Afghanistan’s girls lament continued closure of high schools

Afghan girls, who have been confined to their homes, urge the Taliban not to snatch their right to education.

More than 2.2 million Afghan girls were unable to attend school as recently as last year [File: Jalil Rezayee/EPA]

Kabul, Afghanistan – Kabul resident Rahela Nussrat, 17, is in her final year of high school, but she has not been able to attend classes. The reason: Afghanistan’s new rulers have decided to keep teenage girls out of school for now.

Last month, the Taliban announced schools would be opening, but only boys of all ages were asked to return to school, leaving out secondary school girls. The move has raised questions about the group’s policy about women’s education.

The Taliban said “a safe learning environment” was needed before older girls could return to school, adding that schools will reopen as “soon as possible”, without giving a timeframe.

“Education is one of the most fundamental human rights, but today, that basic right has been taken from me and millions of other Afghan girls,” Nussrat told Al Jazeera.

Afghanistan had struggled to get girls back into school during the Western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani. According to a 2015 survey (PDF) prepared for UNESCO by the World Education Forum, nearly 50 percent of Afghan schools lacked usable buildings.

Afghan women converse with a Taliban fighter while they hold placards during a demonstration demanding better rights for women in front of the former Ministry of Women Affairs in Kabul on September 19, 2021 [File: Bulent Kilic/AFP]

More than 2.2 million Afghan girls were unable to attend school as recently as last year – 60 percent of the total children out-of-school in the country.

The Taliban’s lack of clarity on the reopening of secondary schools has compounded the problem and is a blow to millions of girls, especially those whose families thought the end of the war could return to some semblance of normal life.

“When the Afghan government fell, I lost my right to education, this was the first time I cried specifically because of my gender,” Nussrat said.

She said she still does not understand the reasoning for only keeping teenage girls from education, but she is certain that if it continues, it will only backfire on the Taliban.

“They kept saying they want young people to stay and use their talents, but they’re just driving us all out,” Nussrat said by phone from her Kabul home.

Thousands of young Afghans fled the country after the Taliban returned to power on August 15, 20 years after it was removed from power in a US-led military invasion.

Nussrat viewed herself as an example, saying she is currently preparing for English-language exams so she can apply for study abroad opportunities.

As someone who managed to come from one of the nation’s poorest provinces, Daikundi, where even boys drop out of school as teenagers to start working as day labourers, Nussrat said the Taliban is losing out on entire generations of driven, determined young people.

“I studied for 14 years in Kabul, I went through primary and secondary school during a war, but now I will have to leave the country,” she said.

“I will apply to universities abroad and some other country will take me and my talents, because they know it’s not possible to study in a Taliban-led Afghanistan.”

The Taliban stance on the education of girls and women has faced criticism from Qatar and Pakistan, which have called on the international community to engage with the Taliban.

At a news conference last month, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said it “has been very disappointing to see some steps being taken backwards” by the Taliban, who in the 1990s were the only leaders to ever ban women and girls from education and employment in Afghan history.

Sheikh Mohammed said Qatar, which hosts the Taliban’s political office, should be used as a model for how a Muslim society can be run. “Our system is an Islamic system [but] we have women outnumbering men in workforces, in government and in higher education.”

Imran Khan, the Pakistani prime minister, said that although he doubted the Taliban would once again place an outright ban on girls’ education, the group should be reminded that Islam would never allow such a thing to happen again.

“The idea that women should not be educated is just not Islamic. It has nothing to do with religion,” Khan told the BBC.

Prior to the Taliban’s arrival, cultural traditions were used as a basis for some families to keep their girls, especially older ones, from school. According to UNICEF, 33 percent of Afghan girls are married before the age of 18.

Aisha Khurram, a grad student of law at Kabul University, said she has little faith the Taliban will allow Afghan women to serve a meaningful role in Afghan society.

Women hold banners as they attend a demonstration in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, September 6, 2021 [File: Courtesy of Shamshad News/via Reuters]

Since it came to power, the Taliban has sent mixed signals about women returning to work in government offices and has forced universities to enact policies of gender segregation in order to reopen.

Khurram, a former youth representative to the United Nations, said she saw no need for dividing the genders at Afghanistan’s premier higher education institution.

“I had always known Kabul University for its inclusive and accommodating environment for female students,” she said.

Though she has a hard time reconciling it with her experiences of education in Afghanistan, Khurram said gender segregation should not be used as an excuse to keep all Afghan women from education as the Taliban did in the 1990s.

Other women Al Jazeera spoke to said though the separation of men and women received a lot of social media attention, it should not be the focus of people who truly wish to see educational opportunities return for men and women in Afghanistan.

Pashtana Durrani, an education advocate who focuses on bringing digital learning tools to rural areas, said that for millions of women across the country, separating the genders is not nearly as big a deal as foreign media and certain residents in Kabul are making it out to be.

“In so many parts of the country, gender segregation is the norm. People are used to it. Even in Kabul, weddings are separated by gender,” Durrani told Al Jazeera from the southern province of Kandahar.

Durrani argued, for many families, gender segregation could be key to them allowing their older girls to study at the university level, saying that even before the Taliban takeover, girls in Kandahar’s public and private universities wore Arab-style abayas and niqabs, “because the boys would be around.”

However, Khurram, the law student, said that although Afghan women have agreed to these new regulations on segregation, the Taliban has failed to live up to their end of the bargain – to open the schools.

“The Taliban’s promises have yet to be proven in their actions. They have yet to accept that Afghanistan has changed,” since the group’s brief five-year rule in the 1990s. 

On Monday, the UN chief criticised the Taliban’s “broken” promises to Afghan women and girls, referring to the continued closure of schools.

Durrani said what is most important for Afghan girls and women is that they can study without interference from the Taliban.

“At this point, for these girls, it’s all about education. Even if they get married and have to sit at home after that, they just want the diploma, the piece of paper, to show what they were able to achieve,” Durrani said of the young women she has spoken to in Kandahar.

She said even the female principals she has spoken to at three different schools in and around the Kandahar city, are fearful for their future, even though she said everything is in place for all girls to return to school.

The Taliban has ordered that only female teachers can take classes in girls’ high schools. Older male teachers are allowed only when there are not enough female teachers.

Durrani and others feared that trying to prevent teenage girls from education is just the first step towards something bigger and more dangerous.

The lack of women in the cabinet, Taliban officials passing judgement about women’s attire and perfume are seen as harbingers of something worse to come by many Afghan women.

“It’s a way of breaking a powerful chain. First, you keep girls from education so that they don’t have the skills to work, and before you know it, you’ve deprived an entire generation from becoming part of society.”

Source: Al Jazeera