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In Afghanistan, a drive to continue education – and confront the Taliban

‘They are demanding their basic rights under Islam.’

Girls in a school room. Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Primary school students attend a class in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on 26 October 2021.

As the day of the Kankor, Afghanistan’s college entrance exam, approached last month, Mozhdah Hossaini and her classmates were certain it would end in disappointment.

“We just kept thinking, ‘What if we get to the gates of the university and they turn us away?’” Hossaini, 19, told The New Humanitarian by phone from Mazar-e Sharif, capital of northern Balkh province, shortly after her 5 October exam date. 

Their fears were hardly unwarranted. In March, tens of thousands of teenage girls across 32 of the nation’s 34 provinces showed up to their high schools on the day they were to finally reopen, only to be told to go home by armed Taliban stationed outside. In September, teenage girls in Paktia – which for one week had become the third province where adolescent girls could study – were again turned away by the Taliban.

Hossaini knew she and her classmates were fortunate. Balkh is one of the two provinces where the Taliban have not kept teenage girls from attending high school since returning to power last August.

But Hossaini still harboured a fear her luck could run out at any moment.

While her exam went without a hitch, the challenges facing education under the Taliban, particularly – but not only – for girls, remain extremely high. 

In the 15 months since the Taliban returned to power, the prospect of girls’ education has been left to uncertainty amid seemingly random edicts from the Taliban-led government. Many Afghans say they can’t understand why teenage girls are able to take private courses, study at madrassas and attend privately run home schools, but they’re not allowed to return to government-run high schools in most of the nation. 

Despite their confusion, the Afghan people, including young girls and women, are determined to show the Taliban that 2022 won’t be like 1997: They will fight for their right to a full, proper education.

According to local media reports, more than 100,000 students have taken the college entrance exam so far this year. More than 30,000 of them were in Kabul, where last month a centre where students do their test exams came under attack, leaving at least 50 dead and dozens more injured. Most of the victims of the still-unclaimed attack were young girls from the Hazara minority.

Read more: ‘If I am killed, let it be in the name of education.’

In recent years, female students have consistently been among the highest achievers on the exam: In 2021 and 2020, the top scores belonged to Sulgai and Shamsia Alizada, respectively.

The Taliban keep promising their new tenure won’t be like the last time they ran the country for five years in the late 1990s. At that time, all girls and women were banned from all levels of education, and only female doctors were allowed to continue working.

At a recent gathering of Islamic scholars in Turkïye’s Diyarbakir province, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesperson, said the government is working on systems that would see teenage girls return to high school in the near future. He said it is focused on reforming the curriculum, arranging transportation, and setting up gender segregation policies that would allow for this to happen.

Changing values 

Jarring with these positive-sounding notes on education, some of the Taliban’s recent policies have done little to ease the trepidations of what kind of future is in store for young women like Hossaini.

Recently, the Ministry of Higher Education announced that female students would not be allowed to study certain subjects, including journalism, agriculture, and engineering.

Hossaini said those aren’t the only limitations, as female students are only allowed to attend government-run universities near their home provinces: “If I wanted to study in Khost or Paktia, I couldn’t. They said they don’t want girls being too far from their families while studying.” 

At Kabul University, there have already been changes to the Fine Arts Faculty. 

Qorban Ali Salmaniyan, a 30-year-old director and cinematographer who once attended Kabul University, said students at the nation’s best-known university have been able to continue studying the arts thus far, but with limitations. 

He said the Music Department is closed and the Taliban took down some statues in the university that they regarded as un-Islamic. 

Even when he was studying when Afghanistan was ruled by the Western-backed government, there was little support for artists, he noted, but he and his colleagues continued out of love for their craft. 

Salmaniyan fears the current humanitarian crisis in the country is robbing talented young Afghans of their artistic drive: “People were able to make films, create music, and stage plays back then. But now, even if the [Taliban] says you can study art, I can’t imagine many people will.”

Sources at Kabul University, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, said girls are allowed to study painting, while boys can select graphic design as a major.

Whatever the restrictions, Salmaniyan fears that potential artists will be forced into picking another course of study. “Today, it’s about putting food on the table,” he said. “Art requires inspiration and intention. Who can be inspired under these circumstances?”

Fighting for their rights

There are also very real, and at times, violent hurdles that young women are confronting when trying to advance their education.

On 30 October, video footage surfaced on social media showing female students in the northern province of Badakhshan being forcibly denied entry into the university after allegedly failing to comply with the Taliban’s edicts on proper attire for women in the country.

There is hope, though.

Every time the Taliban places a new barrier, the people stand up and speak out. In recent months, elders in PaktiaBadghisKandaharFaryabUruzgan and Parwan provinces have called for girls’ high schools to be reopened. 

In the southwestern province of Farah, where at least 800 students took this year’s college entrance exam, officials are discussing plans that would lead to the re-opening of high school for girls. The provincial education department said it is sorting out a system to offer free transportation to all female students, which they say would allow for adolescent girls to return to school.

Women in the eastern province of Nangarhar also held a demonstration decrying the attack on the Kabul testing site and calling for the re-opening of schools last month.

“Now, it’s people who know they have no way out of the country who are taking to the streets,” a female teacher in Kabul, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told The New Humanitarian. “They know they have nowhere else to go, and so they are demanding their basic rights under Islam.”

Not like last time

The issues with education have also been long standing. The Western-backed government (2001-2021) constantly made claims about advancing women’s rights, but at least 2.9 million Afghan girls were out of school under its rule and 63% of teen girls were illiterate.

Despite the fact that hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid was earmarked for education, there was also a proliferation of so-called ghost schools – institutions that had funds allocated to them but only existed on paper. 

Today, that situation has worsened considerably. Due to sanctions, the foreign assistance being delivered to the Taliban is only a fraction of what the former Western-backed government received, and it’s targeted almost entirely at humanitarian needs. That means the current Taliban government must rely on local NGOs – which are facing funding cutbacks – to help with education across the cash-strapped nation.

Read more: Meet the Afghans determined to give women and girls an education

Ahmad, a media worker based abroad who asked for his last name not to be used to protect his family in Afghanistan, told The New Humanitarian that over the last 20 years – when millions of Afghan boys and girls were kept out of school as a result of corruption and war – more people across the country started realising the importance of education.

“Nowadays, people truly know the value of school and knowledge,” he said. He also credits the largely free media under the Western-backed government – as well as the proliferation of social media – for having left a lasting impact on Afghans.

Raihana, who also asked not to use her full name out of fears for the safety of her family in Afghanistan, was in the 12th grade in Mazar when the Taliban first gained power in 1996. She told The New Humanitarian that the Afghan people were afraid about the consequences of speaking out during the 1990s.

“The Taliban were much more brutal then, and we had just come out of mujahideen rule; it was a time of war,” she said, speaking from Britain, where her family was evacuated to last year. “The media was banned: Even if people took to the streets, we wouldn’t have known.” 

When the Taliban first came to power in 1996, it was after four years of brutal civil war during which their predecessors – Afghan mujahideen who had resisted Soviet occupation – were accused of abuses and war crimes against the civilian population. Initially, the Taliban were seen as a source of salvation, but the group’s own brutality soon came to the fore and their promises to ease restrictions on civilians never came to pass.

Zholia Parsi wasn’t alive when the Taliban were first in power. But as a young woman in her 20s who has taken to the streets several times since their return to Kabul last summer, she said the Taliban must recognise that they are dealing with a new generation of Afghans.

Parsi, who was among the groups of female protesters subjected to Taliban aerial gunfire and tear gas as they sought to quash recent protests, said Afghan women will continue to organise and demonstrate to send a very clear message to the Taliban.

“If they think they can go back to 20 years ago, they’re dreaming,” Parsi told The New Humanitarian. “The people of Afghanistan have woken up. They know what their rights are. They know what they deserve. And they will fight for it this time.”

Edited by Abby Seiff and Pradnya Joshi.

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