Afghanistan: back to school?
As the Taliban resumed control of Afghanistan in August 2021, women lost access to education, work and leisure, saw their freedoms of movement, expression, association and assembly severely restricted and experienced increasing gender-based violence. Once again, girls are being denied access to education solely because of their gender. But this is a post-Taliban generation that has experienced relative freedom and is not ready to let go without a fight. Restrictions have backfired, fuelling resistance rather than subservience. Women and girls are now the backbone of the human rights struggle in Afghanistan, and should be supported by the international community.
On a recent March morning, thousands of Afghan girls showed up at their secondary schools, excited at the prospect of a new year of learning. Their schools had been closed since the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover, and after almost nine months of cancellations and postponements they’d been assured they would be allowed to begin the semester. Instead they were once again dismissed ‘until further notice’. It seemed that anything beyond primary instruction would remain out of the reach of Afghan girls. At around age 13, just as their worldly adventure was beginning, they were ordered to retreat into the invisibility of home and family.
TV cameras captured teenagers crying in frustration at yet another broken promise, but then followed them as they went out to protest for their rights. As members of a young generation that knows what freedom tastes like, they aren’t ready to capitulate just yet.
A devastating legacy
The first period of Taliban rule lasted for five years, from 1996 to 2001, but its deep social wounds lingered and hadn’t fully healed before the Taliban returned to power. Its most damaging impact on women was the almost-complete denial of education. In the years following the US-led military intervention that ousted the Taliban government, women gained visibility in public life and millions of Afghan girls received an education. But profound inequalities remained: by 2017, around two-thirds of girls were not attending school.
According to the most optimistic estimates, the rate of school attendance among Afghan girls barely ever surpassed 50 per cent. Even after the restrictions imposed by the first Taliban government were lifted, girls were massively excluded from education by problems including discriminatory attitudes, insecurity and violence, early marriage, poverty and child labour, a lack of schools and teachers, particularly female teachers, poor infrastructure and lack of basic supplies, poor quality of instruction, and administrative barriers and corruption.
But on 15 August 2021, when the Taliban returned to power, these problems gave way to an existential threat. Despite the reassuring image of moderation the Taliban tried to project to the international community in the hope of aid and recognition, their actions soon belied their words.
Women’s rights vanish overnight
As soon as they seized control, the Taliban ordered women to stay away from work until the security situation improved. Except in healthcare – because someone must tend to sick women – women were mostly not allowed to go back to work ‘until further notice’. It was announced that women would be allowed to study, although not alongside men. The subjects they would be permitted to study at university were under review and they would have to abide by a strict dress code. Primary and secondary schools would also be segregated.
After only two weeks of Taliban rule, UN Women warned of an ongoing ‘gender emergency’. Women were prevented from leaving their homes without the company of male guardians and disappeared from the streets of Kabul. Women-run businesses pre-emptively closed. The Taliban started taking single mothers’ children away. Exclusion and invisibility have fostered depression, as attested by a spike in purchases of anti-depressant, anti-anxiety and sleep medications among women.
Restrictions have been placed on female aid workers, including the requirement of being escorted by a male family member while doing their jobs and limitations on the types of work they are allowed to do. In several provinces, they have been authorised to work only in health and education programmes. The humanitarian crisis has worsened as a result, taking a disproportionate toll among women and girls.
With rulers so obsessed with gender binaries and narrowly defined gender roles, LGBTQI+ people are understandably afraid not just of physical threats but also isolation, as relatively permissive spaces such as cafés have vanished. Many have gone into hiding, and trans people have been forced to adopt conventionally accepted appearances and roles. Hundreds of LGBTQI+ people tried to evacuate, but the Taliban used social media to entrap them with false promises of escape.
Two weeks into Taliban rule, Reporters Without Borders documented that fewer than 100 of Kabul’s circa 700 female journalists were still working, and hardly any outside Kabul. Anticipating that women would be banned from playing sports, the former captain of the women’s football team, exiled in Denmark, urged female sports players to erase their social media profiles and burn their kits. Soon afterward, close to a hundred people, including women footballers and their family members, escaped to Pakistan aided by the Pakistani Football Federation.
Despite signalling to the international community that it would be more inclusive than in the past, when the Taliban announced its cabinet on 7 September 2021, it turned out to be all male and disproportionately Pashtun. Seventeen out of 22 ministers, including the head of government, were on the UN sanctions list. The supreme leader became the ‘Emir of the Islamic Emirate’, placed above the prime minister – and just like that, Afghanistan became a theocratic state. The government assured it would obey international laws – provided they did not contradict sharia laws, which offered no reassurance at all. A ‘ministry for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice’ was established to replace the closed-down Women’s Affairs Ministry.
Moderation an empty promise
As soon as it urged the Taliban to respect human rights, Afghanistan’s independent Human Rights Commission was dissolved and its offices seized. In another signal that the Taliban’s talk of moderation meant nothing, on 24 September it was announced that executions and amputations would resume.
More than 150 media outlets were ordered to shut down and the offices of civil society organisations (CSOs) were raided, their accounts frozen and activists and their families attacked in their homes. CSOs supporting women’s rights were targeted and Afghan UN staff were harassed and intimidated.
Already countless human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, artists and academics have been threatened, arbitrarily detained, beaten and kidnapped; several have been shot dead. Among those abducted and later found dead was woman human rights defender Frozan Safi. Assassinated journalists included Hamidullah Saighani, a TV reporter killed by a magnetic bomb attached to his car.
Dozens of former soldiers and police officers – more than 100 as of late November, according to a Human Rights Watch report – have been summarily executed. There have been targeted killings of other former government employees, particularly women.
Separate and unequal
A month after the Taliban takeover, high schools were ordered to reopen – but the announcement only mentioned boys. When the academic year ended in November, girls’ secondary schools had never opened. Primary education, while permitted, remained inaccessible for girls in much of Afghanistan. Many provinces didn’t have enough schools and teachers to begin with, a problem further intensified by gender segregation and the fact that thousands of female teachers fled as the Taliban advanced.
In Helmand and Kandahar provinces, universities reopened in February and some women were allowed to attend class, although under tight restrictions, strictly segregated and with a harsh dress code. Understandably, given these intimidating arrangements, numbers were low. Universities in other areas remained closed.
While at the national level girls’ secondary schools stayed closed, there were instances of concessions being obtained in some provinces by teachers and principals who negotiated with local-level Taliban authorities.
Taliban rule has also brought a resurgence of the old practice of ‘bacha posh’ – dressing as a boy – in which young girls are named, dressed and treated as boys for several years, typically until puberty, during which they avoid the tasks typically reserved for girls and can instead go to school, be outside on their own and even work. While this practice can give girls the semblance of a normal life for a few years, the eventual loss of freedom hits hard, and it ultimately reinforces the rigid gender hierarchy that precludes women from being valued for what they are.
An activist alternative that had already been embraced under past Taliban rule has also resurfaced: some teachers and older students have established ‘secret schools’, clandestinely providing educational activities for girls.
Voices from the frontline
Matiullah Wesa is founder and president of PenPath, a CSO dedicated to reopening closed schools, establishing new schools with communities and local authorities’ support, supporting ‘secret schools’, collecting books and setting up libraries, distributing humanitarian aid and educational materials and conducting awareness-raising campaigns in Afghanistan.
My brother Ataullah and I founded PenPath in 2009. Our father was a tribal leader, and after 25 years of work and campaigning house to house to promote education, he established a public school for 900 students. This first school was built out of tents my father got, and we all studied under the trees. In 2003, I was a child attending school in Kandahar Province, Maruf District. I was in the fourth grade and I still remember the day when armed militants came and burned it down.
Six days after my school was burned down, militants came into my house to warn my father that as he was a supporter of girls’ education we were not welcome any longer. They gave us one week to go. We left our home and our district or else we would have been killed.
We left for Kabul, where we saw that both girls and boys had access to education. I reflected on this and decided to start some kind of campaign. I explained my idea to my father and he agreed to give me financial support for my project, which was also dear to him because he had a history with girls’ education initiatives. This is how my brother and I founded PenPath in 2009.
When we campaign with PenPath, we travel around the country and visit all districts and villages on our way. We talk to the local people in each area and we promote the unity of Afghan society for the cause of education. It is always difficult to start this conversation. When you first approach locals, their reaction can be very aggressive; they give us death threats and say they will kill us if we keep doing what we do. We also receive threatening phone calls from unknown numbers.
However, I don’t personally see these threats as obstacles. We manage to have thousands of contacts with locals and tribal leaders from all religious backgrounds who support our work. Fundamentalist militants can’t control our work and they can’t make us stop.
We work towards the goal of reopening closed schools. In 2009, we reopened a school in a war zone area that had been closed for almost 15 years. After we started reaching out to volunteers, we were able to campaign house to house in village after village. Over time, we were able to reopen 100 schools in the 16 provinces of Afghanistan.
For instance, once we went to an area which had 1,200 families and not a single school. We started encouraging people by giving them information about the importance of education. They saw how important it was to have a school in their area. PenPath eventually established 46 schools in this previously school-less area, and we also opened 40 public libraries in remote areas.
We want to change people’s minds and show them that children’s rights, women’s rights and the right to education are all fundamental rights. We organised a book donation campaign and with the help of Afghan people we have so far collected 340,000 books. We have also distributed 1.5 million stationery material kits (pens, notebooks, schoolbags, pencils) among Afghan people. We provided education facilities for 110,000 children; 66,000 of them were girls.
In 2016 we started with 12 secret schools. These were located in a war zone area where there were no teachers available. We moved education to the houses. If they saw we had secret girls’ schools in that area, the military would try to kill our teachers.
We now have 33 secret schools in the poorest provinces of Afghanistan. These areas had no schools 20 years ago, and we were the ones who brought education to them. Right now, 5,000 girls are studying every day in our secret schools.
We think of PenPath as a bridge: we are a bridge between people and education.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Matiullah. Read the full interview here.
Resistance against all odds
Against seemingly impossible odds, Afghan women have found the courage to fight back. Resistance has been piecemeal, with the numbers involved in protests typically ranging from less than 10 to around a hundred people, but those involved have been relentless.
The Taliban’s response has usually been repressive. The Taliban have portrayed protesters as being incited from abroad and have often employed force, seeking to deter others and prevent journalists and bystanders filming and reporting on the protests to fellow Afghans and the outside world.
On 2 September, a small group marched to the Kabul governor’s office, but the governor refused to meet them. Two days later, around 100 women gathered close to the presidential palace. Taliban security forces fired their weapons into the air to prevent them reaching the building, then used teargas and batons to disperse them, beating some women.
When a largely female group gathered in the Dashti-Barchi area of Kabul on 8 September, at least five journalists were arrested and two were severely beaten. In another protest held in Faizabad city, Badakhshan province, the Taliban fired shots in the air and beat several protesters. A small group of women who gathered to protest elsewhere in Kabul was violently dispersed, as were groups protesting that same day in Kapisa and Takhar provinces.
On 10 September, the Taliban announced a ban on all unauthorised protests, and the next day they ordered telecommunications companies to switch off mobile phone internet access in some parts of the capital. But street protests continued regardless.
On 19 September, a group of women held a silent protest in response to an announcement by the Kabul city government that female employees must stay home unless they could not be replaced by a man. They gathered outside the premises of what used to be the Women’s Affairs Ministry, although their authorisation request had not been granted.
On 20 September, 13 high school students held a protest in a residential area on Herat’s outskirts and on 30 September, six women from the ‘Spontaneous Movement of Afghan Women Activists’ gathered outside a high school in eastern Kabul to demand its reopening before being dispersed with gunfire.
Another women’s protest was held in Kabul on 1 October to decry exclusion from education as a violation of basic human rights. Again on 21 October, at least 20 women protested outside the Ministry of Education, then headed towards the Ministry of Finance, at which point they were violently dispersed. All subsequent protests followed the same pattern. On 28 December, around 30 women marched in the centre of Kabul to demand justice for soldiers killed by the Taliban for serving under the former US-backed regime – and again, protesters and journalists alike were repressed.
The New Year brought no respite. In January 2022, Taliban gunmen raided the homes of women’s rights activists in Kabul, beating and arresting them, seemingly in retaliation for their role in protests. Among those abducted were women’s rights activists Parwana Ibrahimkhel and Tamana Zaryab Paryani. Days earlier, the two women had participated in a protest for women’s right to work. Tamana was taken with three of her sisters, one just 13 years old. On 3 February, Zahra Mohammadi of the Afghan Women’s Solidarity Team was abducted from her office after organising an indoor protest to demand the release of those taken in January.
Another women’s protest was disrupted on 16 January. Armed Taliban members were already present when the women gathered, reinforcing their fears that their communications are being intercepted. Some fled, but about 25 women started marching to Kabul University as planned. Taliban members pointed firearms at them and called them ‘puppets of the west’ and ‘whores’ while bystanders filming the protest were assaulted and their phones seized. As protesters reached the university, a larger Taliban group in pickup trucks surrounded them, pepper-sprayed them and beat them; some were followed as they made their way home.
Freedom an indelible memory
In January 2022, the Taliban said female high schoolers would go be able to go back to school when the new term started. The announcement was made official in early March, as the school year was beginning, but the return to school was pushed back further. Girls’ high schools finally reopened on 23 March, only to be closed again just a few hours later.
The certainty of repression did not stop these girls who had seen their hopes of access to a fundamental right slip away. They turned towards what had already become a new routine: protest. They stood in front of the Ministry of Education and they knew the drill: they were duly dispersed and detained.
Out of frustration, they redoubled their protests. PenPath, a CSO working for girls’ right to education, announced a wave of demonstrations. Activist Halima Nasari read a statement issued by four women’s rights CSOs, giving the Taliban authorities a week’s deadline to reopen the schools and warning they would stage nationwide protests until their demands were met. Support for their cause came from the World Bank, which suspended four projects worth US$600 million over the ongoing closure of girls’ schools.
These women and girls are part of a generation that has recently experienced freedom and, as Malala Yousafzai observed, they aren’t going to make things easy for the Taliban if they can help it. In impossible circumstances, they will continue refusing to fall into the silence the Taliban demands of them, putting their bodies on the line. The least the international community can do is stand by their side.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
States must make any aid supplied to Afghanistan conditional on guarantees of upholding fundamental rights of women and girls.
The international community must establish a monitoring mechanism to hold the Taliban accountable on human rights commitments.
International civil society should support Afghan civil society’s efforts to provide educational alternatives for girls.
Cover photo by Matiullah Wesa/Instagram