For most teenage girls in Afghanistan, it’s been a year since they set foot in a classroom. With no sign the ruling Islamic Emirate will allow them back to school, some are trying to find ways to keep education from stalling for a generation of young women.
At a house in Kabul, dozens gathered on a recent day for classes in an informal school set up by Sodaba Nazhand. She and her sister teach English, science and math to girls who should be in secondary school.
“When the Taliban wanted to take away the rights of education and the rights of work from women, I wanted to stand against their decision by teaching these girls,” Nazhand told The Associated Press.
Hers is one of a number of underground schools in operation since the Islamic Emirate took over the country a year ago and banned girls from continuing their education past the sixth grade. While the Islamic Emirate has permitted women to continue attending universities, this exception will become irrelevant when there are no more girls graduating from high schools.
Officials have publicly insisted that they will allow teen girls back into school, but say time is needed to set up logistics for strict gender segregation to ensure an “Islamic framework.”
Hopes were raised in March: Just before the new school year was to begin, the Afghanistan Education Ministry proclaimed everyone would be allowed back. But on March 23, the day of the reopening, the decision was suddenly reversed, surprising even ministry officials.
Shekiba Qaderi, a 16-year-old, recalled how she showed up that day, ready to start the 10th grade. She and all her classmates were laughing and excited, until a teacher came in and told them to go home. The girls broke into tears, she said. “That was the worst moment in our lives.”
Since then, she’s been trying to keep up with studies at home, reading her textbooks, novels and history books. She’s studying English through movies and YouTube videos.
The unequal access to education cuts through families. Shekiba and a younger sister can’t go to her school, but her two brothers can. Her older sister is at a private university studying law. But that is little comfort, said their father, Mohammad Shah Qaderi. Most of the professors have left the country, bringing down the quality of the education.
Even if the young woman gets a university degree, “what is the benefit?” asked Qaderi, a 58-year-old retired government employee.
“She won’t have a job. The Taliban won’t allow her to work,” he said.
Qaderi said he has always wanted his children to get a higher education. Now that may be impossible, so he’s thinking of leaving Afghanistan for the first time after riding out years of war.
“I can’t see them growing in front of my eyes with no education; it is just not acceptable to me,” he said.
Underground schools present another alternative, though with limitations.
A month after the Islamic Emirate takeover, Nazhand started teaching street children to read with informal outdoor classes in a park in her neighborhood. Women who couldn’t read or write joined them, she said. Some time later, a benefactor who saw her in the park rented a house for her to hold classes in, and bought tables and chairs. Once she was operating inside, Nazhand included teen girls who were no longer allowed to go to public school.
For students, the underground schools are a lifeline.
“It is so hard when you can’t go to school,” said one of them, Dunya Arbabzada. “Whenever I pass by my school and see the closed door ... it’s so upsetting for me.”