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Families find ways around Taliban restrictions on girls’ education

‘I want the world to take our problem seriously and not conclude our story with a few online courses.’

This photo shows a group of young girls sitting on the ground (red carpet) while a teacher writes on a whiteboard in a classroom. Alfred Yaghobzadeh/ABACAPRESS.COM
Since the Taliban ended schooling for girls over the age of 12 in December 2021, communities have tried to work around the restrictions by opening up informal schools and training centres around the country.

The Islamic Emirate recently announced that it has managed to open 200 new schools across the country since it returned to power in 2021. Despite this, the fact remains that 1.2 million girls and women are unable to access formal education as a direct result of Taliban policies.

At 22, Mariam* still only holds a high school diploma. Unable to physically attend university in Afghanistan, she is working towards an online degree from the University of the People, a free US-accredited virtual university.

This allows her to partly circumvent the limitations the Islamic Emirate has placed upon her, but studying from home has been far from easy.

Every night, around 9pm, as her family settles in for the night, Mariam prepares to begin studying by drinking her first cup of coffee. She spends the next several hours trying to keep up with the university’s 100,000 students across the globe. It’s a tiring process, full of setbacks, but she feels she has no choice.

A full two years since the restrictions were announced, Afghan families are losing hope that the Islamic Emirate will live up to its promises of reopening high schools and universities. 

Education also had many challenges under the previous Western-backed government. Due to conflict, lack of development, and corruption, so-called “ghost schools” were at one stage found to only exist on paper

After the UN General Assembly in September, to which the Taliban was not invited, the Islamic Emirate said it was dismayed that, “discussions and opinions in the United Nations were diverted by raising only two small and domestic topics such as women’s education and their work”.

To Afghan families, however, these are anything but “small” topics, and the lack of progress has led many to seek alternatives for their daughters. Some with the means, like Mariam’s family, have enrolled their girls in online classes. Others have turned to informal schools that are condoned by the government, often in people’s homes; while a select few have found ways to send their children abroad to study in countries like Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey.

Connectivity challenges

Online education is a popular solution proposed by some activists and advocates abroad. However, according to Mariam, Afghanistan still lacks the basic electricity and broadband infrastructure necessary to make such learning practical. 

She said Afghan students end up spending as much time – if not more – worrying about mobile data and electricity as they do on their actual studies. Most days, the homes in Mariam’s neighbourhood only have consistent electricity after 8pm, and because each assignment can take up to three hours to complete, she has to try and stay up all night to meet her weekly deadlines.

On nights when the electricity isn’t available, she sets hourly alarms to check if power has returned. Staying up all night has taken a physical toll on Mariam.

“During the day, l struggle to balance life as l suffer from headaches brought on by sleeplessness,” she told The New Humanitarian. “I try not to use my phone unnecessarily, because, nowadays, if I get close to the screen, my eyes will start to burn.”

The video components of Mariam’s courses are also causing extra stress as she constantly has to ask her father for more money to top up the data packages on her phone, “A monthly bundle will run out within a week, so I just keep reactivating daily, weekly, or even hourly bundles just so I have enough to complete my assignments on time.” 

The lack of stable electricity and the slow average internet speed in Afghanistan – 2.4 MB a second for broadband, and 5.2 MB a second for mobile – have impeded Mariam’s progress towards completing the 40 courses required for her Computer Sciences degree.

Because of all these issues, she has only been able to complete 14 courses in the 29 months since she enrolled. 

Despite her difficulties, Mariam acknowledged that her family is one of the fortunate ones, with enough income to spend upwards of $20 each month on mobile internet packages. Average annual income in Afghanistan is estimated to be just $390. 

“I want the world to take our problem seriously and not conclude our story with a few online courses,” she said.

Alternative solutions

Musa Aziz, a member of INSAN, an Afghan-based foundation that helps to find local solutions to education access issues, told The New Humanitarian that those who tout online education as the answer are merely settling on a quick fix that won’t work in the longer-term.

“Online education and other temporary workarounds are just treatment of symptoms,” Aziz said, urging Afghans to continue working towards face-to-face solutions instead.

One such method is the establishment of informal schools and courses, which have been arranged subtly with the Islamic Emirate’s permission. Pashtana Durrani, who is now studying in the United States, has established informal schools in communities across central and southern Afghanistan using her organisation, LEARN Afghanistan.

“In Bamiyan, we teach in somebody's home basement. In Kandahar, we teach in a location that was previously used for other projects that the community has transformed into a learning space for us.”

Durrani – who has also lived in Kandahar and Kabul, and as a refugee in Quetta, Pakistan – said her organisation relies on its ability to engage directly with community elders, who in turn provide them with safe places to conduct their courses for girls aged 13 to 18.

“In Bamiyan, we teach in somebody's home basement. In Kandahar, we teach in a location that was previously used for other projects that the community has transformed into a learning space for us,” Durrani told The New Humanitarian.

The Taliban’s education restrictions have also prompted thousands of female – and male – students to apply for scholarships in foreign countries, but even when young women can find ways to study abroad, Islamic Emirate restrictions often still stand in their way. 

This was the case for Elaha Stanikzai, who was granted a scholarship to study in Dubai only to have her hopes dashed at the last minute in August.

“When I got a visa, l started seeing a ray of hope for my life, but all my dreams were shattered when [the Taliban] denied us entry at the airport,” she said. "We waited outside the airport hoping they would allow us to proceed. But in the end, the only option was to turn around.” 

Dialogue with the Taliban

Over the last two years, the Islamic Emirate has cited cultural barriers – the belief that a large proportion of the population is still opposed to their daughters attending school outside the house – as one reason for the continued restrictions, but Stanikzai said her family is evidence to the contrary. She said her father, who is currently suffering from cancer, has been one of her greatest advocates: “He told me, ‘You must study. You are the futuremaker of your country. You have to help your people, your homeland’.”

One reason many Afghans still hold onto hope is that high-ranking Islamic Emirate officials – from the acting minister of defence to the main government spokesman and a deputy foreign minister – have repeatedly intimated that they wish to see schools and universities for teenage girls and young women reopened.

“Inside the country, Afghans themselves are puzzled by the simple fact that several senior Islamic Emirate officials have families residing in Qatar, the UAE, Pakistan, and other countries, where their daughters are free to pursue their education and their careers – something that would be impossible in the country they currently rule over.”

In an interview with the BBC in October, the interim foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, reiterated that the Islamic Emirate sees girls’ education as a domestic matter and that the government is looking for a way to resolve the issue.

Rather than ignoring the Taliban, educated Afghans, especially those well versed in religious doctrine, should seek to capitalise on these sentiments and try to “solve this by speaking to them” directly, said Aziz, of the INSAN foundation.

Maiwand Shams, a 57-year-old who works for an international organisation, has spent the last year travelling between Afghanistan and Pakistan so his children can continue their studies. He is among those who see glimmers of hope that the Taliban of 2023 is not the same as the one that first came to power in 1996.

“Inside the country, Afghans themselves are puzzled by the simple fact that several senior Islamic Emirate officials have families residing in Qatar, the UAE, Pakistan, and other countries, where their daughters are free to pursue their education and their careers – something that would be impossible in the country they currently rule over,” said Shams.

Other actions inside Afghanistan are also taken as promising signs.

For a full year, secondary schools for older girls remained open in at least two provinces. And last September, a handful of schools for girls above the sixth grade briefly reopened in the southeastern province of Paktia. The subsequent closing again in Paktia was seen by many in Afghanistan as a sign of division on the issue within the Taliban’s leadership. 

A senior adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education, Mawlawi Abdul Jabbar, addressed that division in an interview with the Associated Press last month. Speaking to the AP, Jabbar said the ultimate decision lies with Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the reclusive supreme leader of the Taliban.

“When he says they are open, they will open the same day,” Jabbar told the AP. “Even our ministers are in favour of it… It is only because of our obedience [to Akhundzada] that we are following his orders.”

Don’t rock the boat

But it’s not just obedience to the supreme leader that has kept Islamic Emirate officials from reopening high schools and universities for girls and women.

In an Al Jazeera English documentary aired in August, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Islamic Emirate’s official spokesman, alluded to a longstanding fear among Afghanistan’s leaders since the early 20th century: mutiny.

“Now, Taliban leaders are afraid that if we don't unite the religious scholars with the government… then it could bring down the government,” Mujahid said.

Atiqullah, a shop owner from Kandahar who travels between Kandahar and Pakistan twice a month to visit one of his daughters, said the Islamic Emirate must accept that – like him – the people of Afghanistan do want the schools reopened.

“Of course I would love to be with my family when I return from the store at the end of each day, but I made this sacrifice for my daughters just to see them educated, self-sufficient, and independent,” he told The New Humanitarian, giving only one name.

As someone who spent his youth working and never obtained an education, Atiqullah said he knows the troubles illiteracy can bring, and he wants his daughters to aspire to more.

“My daughter dreams of going to space. I hope one day it will come true,” he said. “Life for women in Afghanistan is very challenging, because they are reliant on their father and brothers, but I want my daughters to work and earn for themselves, not to beg their brother.”

As much as he loves his country and wants his daughters to flourish in their native province, Atiqullah said the Islamic Emirate’s restrictions are making it impossible for them to stay in the country: “I simply don’t see my daughter’s future here.”

Edited by Ali M. Latifi.

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