A harsh new reality for Afghan women and girls in Taliban-run schools

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KABUL, Afghanistan – The principal of a girls’ school in Kabul desperately wants to know the details of the Taliban’s plan to educate girls. But she cannot attend the weekly meetings of the Taliban Education Committee. They are reserved for men.

“They say, ‘You should send a male representative,'” principal Aqila said inside Sayed Ul-Shuhada high school, which was destroyed in May by a terrorist attack that killed dozens of girls.

But Aqila and other Afghan educators don’t need to attend meetings to understand the harsh new reality of education under the Taliban. The emerging government has made it clear that it intends to severely restrict the educational freedoms enjoyed by many women and girls over the past 20 years.

The only question is how draconian the new system will be and what kind of Islamic education will be imposed on both boys and girls. Just as they did when they ruled most of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the Taliban appear determined to rule not strictly by decree, but by inference and intimidation.

When schools reopened for Grades 7 to 12 on Saturday, only male students were invited to show up for their studies. The Taliban didn’t say anything about the girls in those classes, so they stayed home, their families anxious and uncertain about their future. Boys and girls in grades one through six attended schools, with students separated by gender in the upper three years.

When the Taliban were in power from 1996 to 2001, they banned women and girls from going to school. After the US-led invasion overthrew the Taliban regime in late 2001, female students began attending schools and universities as the opportunities increased. Women were able to study for careers in business and government, and in professions such as medicine and law.

In 2018, the literacy rate for women in Afghanistan reached 30%, according to a new UNESCO report.

But the Taliban returned to Kabul and took power on August 15, and since then they have said they will impose their harsh interpretation of Sharia law.

The new government has said that some form of education for girls and women will be allowed, but these parameters have not been clearly defined by Taliban officials.

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The Taliban have also said men will no longer be allowed to teach girls or women, exacerbating an already severe teacher shortage. This, combined with constraints in paying teachers’ salaries and stopping international aid, could have “immediate and serious” consequences for education in Afghanistan, the UNESCO report warned.

Students will be required to wear an “Islamic hijab”, but with the definition left open to interpretation. At a rally of pro-Taliban women last week, many women wore the niqab, a garment that covers a woman’s hair, nose and mouth, leaving only the eyes exposed.

“We are working on a mechanism to provide transport and other facilities necessary for a safer and better educational environment,” Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesperson for the Taliban and acting deputy minister of information and communication, said on Monday. culture, adding that classes for girls in grades seven and up would resume soon.

“There are countries in the region that are committed to helping us in our education sector,” he said. “It will help us provide a better education for everyone. “

While many girls and women in Kabul have embraced Western standards for women’s rights and opportunities, Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative society. In the countryside, although not all women welcome the Taliban regime, many are used to customs that kept them at home to cook, clean and raise children even before the Taliban took power in the years. 1990.

The acting minister of higher education said last week that women can continue to study in universities and graduate programs, as long as they are in gender-separated classes, but on Friday the new government sent a disturbing signal of his intentions. The compound of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been converted into offices for the Religious Morality Police, which brutally applied activists’ interpretation of Sharia law two decades ago. The building now houses the Ministry of Invitation, Guidance and Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Teachers, administrators and students are bracing for austere new restrictions. Many say they have started wearing niqabs and preparing classrooms to accommodate strictly gender-separated classes. (Many schools also taught boys and girls only classes under the United States-backed government.)

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“I started wearing the niqab from the first day the Taliban arrived,” Parisa said, who works at a school in Kabul. She said she didn’t want to give the Taliban an excuse to shut down the school altogether.

“We’re going to wear it, but we don’t want to stop educating,” Parisa said.

The Times refers to Parisa only by first name, and other teachers and students by nicknames or their first names, to protect their identities.

Parisa’s attempts to find out the details of the Taliban’s new program came to nothing, she said. She and other teachers said they were told to continue teaching the current curriculum until the Taliban complete their own version.

“Women are half of our society – their role is important in all walks of life,” said Parisa. “But the Taliban don’t talk to women.”

For the students, the sudden end of their academic freedom was both traumatic and crippling. Many say the joy and anticipation they once felt upon entering classrooms have been lost, replaced with fear and a sense of overwhelming futility.

Zayba, 17, survived a devastating bombardment on his school in May, for which no group took responsibility, although similar attacks have been attributed to the Islamic State-affiliated group operating in Afghanistan.

Zayba stopped attending school after the Taliban takeover, which she said had deprived her of any motivation. “I like to study at home,” she says. “I try, but I can’t, because I don’t see a future for myself with this diet.”

Sanam, Zayba’s 16-year-old classmate, underwent two surgeries to repair the wounds from the shrapnel that tore her apart on the day of the bombing.

On August 15, she took an exam; she wants to be a dentist. When she returned home, she learned that the Taliban had seized political power.

“I thought about the explosion, and thought they would come and kill all the students,” Sanam said.

She is still in shock. “I can’t concentrate on my studies,” she says. “When we think about our future, we don’t see anything.”

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When Sanam heard the boys were going back to school on Saturday, she said, she was delighted her brother was back in class. She clung to the hope that the Taliban would somehow recognize the prowess that girls and women have shown over the past two decades.

“If they learn that women can be a part of this country and that they can do whatever men can do, then maybe they will allow us to go to school,” she said.

But for now, even male teachers say they are anxious and terrified.

A teacher at Sayed Ul-Shuhada School said 11 of his students were killed in the May 8 bombing. “After the explosion, we lost confidence in ourselves,” he said. “The students did not have the motivation to go to school.

Since the Taliban took power, morale has fallen further, said the teacher, whose name is withheld to protect his identity.

“The new government says ladies and girls can’t work in government, that’s why they lost their motivation,” he said. “If you were them, you would also say that this situation is impossible. “

Mohammad Tariq, administrator of a private school in Kabul, said Taliban education officials told him in meetings he attended that the new curriculum would include “special subjects” that teachers would be required to attend. teach. Girls will be educated by women and boys by men, he said.

“The change will come in the books, in the Islamic books,” Mohammad Tariq said. “Some subjects will be cut for girls: engineering, government studies, cooking, vocational education. The main subjects will remain.

Taliban spokesman Mr. Mujahid denied that specific subjects were being dropped from the school curriculum.

For many girls, ending their educational freedom also means ending their dreams. Grade 12 Zayba said she had planned since childhood to study for a career as a surgeon.

But last month, she said, her future seemed to evaporate.

“The day the Taliban took control, I thought: it’s the end of women’s lives,” she said.

Sami Sahak contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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