BY NAJLA M. SHAHWAN
SEP 19, 2022 – DAILY SABAH
Local teachers in Afghanistan reopen girls’ schools, defying the Taliban’s long-standing education ban
In defiance of the Taliban’s ban on education for girls, locals in one province of Afghanistan have started reopening high schools. Residents and rights activists in Afghanistan’s Paktia said that at least four secondary schools for girls in the provincial capital, Gardez, and one more in the Samkani district have been reopened by local academic staff and elders. On Sept. 18, 2021, a month after taking over the country, the Taliban ordered the reopening of boys’ secondary schools but made no mention of girls’ secondary schools. This was interpreted as a ban on girls’ secondary education. In several provinces, under community pressure, Taliban officials allowed girls’ secondary schools to reopen, but the vast majority of these schools remained closed and around 850,000 Afghan girls were banned from attending secondary schools, according to UNICEF figures.
On March 21, 2022, the Taliban announced that Afghan girls of all ages would be able to attend the new school year on March 23, confirming that all boys and girls would be returning to school and that all necessary accommodations would be made to make sure that Afghan girls would have access to a quality education. However, on the morning of that date when Afghan secondary school girls eagerly made their way to their classes across the country, they found that the ministry of education had reversed its decision, causing confusion, uncertainty and despair for girls who had already been denied access to education for months. The Taliban announced that girls’ schools would remain closed until further notice to “comply with Islamic law” and to “finalize things,” implying that the group hasn’t finalized its “comprehensive” guidelines for girls’ education.
News reports, photos and videos on social media and news outlets highlighted the immense upset that the reversal had caused. The last-minute reversal was too much for the girls to bear, shocked, heartbroken and despaired by the betrayal, the girls returned to their homes in tears, while some, went to the streets, demanding their right to education despite real threats of arrest. The decision also left Afghan families worried about their children’s future and their fundamental right to education.
In the following days, the decision also ignited anger and frustration among allies globally. Despite the de facto authorities’ assurances only days earlier that schools would reopen for girls above sixth grade, they had barred girls from further education.
“I was overjoyed at the prospect of continuing my studies and seeing classmates and teachers after seven months,” a middle school student from a remote province in southeast Afghanistan said. “In my dawn prayer, I praised Allah for answering my prayers to continue my studies … I walked to school as fast as I could, only to be turned away at gunpoint. The sadness and despair were overwhelming.”
Save the Children Afghanistan’s Acting Asia Regional Director, Olivier Franchi, said that “girls were absolutely shattered last month when they arrived at classes – excited for the new school year – and were told to go home. Since then, Save the Children has spoken with girls who say they are depressed and heartbroken at being denied their fundamental right to learn.”
What are the initiatives?
Even before the Taliban reversed its decision in reopening the girls’ schools, some community leaders took the initiative of continuing to educate girls at homes and other places away from the eyes of the Taliban. Many Afghan girls were not waiting for the Taliban government to change their minds nor were their teachers. In Kabul, the rural province of Parwan and the western city of Herat alike, women were running secret schools and were also finding loopholes around the Taliban’s ban on girls attending secondary education, by operating girls’ madrassas – religious schools – or tutoring centers that essentially replicate high school courses.
“The fact that people have found all of these different ways to try to work around the Taliban ban is an indication of how desperately people want education for themselves, for their daughters, for the girls in their families,” said Heather Barr, who closely tracks violations against women and girls in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch.
While some governments may let poor girls fall through the cracks of the school system or have educational or general policies that discriminate against girls, only Afghanistan has banned girls’ secondary education outright, Barr said. “The Taliban should be deeply ashamed that they’ve made Afghanistan the only country in the world that’s denying girls access to education based on their gender,” she said. After the Taliban reneged on their promise to let girls return to secondary school in late March, Nazanin decided to open her small school and those close to her pitched in. She described her thinking at the time: “If we follow the Taliban, we’d just stay home. No. We have to do something.” Her family helped transform a spare room in their house and painted it in warm yellow while her grandmother donated a rug and friends provided books. Nazanin teaches grades seven and eight as well as art, while her cousin teaches the older grades and a close friend handles the English class.
It’s not clear how many Afghan girls are in secret schools or otherwise finding ways to educate themselves, but it is almost certain that it is only a fraction of the 850,000 girls who were banned from schools and who live in parts of Afghanistan where secondary schools have closed. According to UNICEF figures from 2019, which was the last time a school census was conducted, there were 1.1 million girls in secondary school. Some 250,000 of those girls live in provinces where secondary schools are still operational.
The education system
The Taliban’s ban is the latest blow to the country’s education system that has been devastated by more than three decades of sustained conflict. Although access to education and enrollment has improved dramatically since 2001, UNICEF estimated that as many 3.7 million children were still out of school in Afghanistan in 2018 and that 60% of them are girls. Girls are significantly less likely to attend school than boys across all ages, but the barriers to education increase when girls reach adolescence, driven by multiple social and cultural obstacles.
“The underlying reasons for low girls’ enrolment are insecurity, traditional norms and practices related to girls’ and women’s role in the society,” UNICEF said. “Other reasons can be explained in part by a lack of female teachers, especially in rural schools. Certain sociocultural factors and traditional beliefs also undermine girls’ education. Girls continue to marry very young – 17% before their 15th birthday,” it added.
The latest actions by the Taliban threaten to reverse the progress of the last two decades, with Afghanistan now the only nation in the world that forbids girls’ education. Many fear that these moves signal an inevitable return of the regime of the 1990s, when the Taliban severely restricted girls’ and women’s rights.
The question of girls’ education appears to have been tangled in behind-the-scenes differences among the Taliban. Some in the movement support returning girls to school – whether because they see no religious objection to it or because they want to improve ties with the world. Others, especially rural, tribal elders who make up the backbone of the movement, staunchly oppose it. The Taliban’s hardcore loyalists demanded the ban in accordance with the conservative tradition that girls should stay home while the ban isn’t applied in a handful of provinces where community leaders, typically men, voice support for girls’ education.
The ban, paradoxically enough, does not apply to colleges either. That has led to a surreal situation in Afghanistan where teenage girls must stay home, but a young woman lucky enough to have been in college when the Taliban seized power can still legally pursue her degree. The Taliban’s messaging around girls’ education has lacked cohesion from the moment the group took power. Many of their declarations have been simply contradictory, indicating division within the Taliban leadership and a lack of consensus on national policies.
In August 2021, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said the new regime was “committed to the rights of women” within the context of its strict interpretation of Islamic mandates. “Our sisters and our men have the same rights,” Mujahid said. In mid-September 2021, however, only boys were permitted to return to class and the status of girls went completely unaddressed. In December, acting Deputy Education Minister Abdul Hakim Hemat said in a BBC interview that girls would not be allowed to attend secondary school until a new education policy was approved. Officials advocating a “safe learning environment” for girls offered scant detail on what that would mean or when it might be arranged. The Taliban’s newly appointed minister of education last September questioned the importance of education itself, saying, “No Ph.D. or master’s degree is valuable today. You see that the Mullahs and Taliban that are in power have no Ph.D., masters or even a high school degree, but they are the greatest of all.”
These inconsistent messages underscore the Taliban regime’s lack of governance and transparency. It also allows Taliban elements and certain government entities around Afghanistan to make their own local policies based on their personal interpretation of Sharia.
An indefinite ban remains in place with no clarity about when or if these schools will ever reopen and as there is no sign the ruling Taliban will allow them back to school, many girls and parents are trying to find and invent different ways to keep education from stalling for generations of young women. “It feels beyond belief that we could be having a conversation in 2022 about whether girls should be allowed to study. The world should listen to Afghan women and do more to end this shocking abuse,” said Sahar Fetrat, assistant women’s rights researcher at the Human Rights Watch.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Palestinian author, researcher and freelance journalist; recipient of two prizes from the Palestinian Union of Writers