At a house in Kabul, dozens of people gathered on a recent day for classes at an informal school set up by Sodaba Nazhand. She and her sister teach English, science and math to girls who should be in high school.
“When the Taliban wanted to take away women’s education rights and employment rights, I wanted to oppose their decision by teaching these girls,” Nazhand told The Associated Press.
Hers is one of several clandestine schools in operation since the Taliban took over the country a year ago and barred girls from continuing their education beyond the sixth grade. While the Taliban have allowed women to continue to attend university, this exception will become irrelevant when no more girls graduate from high school.
“There is no way to fill this void, and this situation is very sad and worrying,” Nazhand said.
Aid agency Save the Children interviewed almost 1,700 boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 17 in seven provinces to assess the impact of educational restrictions.
The survey, conducted in May and June and published on Wednesday, found that more than 45% of girls are out of school, compared to 20% of boys. It also found that 26% of girls show signs of depression, compared to 16% of boys.
Nearly the entire population of Afghanistan was plunged into poverty and millions were unable to feed their families as the world cut funding in response to the taliban takeover.
Teachers, parents and experts warn that the country’s multiple crises, including the devastating collapse of the economy, are proving particularly damaging to girls. The Taliban have restricted women’s work, encouraged them to stay home, and issued dress codes that require face coverings except the eyes, though the codes are not always enforced.
The international community is demanding that the Taliban open schools for all girls, and the US and EU have created plans to pay teachers’ salaries in Afghanistan directly, keeping the sector running without passing the funds through the Taliban .
But the question of girls education appears to have become entangled in behind-the-scenes differences between the Taliban. Some in the movement support girls going back to school, either because they see no religious objections or because they want better ties with the world. Others, especially the rural tribal elders who form the backbone of the movement, are strongly opposed.
During the first time they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban imposed much stricter measures restrictions on womenbanning school for all girls, excluding women from work and requiring them to wear an all-encompassing burqa if they go out.
In the 20 years after the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001, a whole generation of women went back to school and to work, especially in urban areas. Seemingly acknowledging those changes, the Taliban assured Afghans when they took control again last year that they would not return to the heavy-handedness of the past.
Officials have publicly insisted they will allow teenage girls to return to school, but say time is needed to work out the logistics for strict gender segregation to ensure an “Islamic framework.”
Hopes rose in March: just before the new school year began, the Taliban education ministry proclaimed that everyone could return. But on March 23, the day of reopening, the decision was suddenly reversed, surprising even ministry officials. It seemed that at the last minute, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, bowed to the opposition.
Shekiba Qaderi, a 16-year-old, recalled showing up that day, ready to start 10th grade. She and all her classmates were laughing and excited, until a teacher came in and told them to go home. The girls burst into tears, she said. “That was the worst moment of our lives.”
Since then, he has been trying to keep up with studies at home, reading his textbooks, novels, and history books. She is studying English through movies and YouTube videos.
Unequal access to education cuts across families. Shekiba and a younger sister cannot go to their school, but her two brothers can. Her older sister is in a private university studying law. But that is little consolation, said her father, Mohammad Shah Qaderi. Most teachers have left the country, bringing down the quality of education.
Even if she gets a college degree, “what’s the benefit?” asked Qaderi, a 58-year-old retired government employee.
“She will not have a job. The Taliban will not allow him to work,” she said.
Qaderi said she has always wanted her children to get a higher education. Now that may be impossible, which is why he is thinking of leaving Afghanistan for the first time after years of war.
“I can’t see them grow up in front of my eyes without education; it’s just not acceptable to me,” she said.
Underground schools present another alternative, albeit with limitations.
A month after the Taliban took power, Nazhand began teaching street children to read with informal outdoor classes in a neighborhood park. Women who couldn’t read or write joined them, she said. Later, a benefactor who saw her in the park rented a house for her to teach, and bought tables and chairs. Once she was operating inside, Nazhand included teenage girls who were no longer allowed to go to public school.
Now there are about 250 students, including 50 or 60 schoolgirls from more than sixth grade.
“Not only do I teach them school subjects, but I also try to teach them how to fight and stand up for their rights,” said Nazhand. The Taliban have not changed since they first came to power in the late 1990s, he said. “They are the same Taliban, but we should not be the same women of those years. We must fight: writing, speaking out, in any way possible.”
Nazhand’s school and others like it are technically illegal under current Taliban restrictions, but so far they haven’t shut hers down. However, at least one other person who operates a school refused to speak to reporters, fearing possible repercussions.
Despite his unwavering commitment, Nazhand worries about the future of his school. Her benefactor paid six months’ rent on the house, but he recently died and she has no way of continuing to pay rent or utilities.
For students, underground schools are a lifeline.
“It’s so hard when you can’t go to school,” said one of them, Dunya Arbabzada. “Every time I walk past my school and see the door closed… it’s very upsetting to me.”
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