Scholars in Context: Homeira Qaderi
Jadaliyya's Scholars in Context series consists of Q&As in which scholars of the Middle East describe their research and the paths they took to arrive at it. The series provides a platform for these scholars to highlight the significance of their work, identify the audiences they seek to reach, and outline their future research trajectories, giving readers an in-depth look at the latest research in a given field.
Jadaliyya (J): What is the main focus of your current research, and how does it connect to or depart from your previous work?
Homeira Qaderi (HQ): These days I am working on a new novel called Tell Me Everything. This book focuses on the struggle of Afghan women to regain their place in society. In this story, several women try to help each other in misogynistic Afghan society to solve the countless problems they face at different stages of their struggle. They themselves are survivors of earlier wars in Afghanistan. In my memoir, titled Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to Her Son (Harper, 2020), I depicted the winding path of an Afghan woman by telling the story of my personal life events. This book may be considered a sequel, in so far as the women’s struggle is concerned.
In Dancing in the Mosque, I shared my own encounters and the suffering that I have experienced as an educated, empowered, and independent woman. That is why I decided to raise my own voice as the narrator. Perhaps I am the first Afghan woman who has written openly and frankly about her personal life and the violence that I have experienced in Afghanistan as a woman. Usually, women talk less about themselves because they are afraid of being harshly judged by society. In my memoir, I have broken the taboo of silence. There you see me face my struggle for survival. You see my attempt to preserve my identity. In Tell Me Everything, which is also based on a true story, I highlight the perseverance of women in the face of violence and suffering. This book portrays other women who fight for their survival and freedom. Together, these two books portray the lives of Afghan women who are subjected to violence in the city and the countryside, but do not give up their struggle trying to defend their rights. That is why I think that these two books are very similar in terms of their subject matter, although the two stories are told through different characters.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literature does it address?
HQ: In all my works, I deal with women's issues. Afghanistan is a very violent land. Women who want to cross taboos are stigmatized as Westernized. Extremist groups target pioneering women and those who escape the norm. That is why women have to remain silent. But in my books, I present models that cross the red lines of society. Lines that are drawn by men. Men are aware of the power of women, and that is why they constantly marginalize women to the sidelines of society, to consolidate their power. In my books, I introduce an army of women who are not afraid of rebellion, in the hope that they will raise thousands of soldiers to fight for the freedom of women.
The narrators of my stories are women. I believe that as a woman I can better explain the problems of other Afghan women and their strife and struggles. In the stories that men write about women, they usually repeat the traditional role of women in society. Our male writers also consider female role models to be the same women who have experienced violence. I believe that even our elite men still do not believe in gender equality; they prefer the role of their traditional mother to a university-educated mother. The definition of a good woman for them is a subordinate woman. With my writings, I am going to fight the established tradition by changing the archetype of Afghan women. A tradition that imprisons them at home. Breaking the walls that enslave women is never easy, but it has to start somewhere. For me, my pen is like the shovel that breaks the glass ceiling of society.
All my books pursue the same issue in one way or another. I believe that we Afghan women have not expressed ourselves adequately about the continuous struggles for gender equality in Afghanistan. That is why, after the fall of the Afghan regime in August 2021, the first question of most foreign journalists was: “Why didn't you fight for yourselves?”
J: What brought you to this work? What was the source of inspiration?
HQ: The first time the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, I was a young teenage girl with tons of hope. I had just survived the civil wars. I thought our lives would be comfortable from then on. We came out of the shelters, hoping that we could breathe in the fresh air at a time of peace and tranquility, but the Taliban sent us back to the basement shelters. Girls' schools were closed, and women were deprived of playing any role in society. It was a period of panic and suffocation. During the war, even though girls' schools were open, it was different and difficult for me. I was like a prisoner in my own house for five whole years. I did not know what kind of world existed outside the four walls of our living compound. I did not know how women in other countries around the world lived. In those lonely days of house confinement, I started reading books from my father's library. Sometimes I used to write, but the suppression of the Taliban era made me read and write more seriously. I was dreaming that someday I would have a collection of my own stories.
The suppression and deprivation I experienced as a woman forced me to search for my soul and for ways to express myself. In those days writing helped me survive and endure. I owe my life to literature, and I will write literature to promote the cause of women. I believe that the world does not know about our struggles, and it is partly our fault that we have not written enough stories about the suffering of the women of Afghanistan. I intend to do that.
J: What audiences would you like to reach, and what kind of impact would you like your research and writing to have?
HQ: Afghan women are brave. Afghan women are always hopeful. Afghan women know that they have the right to an equal society. They strive for this equality. However, the misreading of the religion and culture of Afghanistan’s male-dominated society has perpetuated this struggle. Women need support from international organizations and countries that believe in equal human rights. This lingering four-decade war has exhausted women. Therefore, my audience can be in any part of the world. My audience is gentle and resilient men who know that the world is going down the wrong path. I want many people to read the story of Afghan women and to think about ways they can help such brave and worthy women. I personally emphasize co-education for Afghan boys and girls. I want Afghan boys to help the girls of Afghanistan, beyond the misogynistic traditions of the past. We want to create a safe space for women in Afghanistan with the help of countries that have achieved gender equality through their own experiences. It is not necessary that every girl becomes a soldier from birth. We want to find ways to wean away boys from the prevalent misogynistic traditions. But this cannot be done unless and until the world knows about our problem.
Can my books make a small contribution to the world’s awareness of the conditions of Afghan women? I hope so. I am committed to that goal. That is why I write.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
HQ: I came to the United States from Afghanistan in August 2021. In those days, I was working on the book Tell Me Everything in English, and I also decided on my collection of short stories called “Towards the Land of the Sparrows,” written in Farsi. I intended to publish that book in Farsi in Afghanistan, but the situation there has changed so much that I doubt I will ever be able to publish a book in Afghanistan. So, I decided to publish it in Iran. These days I am working on an introduction for this book. This introduction will talk about the chaotic cultural situation in Afghanistan these days and why I can no longer publish a book in Afghanistan.