For a generation of Afghan girls, the closure of schools to secondary students came as a cruel shock, but mothers who lived through the first Taliban regime have faced these restrictions before and now some are refusing to back down
At a secret school for girls in Afghanistan, students are struggling to come to terms with Taliban rule. Until the militant group swept to power last August, there was the prospect of university, a career, and choices about their future. But overnight those opportunities were snatched away, along with most of the rights and freedoms they grew up with. Everyone had heard what life was like for women under the first Taliban regime when for five years their mothers and aunts were unable to attend school, work, or leave the house without a male chaperone. Now, suddenly, they were living it.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, life gradually improved for women in Afghanistan. In 2003, less than six percent of girls were in secondary education, compared to 39 percent in 2017. Education at all levels improved, with the female literacy rate almost doubling between 2011 and 2018. By 2020, women were becoming more visible in public life, accounting for 21 percent of Afghan civil servants and 27 percent of parliament members.
The country continued to face enormous challenges, but the mothers of today’s schoolgirls imagined a happier future for their daughters, empowered by education to participate in a better Afghanistan. It’s not a dream they are willing to relinquish now the Taliban is back in power so, despite the risk, they are sending their daughters to secret schools behind closed doors across Kabul. As Kobra, 40, explained, “The only way for them is education… My daughter has hopes and dreams, she wants to change her life through learning.”
We spoke to five women about their lives under the first Taliban regime and why their daughters attend an underground school supported by Ideas Beyond Borders, concealing books beneath their burqas as they pass Taliban fighters on the street.
Afghan mothers fighting for their daughter’s future:
Maryam, 41, from Kabul province
I was 17 when the Taliban came to power. I had been studying biology and chemistry because I wanted to be a doctor and do medical science at university, but all those dreams were dashed. My family emigrated to Iran for a better life, but I couldn’t study there either because Afghan refugees didn’t have the right to attend Iranian schools or universities. After 2001, women gained relative freedom in Afghanistan so at the start of that decade I had hope for my children – they would study and serve society. Even if I couldn’t continue my education, at least I could see my children’s wishes come true. Every time I passed Kabul Medical University, it hit me in the throat.
But still, I thanked God that my children were able to go to school. For women, the last 20 years were a golden age in Afghanistan, but now those gains are gone. The Taliban has not changed. They are the Taliban of 20 years ago that imposed restrictions on women, and deprived them of the right to education, and work. Fear is everywhere but we must support our daughters. If the gates of the schools are closed to girls, we will use other methods to educate them so that they don’t suffer what we suffered. I believe that the well-being of society depends on its women. I will not give up this time. I will fight to change my daughter’s fate.
Kobra, 40, from Ghazni province
There was no culture of going to school in our area but I did enjoy going to the mosque for lessons in reading the Holy Quran. That was the only education I had but I loved it and I was always telling my grandfather about the new things I learned. I wanted to be a teacher as I had a talent for learning quickly but my family married me to a man when I was 14 and soon after the Taliban took over.
After that my life was destroyed. Women could not go to school, work, or even leave the house and they beat you for wearing the wrong clothes, so I stayed at home and never went out. There was a lot of poverty and violence. When we tried to flee the fighting, a bomb exploded in the street and I woke up bleeding with my clothes torn off.
Life was very difficult then but if we continue like this it will be worse now. In the last 20 years, there has been a lot of progress for women, they were going to school, studying their favorite fields at university, and working in NGOs and government – contributing to the country’s economy, prosperity and security. Now, I am afraid for my daughter every day. We hear about small girls being killed and no one knows who is doing it. But the only way for them is education. My daughter has hopes and goals, she wants to change her life through learning. I don’t want her to get married in childhood and lose her dreams.
Nikbakht, 50, from Wardak province
Life was terrible the first time the Taliban took power, but I think it is even worse now because there is more panic and fear. People have lost their jobs and those who worked with American NGOs are being killed and arrested. The doors of schools are still closed to girls and nobody has any hope for the future. After 2001, people in Afghanistan felt like they were given a second life. My daughters were going to school, and some of them graduated from university and got their first choice of job. Women had access to education, they could say and wear what they wanted, travel abroad, build careers and be a part of their country’s prosperity.
Though there was insecurity and unrest in the country, we had freedom. Now, I’m afraid that the achievements of my daughters and many other women like them will be lost and destroyed. I am concerned for their safety when they go off to school but I want them to follow their dreams of education, I don’t want them to be uneducated like their mother. I want them to be useful people in their country, and to bring peace and equality to Afghanistan through their education.
Somaya, 50, from Daikondi province
I always advise my daughter to make sure nobody is following her when she leaves for school, and not to respond if anyone asks her questions about education. Other than that, I trust in God. I feel afraid, but I’m still hopeful. They have found a way to educate girls even though their schools are closed. I want her to have the freedom to learn and be whatever she wants, to have a good future without war, limitations, and illiteracy. My own upbringing was hard. When the Taliban came to power we fled to other provinces but being homeless was very difficult, and there was no security at all.
There was nothing to eat and we just moved from place to place, living in displacement. I never had a chance to go to school but later I did attend adult literacy classes and I really enjoyed being able to write my name and read a few things in books. I liked learning arithmetic to solve problems by myself. I want my daughter to be independent and achieve her goals. Ideally, I’d prefer her to stay in Afghanistan and use her education here as this is our country – even if we leave and ignore our roots, our future will be this homeland.
Shirin, 43 from Wardak province
The education women received during the 20 years of freedom benefitted families a lot. They had salaries and could contribute to their country. Now that most of them are prohibited from working, poverty will increase day by day. I think this time is better than the last Taliban rule because at least younger girls under 6th grade can go to school and women have the right to leave the home. But I am afraid for my daughter’s future. We were happy that our daughters could go to school, and university and I believed they would become doctors and teachers.
Now I am losing hope. I’m scared when they leave for school and worry until they come home. I avoid sending them alone and advise them to wear a hijab and take care of their safety. But still, I want my daughter to go to school and learn because I am afraid they will stay illiterate like me. They are tired and sad because they cannot go to their schools as regularly, but by going to this school, they are happy that they can learn something and continue their education.