After Year of No School, Uncertain Future for Afghan Girls

15 August 2022

For most teenage girls in Afghanistan, it has been a year since they were barred from going to school. But some are trying to continue their education even with the Taliban now ruling the country.

At a house in Kabul, a group of young girls recently gathered for classes in an unofficial school set up by Sodaba Nazhand. She and her sister teach English, science and math to girls who should be in high school.

"When the Taliban wanted to take away the rights of education and the rights of work from women, I wanted to stand against their decision by teaching these girls," Nazhand told The Associated Press.

Afghan girls hold illegal protest to demand the right to education in a private home in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Afghan girls hold illegal protest to demand the right to education in a private home in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Hers is one of several secret schools in operation since the Taliban took over the country and restricted education for girls. The government only permits girls to attend school through the sixth grade. They are barred from attending high school. Although the Taliban says women can attend university, it is not likely that they will do so if they cannot complete high school.

"There is no way to fill this gap, and this situation is very sad and concerning," Nazhand said.

Taliban takeover

Nearly the whole population of Afghanistan was thrown into poverty after the Taliban takeover in August of 2021. Millions of Afghans could not feed their families when the world cut off support to the country.

The group Save the Children found that more than 45 percent of girls are not going to school in Afghanistan, compared to 20 percent of boys. It also found that 26 percent of girls are showing signs of depression, compared with 16 percent of boys.

The international community is demanding that the Taliban open schools to all Afghan girls. The United States and the European Union have created plans to pay Afghanistan's teachers directly to keep the schools open without putting money in the Taliban's hands.

But Taliban leaders are still arguing among themselves about whether to educate girls. Some in the group support returning girls to school because they see no religious objection to it or because they want to improve ties with the world. Others strongly oppose it, especially rural tribal leaders.

When the Taliban first ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, the group established much stronger restrictions on women. They banned schools for all girls and barred women from work. If they went outside, women had to wear burkas, clothing that covers them fully, from head to feet.

The Taliban promised Afghans when they seized control again last year that they would not return to the restrictions of the past. The officials said they would permit teen girls back into school in the future. But, they said, first the government needed to set up a process to separate boys and girls in an "Islamic framework."

In March, just before the new school year was to begin, the Taliban announced that everyone would be back to school. But then, on March 23, the day school was to reopen, the group stopped teenage girls from going to school. Apparently, the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, changed the policy to please more conservative local leaders.

Shekiba Qaderi, a 16-year-old, remembered going to school that day, ready to start the 10th grade. She and her friends were excited until a teacher told them to go home. The girls all began to cry, she said. "That was the worst moment in our lives."

Since then, she has been trying to study at home by reading books. And she is learning English through movies and YouTube videos. Her older sister is at a private university studying law. But her father Mohammad Shah Qaderi said, "She won't have a job. The Taliban won't [permit] her to work."

Qaderi said he has always wanted his children to get a higher education. As that may be impossible now, he is thinking of leaving Afghanistan for the first time after many years of war.

"I can't see them growing in front of my eyes with no education; it is just not acceptable to me," he said.

Secret schools

A month after the Taliban takeover, Nazhand started teaching street children to read in a park in her neighborhood. Women who could not read or write joined them, she said.

Sometime later, a supporter rented a house in which Nazhand could hold the classes. Once she was operating inside, Nazhand included teen girls who were no longer permitted to go to public school.

Now there are about 250 students, including 50 or 60 schoolgirls studying above the sixth grade level.

"I am not only teaching them school subjects, but also trying to teach them how to fight and stand for their rights," Nazhand said. "These are the same Taliban, but we shouldn't be the same women of those years. We must struggle by writing, by raising our voice, by any way possible."

Nazhand's school, and others like it, are illegal under the Taliban's current restrictions. But so far, her school remains open.

For students, the underground schools are a lifeline.

"It is so hard when you can't go to school," said student Dunya Arbabzada. "Whenever I pass by my school and see the closed door ... it's so upsetting for me."

I'm Caty Weaver.

Rahim Faiez and Siddiqullah Alizai reported this story for The Associated Press. Hai Do adapted the story for Learning English.


Words in This Story

grade - n. a level of study that is completed by a student in one year

gap - n. the missing part

depression - n. a serious medical condition in which a person feel really sad

framework - n. the basic structure of something

rent - v. to pay money in order to use something