of the most difficult tasks that the Almighty can assign anyone is being a girl in Afghanistan”
The war with Russia provided the scaffolding within which the author’s childhood was experienced. Her extended family lived together, as was tradition, and regularly retreated to the basement when aerial bombardment and tank attack caused further destruction to already badly razed infrastructure. Some family members went off to fight. Others became casualties of the regular, local gun attacks.
Homeira has always been something of a rebel, sneaking outside to see what was going on despite the danger. She climbed trees with her brother, the family prince who would mock and berate her. Although fearful for where such behaviour might lead, she received support from her parents, including when she wanted to write stories. There were books in their home until banned by the Taliban.
The tales recounted of deaths are obviously distressing but I found it harder to read of the abuse Homeira suffered at the hands of men. Girls were encouraged or compelled to stay at home, venturing out only when absolutely necessary and then chaperoned by a male relative. As a young teenager and at great personal risk, the author set up a secret school to try to tackle the growing illiteracy problem amongst children denied access to an education. She also wished to pursue her own writing and needed help with this. Even shrouded in her burqa she was regarded as a legitimate target by random male predators.
“I know that Islam has been turned into an instrument of retribution. It has been turned into a stone with which to strike people, especially women.”
As in so many religious organisations, the so called holy men were able to abuse children sent to them for indoctrination. It was necessary for boys to give witness statements if this behaviour became too blatant as female voices were not listened to. Silence and docility were required of them, with severe punishments meted out for non compliance.
“Your mother’s name does not appear in any paper document. My son, in your motherland the mentioning of a woman’s name outside the family circle is a source of shame.”
Afghanistan is portrayed as a beautiful country populated by a people who follow hate filled rules and traditions. What few freedoms a young girl may enjoy are curtailed once her breasts begin to show – her body is a source of shame that must be kept hidden. Girls are required to marry soon after they become capable of bearing children. Only their boy babies are valued. Polygamy is accepted as a right men may exercise.
“Do you know how painful it is to hear that even my own family members consider you “his” son and not mine? Do they mean to hurt me, or are they just victims of the law and the patriarchal traditions?”
Mention is made of the high suicide rate among young Afghan women. Homeira was witness to the self-immolation of friends. Despite all this she pursued her own activism and education, determined to write her stories and have them published under her own name.
The reader is told early in the story that the author now lives in America. Her journey to here – via Kabul, Herat, as a refugee and then student over the border in Iran before returning to Kabul – focuses on her early life and then marriage, with a brief, wider biography provided at the end. This paperback edition includes an afterword written after the Taliban returned to power in 2021.
“Like millions of others, I helplessly watched as our country fell to the dark forces inch by inch and we could not do a thing about it.”
There are certain gaps in this memoir – people mentioned whose outcomes are not detailed, and how Homeira adapted to life as an immigrant. What comes through powerfully though is the damage wreaked when females are treated as chattels to be subdued or disposed of. The author may have survived rebellious behaviour but at lasting cost.
Any Cop?: This is an important work in raising understanding of the everyday suffering of those routinely oppressed and undervalued by family and the society in which they must live. It provides a bitter indictment of what Islamic faith has been twisted into. A memoir that is both fascinating and disturbing.