Afghan Students are defying the ban on female education at an underground school in Kabul
The blinds are drawn in Layla’s classroom and the atmosphere is tense. A member of the Taliban could bang on the door at any moment. Even so, she loses herself in the lesson, forgetting for a while that this isn’t an ordinary school and life as she knew it before Friday 13 of August is unrecognizable. That was the last day she attended class as normal. Over the weekend the Taliban swept into Kabul and by Monday her school was closed.
“I was thinking that the world and life is just finished. I cannot go to school, I cannot go to university in the future and be a great person, because they want women and girls to just sit at home and do nothing,” the 17-year-old says.
When schools re-opened across the country weeks later, only boys were allowed back. Nine months on, primary school girls have returned to class but from 7th-grade they remain barred, confirming fears that the new Taliban government will mirror the restrictions of the last. “I am tired of war and backwardness… if I cannot study I will stay as weak as I am today,” says Layla.
In January, Taliban officials repeated promises to reinstate education for all girls but then extended the ban indefinitely, and earlier this month they released a formal directive saying women should not leave their homes except in cases of urgent necessity. “Our mothers and sisters are illiterate because of their wars. I am afraid history is repeating itself in Afghanistan,” says Salma, who was a teacher at a private school in Kabul before the Taliban takeover.
Afghan Women Persist with Underground Education
At the request of her students, Salma is running an underground school for women, teaching twice daily mathematics classes at an undisclosed location in Kabul. “Even one day, one week, or one month more learning might help my students stay motivated,” says Salma, who recently received an Innovation Hub grant from Ideas Beyond Borders to support her school.
In a handful of provinces, education institutions have struck deals with local Taliban officials to allow secondary school girls back to class, but for anyone else defying the ban is extremely dangerous. Women and girls have been arrested by the Taliban and in some cases disappeared after evading the group’s restrictions but Salma’s pupils keep coming because they are more scared of a future defined by the Taliban. “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, which is the result of illiteracy.”
She takes what measures she can to ensure their safety, holding classes in a secret location, changing lesson timings so they aren’t seen leaving at a specific hour, and advising them to travel individually rather than in groups to class. “Actually it is beyond my ability to protect them… I am afraid of being punished, whether me, my team, my students, or my family.”
If a Taliban official bangs on the door, she will sweep the books aside and tell them the women are doing Islam Studies and Quran training. Aside from a whiteboard, there is little else to indicate that this is a school. Students sit cross-legged on the floor in the corner of her house, with the doors and windows closed. “It’s very different to a normal school day, but at least the purpose is the same, which is educating the girls at any cost, regardless of the challenges we face,” she says.
Afghanistan had seen a steady rise in female education since the former Taliban regime, which ruled the country from 1996 to 2001 and banned girls over the age of eight from school. In 2003, just 6 percent of Afghan girls were in secondary school, compared to 39 percent in 2017, according to World Bank figures. Female education was seen as a success story during the 20-year occupation of Afghanistan, but since the fundamentalist group regained power following the withdrawal of US troops from the country, that has been placed on hold.
The United Nations has called on the Taliban to avoid reversing two decades of progress in education, assuring Afghan women that their future remains a priority for the international community. “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,” Amina Jane Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations said in September when teenage Afghan girls learned they would not be returning to school.
Since then, they have discovered what their aunts and mothers endured under the former Taliban regime – a dystopian nightmare they suddenly found themselves living. “I had read books about what they did the last time they came to my country,” says 19-year-old Nadia, who was born after the US ousted the first Taliban regime.
She had planned to pursue higher education and a career in public service before her world narrowed overnight. Now she attends Salma’s underground school, which provides a glimmer of light in a life that has otherwise gone dark. “This is the only time I study and do something for my future. I can just get away from the stress at home and thinking about my ambiguous future in Afghanistan.”
*The names in this piece have been changed for security purposes.