Book and Pen Education Centre have secured permission to teach women and girls in Afghanistan.
There are days when the future feels pointless for women and girls at Book and Pen Education Centre in Afghanistan. In the space of a year, the world has shrunk, their prospects snatched away under the Taliban’s restrictive rule. But even as their situation worsens, a spirit of camaraderie prevails at the two all-female education centers, where older women who lived through the previous Taliban regime reassure younger peers that better times will come.
“Every time we get demotivated by what’s going on, these women tell us it’s not going to last. They say the Taliban hasn’t changed, but women have. They are educated and strong, and they are not standing down,” says Zainab Mohammadi, founder and director of Book and Pen Education Centre.
Women’s Education under the Taliban
Mohammadi was in the fourth year of her medical degree when the Taliban swept to power last August. Like others, she watched in horror as the group quickly clamped down on female freedoms, preventing girls from attending secondary school, curtailing their ability to move outside the home and severely restricting female access to employment. Within a short space of time, the Afghanistan she had grown up in was gone.
“The future now is impossible to predict. This time last year, everything changed in an hour, and all our dreams shattered to pieces,” she says. This hasn’t stopped her from finding ways to help women move forwards, despite the difficulties. Prior to the Taliban takeover, she was working on a package of school books, but this had to be abandoned when the regime changed, and girls were prevented from attending school after seventh grade.
Instead, she channeled her energies into creating an education center where women could continue learning and preparing for university entrance exams. “I saw the demotivation affecting girls since their schools closed, including my own sister who was due to start grade 12 and desperately needed to continue her education – it was painful to watch her at home every day,” she says.
Mohammadi managed to secure a permission slip from the Taliban, allowing the centers to operate under certain conditions. The rules were clear – students must wear a black hijab covering everything, all personnel should be women, and no man is allowed in the center at any time. “So that’s what we did, and so far, there haven’t been any problems,” Mohammadi says.
At first, women and girls were wary, wondering why the centers were free and whether they were connected to the Taliban. “Then they got to know us and saw why we are doing this,” says Mohammadi, who wants to help prepare young Afghan women for university so they can build careers and not be left behind. “First, they had the interruption caused by Covid with no online lessons to fill the gap, and then the Taliban takeover, so they have lost a lot of time in school… we are trying to create a platform they can build on.”
She constantly worries that the Taliban will change their mind and close the centers, but for now, they carry on. “I think they allow us to operate because we don’t have any male personnel,” she says. “We will continue our work until they close our doors by force. Even if we don’t receive any more donations, we will continue the work.”
Finding funding for the centers was difficult. Mohammadi knocked on countless doors, trying to persuade human rights organizations and individuals to support her enterprise, but while many praised her efforts, no one could provide financial backing. “I received no help from anywhere for 11 months until the Innovation Hub, so I had to teach online and use the money to fund the center,” she says.
Ideas Beyond Borders is providing a grant to run the centers for the next four months, covering rent, teacher salaries, guards and equipment, including stationary and materials for vocational courses. Alongside the subjects traditionally taught to prepare for university entrance exams in Afghanistan, the centers also provide courses in tailoring and handicrafts, helping women – particularly widows – develop skillsets to build businesses.
“Where other NGOs turned Book & Pen down, IBB stepped up. Relying on empty promises and the continued tolerance of the Taliban isn’t an option, so we are doing all we can to ensure these girls have a future to look forward to,” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, founder and president of Ideas Beyond Borders.
Already, 700 students have graduated from the centers, including girls aged 13 to 20 and women in their thirties learning crafts to support their families. Demand for the courses is high, and Mohammadi is working harder and harder to accommodate more students, even when it means working 12-hour days and running sessions on weekends. “It’s difficult, but looking at these girls and their enthusiasm to learn, my heart melts. That’s where I get my energy from,” she says.