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The Taliban and Women’s Freedom in Education

Two decades of progress in the country’s educational system is being swiftly dismantled, undermining prospects for Afghan boys and girls 

Amin’s heart was hammering as he watched the man scroll through his phone. Around him, others stood in line, hoping to get through. A few meters away was the Pakistani border, but beyond that Amin didn’t know, he just had to get out of Afghanistan, the country he’d spent his career serving, and turn his back on the horror of recent months.

The Taliban official looks up from his list. It could have been any number of lists and Amin had no way of knowing whether his name was on it. Their visas for Pakistan were in order – he’d applied for those when the Taliban seized power on 15 August 2021 – but if the documentation gave away his work with international organizations and the former Afghan government, they could all be at risk.

Behind him, his wife and sons waited in line. There could be no future for them in this Afghanistan, not since the Taliban banned girls from secondary education. That was the moment Amin stopped waiting on the Taliban’s promises and decided to leave. “We are not talking about Taliban 2.0, we are talking about the same Taliban with the same ideology as before,” he says. 

Taliban insurgents
A group of Taliban insurgents

Return to the Taliban’s hardline rule

For a few weeks, after they took control, there was hope that the new Taliban regime would present a more moderate take on the hardline policies of the first. During the Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, women were barred from education and employment, their access to healthcare was severely curtailed and they were forced to wear the burqa. They were also barred from leaving the house unless accompanied by a male chaperone. Those who violated the rules faced public floggings and execution. 

But in the immediate aftermath of their victory last summer, the group promised that the rights of women and girls would be respected while reinforcing their expressed aim to work with the international community and protect Afghanistan. Speaking between meetings with EU representatives and US officials in Doha last October, the group’s acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said: “We want positive relationships with the whole world. We believe in balanced international relations. We believe such a balanced relationship can save Afghanistan from instability.” 

But the group has shown little regard for upholding its promises in recent months. On March 23, the day secondary school girls were supposed to return to class, the Taliban sent them home again, backtracking on a statement the previous week that said they would be welcome to return. News outlets showed footage of teenage girls in tears as they filed out of class. For many, that was the moment when the hope of a different Taliban, with more modern ideas about girls’ education, died away. 

“Our mothers and sisters are illiterate because of their wars. I am afraid history is repeating itself,” says Salma, who was a teacher at a private school in Kabul before the Taliban takeover.

Political pawns

Commentators have suggested that the Taliban are using female education as a bargaining chip to validate their rule. “They are using women’s rights as a tool in political negotiations – they want international recognition before they re-open schools,” says Pashtana Dorani, founder of Learn Afghanistan, a nonprofit running schools, training teachers, and providing resources for Afghan children to study.

Last September, the United Nations called on the Taliban to resist reversing 20 years of advances in female education. “You can be assured that we will continue to amplify your voices and make it a zero condition that girls must have an education before the recognition of any government that comes in,” said Amina Jane Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. 

Others, like Amin who left the country after girls were sent home in March, fear they will never allow women to study, regardless of promises and international accords. “Giving Afghan women and girls education means giving them emancipation and that would shake the Taliban’s core ideology…. We’re all trying to change something which is their defining belief.” 

Watching the bearded fighter scroll through lists of condemned people at the Pakistani border, Amin realized he might never return to Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter that he has sons not daughters. He does not want them growing up in a place where women are being systematically erased – forced out of work, education, and public life. “How can you send your boys to a school when girls are not learning, how would it impact the way they see and treat girls and women as they grow up,” he says.

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Female Afghan students in a classroom

The outlook for Afghanistan

Amin’s fears are widely felt in Afghanistan, where 87 percent of society is in favor of female education, according to a 2019 survey by the Asia Foundation. Freshta Karim, whose organization Charmaghz runs mobile libraries in Afghanistan, points to the long-term impact of the ban. “It’s gender-based discrimination impacting girls directly, but also boys who are learning that it’s normal for girls not to attend school. This mindset may have horrific consequences for girls and women’s rights for decades to come.”

The outlook for girls denied access to education in Afghanistan is more immediate. Child marriage is already the second most reported reason for girls dropping out of school in the country. In a statement last November, Unicef estimated that 28 percent of Afghan women aged 15–49 years were married before the age of 18 and warned that it will likely get worse.

“The extremely dire economic situation in Afghanistan is pushing more families deeper into poverty and forcing them to make desperate choices, such as putting children to work and marrying girls off at a young age. As most teenage girls are still not allowed to go back to school, the risk of child marriage is now even higher. Education is often the best protection against negative coping mechanisms such as child marriage and child labor.”

During a visit to the country in May, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan Richard Bennett voiced “serious concern about the deterioration of human rights across the country and the erasure of women from public life… I urge the authorities to acknowledge human rights challenges that they are facing and to close the gap between their words and the deeds,” he said.

Children already face extreme challenges in Afghanistan as the country endures one of the worst economic meltdowns in history. “If 97 percent of the country is below the poverty line, it means that many children are not getting enough nutrition, which impacts their physical growth and learning capacity. We can’t expect a hungry child to learn,” Karim says. Those who are able to attend school are receiving a much lower standard of education, she continues, pointing to the group’s “lack of skills, expertise and vision to lead the education sector.”

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Afghan girls sharing a book to study (Source: DW).

Learning for the future

Charmaghz has 16 mobile libraries and reaches around 2000 children a day, including girls, providing a space for them to read, think and ask questions. “War has robbed us of many little pleasures of childhood, including having access to libraries. I wanted it to be different for our next generation,” Karim says.

The libraries operate with Taliban permission, but other organizations are functioning underground to bring education opportunities to women and girls. Learn Afghanistan is running remote classes in secret locations across the country, providing teachers and resources to secondary school girls can. “I do believe in our younger generation, I see amazing women doing amazing things,” Dorani says.

Salma, who operates a secret school in Kabul, says her students learn behind closed doors with the blinds drawn. The atmosphere is tense among these young women, who risk severe penalties if caught, but they are more afraid of having no education at all. “They want to be educated to create a country at peace. They believe the danger of staying quiet and illiterate is greater than the current danger,” Salma says.

All of her students nurture hopes of a better future for women in Afghanistan, one that builds on the progress made over the past 20 years. “I have read books about what they did the last time they came to my country… I study because I think the reason that I have a poor and war-torn country is the lack of education,” says 19-year-old Layla, who is using a pseudonym to protect her identity. 

Progress undone

Like others of her age, Layla grew up amid widening prospects for women in Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, education at all levels improved, with attendance among secondary school girls climbing from under three percent in 2003 to 39 percent in 2017. The female literacy rate almost doubled between 2011 and 2018 while at the political level, women started to become more visible in public life, accounting for 27 percent of parliament members in 2020.

For Nadia, sessions at the underground school are a distraction from mounting fears over what life holds. “I can just get away from the stress at home and thinking about my ambiguous future in Afghanistan,” she says.

Afghanistan’s education system still faced major issues, even before the Taliban takeover last year. Lack of resources, a shortage of qualified female teachers, cultural restrictions, and poor access to schools in rural areas meant many children were unable to get to class or received inadequate teaching when they did.

But there had also been major strides in terms of attendance, a greater number of schools, and changes to the country’s curriculum. Mohammad Khalid, CEO of leading human rights and free market-based thinktank in Afghanistan, points to the progress in introducing new subjects to schools and replacing the radical content with more moderate ideas promoting human rights and free speech in textbooks. 

“The Taliban are fundamentally opposed to all the changes we made so they are printing their own books and making Islam the focus of study,” he says. Subjects like English, IT, and science will be removed he said, though Arabic is likely to remain.

A teacher in an empty classroom in Afghanistan (Source: Education International)

Support for Afghanistan

Khalid remembers life under the first Taliban regime and shudders at the memory of studying in their schools between the ages of six and eight. They were very brutal… if you spoke or laughed in class they hit you with cables and sticks.” Those who dared to repeat the offense were marched to the principal’s office, held upside down, and lashed on the bottom of their feet.”

His main aim now is to ensure the international community stays focused on Afghanistan. The only thing stopping them from repeating all the hardline policies of their former regime, Khalid says, is the desire for international recognition. “The world should stand with Afghans, people are suffering a lot in this country.”

But the longer girls are kept from school, the more people will leave as their faith in the future of Afghanistan fades under the tightening grip of Taliban rule. After reneging on their promise to reopen schools for girls over sixth grade, the Taliban announced that women required a male chaperone to travel certain distances and said they could only venture out covered up – preferably in a burka.

The steady stream of restrictions paints a bleak picture of the prospects for women in the country. “Those families with the capacity to do so will leave and we will see a huge exodus from Afghanistan because they don’t want their girls to be illiterate in the 21st century,” Khalid says. “People here are really thirsty for education, especially girls because they know what they face here if they don’t go to school.”

*Ideas Beyond Borders has provided Innovation Hub grants to Salma’s underground school, Charmaghz, and Learn Afghanistan*Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identities of several participants in this story

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