Watery snow muffles Sarah’s footsteps as she walks through the streets of Kabul to a clandestine school set up to fight the Taliban’s draconian restrictions on education for girls. It is a risky journey. When a man steps out of a bakery carrying flatbread, Sarah stops speaking English and walks faster.
An unremarkable gate leads to the school. Looking like a normal house, it has been rented by one of the teachers. Sarah (not her real name) stumbles on one of the many shoes left outside, but the tension dissolves when she opens the door to the sound of young girls repeating sentences in unison.
“We set up the school following the Taliban takeover,” she says. “The teachers are all volunteers, and in most cases have called their former pupils to tell them about the school.”
Restrictions on education for women and girls were introduced soon after the Taliban takeover last August, justified by the new government as part of a shift to its conservative interpretation of Islamic principles. A senior official has announced that schools for girls will reopen at the end of March, but doubts remain, reflecting the legacy of the restrictions imposed on women by the Taliban from 1996 until they were ousted by US forces in 2001.
“I’m a third-year university student,” says Sarah, who was excluded from her course after the Taliban takeover, like all female students in government-run higher education institutions. “After the ban on women at university I could not graduate, so I got involved in several projects as a volunteer. When we understood that schools for girls were not going to reopen, we started this project. ”
“This is so important,” says Sarah, whose real name in the Pashtun language means “first light of change”. “We do not want for these girls what happened to our mothers, who were not allowed to go to school.”
The school is part of a network of three, with 18 teachers and more than 200 students aged from 10 to 18, many from poor or disadvantaged neighborhoods. The volunteers are professional teachers who offer a program including Islamic studies, mathematics and English. The girls sit on the carpeted floor of the room, in front of a board hanging from the white walls. Most wear a loose scarf and a mask, in line with Covid-19 restrictions.
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“I wanted to become a lawyer,” says 14-year-old Fathma. “But I do not think I will be able to do it, although my parents say the Taliban have changed a lot.” Aaila, 12, wants to become a teacher “and teach other children”. Damsa says she wants to be an engineer “to build my country”.
Not all the pupils are girls. Aalem, who is in her 40s, sits quietly next to them. Teaching women who never had the chance to study is part of the mission of these new schools, and the hope is to continue even if mainstream schools for girls reopen. Aalem has joined a program named Second Chance because she wants to be able to read and write.
“When I was young I was not allowed to study by the Taliban, and then it was too late, and my family was poor. I worked as a carpet weaver, ”says Aalem, who is unmarried and wears a full black hijab that covers her neck, hair and legs.
Some progress has been made in recent years, with the overall literacy rate rising from 35 per cent in 2016 to 43 per cent in 2020. Yet literacy rates among Afghan men remain significantly higher, with 55 per cent of men able to read and write compared with fewer than 30 per cent of women, for whom even a university degree is often a passport to higher social status and a better marriage rather than a better job.
“We are happy to hear that schools will resume,” Sarah says. But reassurances that the current Taliban are of a different kind are not always believed. “Some parents did not let their girls join this school, because they did not believe [the risk] was worth it, ”says another teacher, who asks not to be named.
The girls say they are more afraid of terrorist attacks by the Islamic State group, which remains active in Afghanistan, than of the Taliban. But Sarah and her colleagues are taking big risks by teaching them. “I’m happy to teach here, I’ve been doing it for months now. But a week ago two men stopped me because I was alone and they asked me where I was going. They really do not know much about Islam, ”Sarah says.
She adds that the teachers move around Kabul carefully. “I have to be careful with my phone, and I need to save things on a separate memory. They are very strict in this part of the city and they stop the bus to check people on them very often. ”
Despite the dangers, women have responded strongly. In some cases secret education for women and girls is structured and organized, as in Sarah’s schools; in others, private tutors and volunteer teachers invite pupils to their homes.
But the possible obstacles to the future of women are visible even among those who are continuing to study. Samar was allowed to continue her university education because she attends a private university that is not subject to the restrictions imposed on state-run institutions. Yet she shows a similar lack of trust in the ability of the Taliban to modernize.
“I can not compare myself to the women in the villages, who are not educated and accept the new impositions. But even if I study, what kind of future do I have here? I’m not interested any more, ”she says. “I was not even wearing a hijab and teachers were not telling us what to do. The Taliban are not educated; they do not care – they just brought hijabs and covers to Kabul and they patrol our university to check that we are dressed properly. ”
Many women are thinking of leaving Afghanistan to study. Basir Arian, who fled to Iran, has set up a free online English school to help them, gathering teachers from different countries. The school, called Candles of Hope for Afghanistan, also operates under the government’s radar, but has attracted 500 students so far, 90 per cent of whom are educated Afghan women still living in the country.
“I was involved in human rights and justice activities with the previous government, which led me to be monitored by the Taliban. And I was also an elected member of the High Assembly Council for Herat, so I could not stay, ”Arian says.
Twenty-five teachers from 14 countries are helping young Afghans to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language and the International English Language Testing System examination, which are required for acceptance by many English-speaking universities outside Afghanistan.
In spite of the widespread pushback by girls and women against the Taliban’s crackdown on their rights, teachers in Sarah’s school harbor doubts about their own prospects and the likely future of education for girls. “I do not think there will be a positive side to this,” remarks one. “But we want [at least] to continue teaching the older women who did not get a chance before. ”
Names have been changed or shortened to protect the identities of women quoted in this article.
A version of this article was first published by Nikkei Asia on March 23, 2022. © 2022 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved