‘We have never given up’: how Afghan women are demanding their education under the Taliban

When the Taliban reached Parveen Tokhi’s home province of Zabul in mid-August and asked to use her school as a temporary barracks, the headteacher was frightened but clear about what she had to do. She spent the bleak years of the first Taliban government in the 1990s stuck at home like almost all Afghan women, barred from education and work. She was determined that the same shadow wouldn’t engulf another generation.

“I said: ‘OK, you can stay there overnight, but these buildings are a girls’ school, and I have sacrificed all my life for the education of these girls.’” The men had to be out in time for morning classes to start as usual at Bibi Khala school the next day, she insisted, undaunted by their guns.

Then she got the contact number for senior Taliban officials and rang them directly to say there was no Islamic justification to bar girls from the classrooms and corridors where she had spent most of her life, first as a student, then for four decades as a teacher.

“I said: ‘I will not close the school, even if someone kills me for this, because the girls come in hijab, and the teachers are female.’”

Southern Zabul province, where Tokhi teaches, is so deeply conservative that even under the previous government only three girls’ high schools operated, all clustered in the provincial capital, Qalat. Girls in rural areas ended their education at sixth grade, if they got one at all.

It was not an obvious place for a pioneering experiment in Taliban education policy. But to the surprise of many, in Zabul and beyond, the new Taliban officials agreed to let all girls carry on with their classes after making a few compromises.

Girls must now wear “hijab” – by which the Taliban mean the burqa – when they travel to and from school, while the handful of male teachers at the site have been sacked and primary school classes for boys once held on the same site have been moved.

“The women came here [to the education department offices] and demanded that they should continue their education, and we decided to allow them,” said Muhammad Usman Huriyat, Zabul’s education director.

The Taliban recognise the importance of girls’ education, and want to train more women doctors, he said. “We are all responsible for this. We know about human rights, the need of the people.”

The Zabul schools stayed open even after the central Taliban government brought in a de facto ban on high school education for girls last September, blithely shrugging off years of international promises to recognise women’s right under Islam to study and to work.

So while the situation in Qalat would be utterly ordinary in most of the world, in the new Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, it was exceptional.

The country has 34 provinces, but fewer than a third have allowed any of their girls’ schools to reopen, and even fewer have restarted all secondary classes. Millions of girls are being robbed of their right to an education.

“Now I am home all day with nothing to do. I cook or wash clothes, or clean the house. I feel like I am in a prison,” said Arifa, a 15-year-old in Kabul who hoped her excellent grades would be her family’s path out of poverty. “I feel like I am no longer a member of Afghanistan society.”

Last spring suicide attackers killed dozens of her classmates, but she still returned to school. She tries to bring that courage and determination to her current agonising wait. “I miss my friends but we have never given up. We want to open the doors of the school again, and we still have hope.”

Tracing where girls were allowed back into high schools and why classes resumed – or in a few cases were never stopped at all – may offer insights into how a disparate band of militants can perhaps be nudged on policy.

The areas still permitting girls to study – from Zabul in the south to Herat in the west, and Balkh in the north – have differences in wealth, ethnic makeup, popular support for Taliban and past attitudes to women’s education.

Some are templates for resistance where activists have taken on the Taliban with protests, strikes or appeals to local leaders, putting their jobs and perhaps their lives on the line. The Taliban are cracking down on women’s rights activists, and there is growing fear over the fate of six campaigners abducted in Kabul last month.

In Herat, a powerful speech by a young student demanding her education went viral, while teacher unions threatened mass public protests outside government offices if girls were barred, a senior union official said. Officials relented and schools reopened, though girls were not allowed to take their end-of-year exams.

In Zabul, local women’s activists said Tokhi’s outspoken stance helped persuade the Taliban to take an unexpected path, although she has since been demoted. “From the beginning I was very straightforward,” she says, sanguine about the change. “That’s probably why I lost my job. All because of my commitment to the students of Zabul.”

Elsewhere, including northern Mazar-e-Sharif city, militants appear to have chosen a different path from the moment they took control, recognising deep-rooted support for educating women.

The Taliban director of education for the city even has a wife who teaches at a madrassa. He is proud of her role, even though it may bring contempt from many of the Taliban’s rank-and-file members.

“We are trying to have very good education for girls here, and we opened the schools on the second day [after taking the city],” said director Mawlawi Mohammad Naeem as he inspected a school, armed with a pistol and belt of ammunition. “We want to have very nice mothers and sisters in future, so education is vital for that.”

Those provinces where girls are still at school offer some hope. But they also serve as a bleak warning of how badly the new Afghan government is damaging the lives of women and girls, even in areas where it is ruling in the most moderate way.

Girls who can graduate face futures heavily constrained by the misogyny of Taliban rule, with women restricted largely to work in health and education.

“First my dream was to be the president of Afghanistan, but I changed. My hope now is to become a doctor to help our people,” said Narges*, a 12th-grade student in Zabul.

The quality of education has also declined in most schools, teachers privately told the Guardian. A ban on male colleagues meant fewer colleagues and that they lost specialists. There is also the constant threat that the classes may be taken away again.

“Sometimes I cry, because in Afghanistan we don’t have open-minded people who allow girls to study,” said Zainab*, another high-school student in Zabul who is haunted by the stories of girls barred from classrooms elsewhere.

Taliban officials have suggested the five-month-old bar on high-school education for girls is only short-term. The spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the BBC he “hoped” that when boys returned to class in March after the long winter break, girls would be with them.

The west has tried to reinforce that promise with a pledge to pay teacher salaries if girls are allowed to study. Another Taliban official said new schools were needed for girls to study in isolation, although students were already segregated by gender.

Afghans who remember the last Taliban government are skeptical. In the 1990s, a sweeping bar on all girls’ education was justified as a temporary response to security concerns, but in the five years they ruled, it was never lifted.

Many fear that the new ban may also stretch on open-ended. Reopening in places like conservative Zabul makes a mockery of claims that the education system needs significant alterations.

What little hope there is may lie in the changes of the last two decades, among the Taliban and all Afghanistan. Many of the senior Taliban leadership now embrace educating their own daughters, and even ordinary fighters are less suspicious of western-style learning.

At one private academy, militants who might once have attacked classrooms have instead joined them to study English and computing. A teacher, who asked not to be named, said: “A group of Taliban came in, and I heard them saying: ‘We used to kill students at places like this, now we are studying here.’”

Women have changed too. Twenty years of education mean the Taliban have inherited a country radically different to the shattered Afghanistan of their last rule.

In 2000, Unicef estimated that only 4-5% of all primary age students went to school in Afghanistan. Today there is a generation of educated young activists ready to fight for the right to continue studying.

“We are not going to let them [get away with this],” said Mahbouba Seraj, a prominent women’s rights activist still living in Kabul. “There is nothing, in the Qur’an, or in the Hadith, or as an example in other Islamic countries, that would permit stopping women from going to school.”

“When [the Taliban] took power in the 1990s there were no women, or anybody in Afghanistan, who could raise their voice on this issue. But now they cannot do it, because we are after them.”

Courtesy: Emma Graham-Harrison

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