Dark futures: Afghanistan's women reel from Taliban school ban
U-turn On Female Education Jeopardizes International Legitimacy And Economic Recovery
KABUL -- Anbaren, a bold and ambitious 16-year-old, was born in what was an age of optimism for Afghanistan. Her life plans were neatly organized, just like the bedroom she shares with her older sister. Following a rigorous schedule of school and extracurricular classes to prepare for the exams required to enter public universities, she had dreams to study computer science in Washington D.C. with her best friend.
But last Aug. 15 Anbaren's life was put on hold, as the Taliban rolled into Kabul, white flags fluttering from their pickup trucks and toting Kalashnikovs. Her best friend left the country, leaving Anbaren staring at an uncertain future. She has been unable to leave home due to increasing hostility toward women on the streets.
"After spending days indoors, one day I decided to walk to a nearby shop when a Talib stopped me and yelled at me for wearing pants and [a] shirt that ended right above my knee," Anbaren related. "He said, 'All Kabul girls are shameless! Go home and cover yourself!'
"I didn't leave my home after that day."
Anbaren compares herself to her friends who left Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal. They will have to start from scratch in a new country, while Anbaren's only solace came from the hope that one day she will be able to resume her 12th-grade classes at Kabul's Rabia Balkhi High School.
Finally, last month, those faint hopes seemed to have been vindicated when the Ministry of Education proclaimed the reopening of schools for all girls and boys on March 23, two days after Nowruz, the first day of spring and New Year according to the Islamic Hijri calendar.
"My friends, now settled in camps abroad, called me the day before our schools were to start and wished me luck," she said as she and her friends picked out matching clothes for school the next day. "They told me they miss Kabul and preferred Afghanistan's bombs and insecurity to living in the camps. I told them I missed them but I was ready for school the next day."
"I arrived at school at 7 a.m. sharp. When I saw my friends standing in the yard, I was so happy. But as we went to our classrooms, the school principal came a few minutes later and announced that girls above grade six must go home as their classes have been postponed," Anbaren recounted.
"Under the guidance of the leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, schools for women from the sixth grade above are closed until further notice" read a statement from Mawlawi Aziz Ahmad Ryan, director of publications and spokesman for the Ministry of Education that morning.
Refusing to believe this turn of events, Anbaren and many other students stood their ground and resisted. But the school authorities threatened that if the girls did not leave the school compound, they would be forcibly removed.
It was not easy to break the news of the U-turn to the excited girls, said Rahima Ali, principal of Rabia Balkhi High School, who was not privy to why the decision was made. "I was devastated when I made the announcement. All the teachers and students were crying. It was the hardest thing for me to do."
Confusion all round
The decision to backtrack on the earlier announcement that schools would reopen to all students seems to have been made during a cabinet meeting held in Kandahar on the night of March 22 -- a decision that sparked disbelief even within the Taliban's inner circles.
A senior official in the Ministry of Education who requested anonymity said he felt equally sad and helpless at the leadership's decision: "They decided to close the schools. We know nothing about it," he said. "If they give us the order right now, we will reopen the schools for girls tomorrow."
When asked why they made a public announcement and then reneged on their decision, he said "we never confirmed the dates."
The U-turn confirmed many women's worst fears about the new government. Known to many as "Taliban 2.0," it is the second iteration of the movement that ruled much of Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001 and came to power again last August amid the chaotic U.S withdrawal.
Many Afghans were cautiously optimistic that the civil war was over, and have been reserving judgment that the new government would not be a repeat of the despotic previous Taliban regime that banned women's education along with singing, dancing, and even kite-flying, among a host of other strict rules inspired by Islamic law.
Women's education is also an important litmus test for many governments that are considering whether to recognize the Taliban regime. The policy reversal on girls' schooling is a huge barrier to external donor aid, which accounted for 49% of national education expenditure in 2020, according to UNESCO.
After the Taliban banned senior girls' education, the World Bank suspended four projects worth $600 million that were meant to support health care, education and other sectors.
More important is the long-term economic and social impact of postponing girls' education in a country already reeling from its worst-ever economic crisis -- as much as 97% of the population is predicted to slide below the poverty line by mid-2022, according to the United Nations Development Program.
Leaving aside the moral argument that it will crush the hopes of millions, not educating women and ultimately restricting them from the workforce is something Afghanistan can ill afford economically. A December 2021 report by U.N. Women estimated that restricting women from the workforce could shrink the country's GDP by 5% or lead to an immediate economic loss of up to $1 billion.
"The situation in Afghanistan is a challenging humanitarian crisis with a particularly alarming and serious gender dimension," Sarah Knibbs, U.N. Women's officer-in-charge for Asia and the Pacific, told Nikkei Asia. "Cultural constraints mean women need to receive services from women, so women's participation in humanitarian aid is essential to ensure the delivery of life-saving services."
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the government to reconsider its decision. "The denial of education not only violates the equal rights of women and girls to education," he said on March 23, "it also jeopardizes the country's future in view of the tremendous contributions by Afghan women and girls."
Taliban authorities gave a number of justifications for continuing to bar older girls from school, from cultural issues to a policy change, none of which explained why the decision was made so abruptly after girls had been promised for months that schools would reopen for everyone after March 23.
Acting Education Minister Sheikh Mawlawi Noorullah Moneer stressed cultural sensitivity, rather than religious ideology, in an interview with Nikkei. He explained that Afghanistan is a deeply conservative society, especially in its rural regions, which were largely forgotten by the previous regime in its policymaking.
He claimed that even if the government opened schools all over the country, only 1% to 2% of households would choose to send their girls to school.
"A villager came to my office the other day and I asked him if he'll send his oldest daughter to school if I opened one in his village," the minister said. "He replied that only a shameful man would send his elder daughter to school."
Cultural distinctions and varying interpretations of Sharia mean reactions to the education ban differ from province to province. While in Kabul the announcement was largely met with outrage, some in rural areas welcomed the decision.
And the new government's diktat does not appear to extend across the country. In some villages, senior schools for girls continue to function.
"In our village, girls up to the 12th grade are going to school," said Shakeel Ahmad, a former employee of the Afghan National Army and resident of Goshta, a rural village in Nangarhar Province, eastern Afghanistan. "The Taliban haven't banned them like they have in the cities."
Ahmad's claim has not been verified.
Ahmad, who has two young daughters, agrees with the Taliban's choice to delay girls' return to school. He told Nikkei that even though everyone has a right to education, it must be delivered in accordance with Sharia law. Ahmad added that youngsters can get "misdirected" once they hit puberty, so boys and girls must be separated and supervised by adults.
Ahmad's former adversary and now best friend, Mr. Baheer (who declined to give his first name), is a battle-hardened Talib working in intelligence in Logar, Nangarhar's neighboring province. A university graduate himself, he assures that the Taliban leadership is in constant touch with the central government about the reopening of schools.
"Some schools in Kabul have male teachers teaching female students" Baheer said. "And a lot of books written in the [time of the] previous government also need to be changed. But I am hopeful that institutions will reopen again and that all my sisters will be able to go back to their studies."
"I wish I wasn't an Afghan"
The Taliban, however, are not a monolithic organization. Composed of religious zealots and relatively tolerant, outward-facing moderates, the government must balance competing objectives of international legitimacy with the twin aims of governing a conservative society and placating the radicals in their midst who consider girls in school akin to blasphemy.
Many educators were already skeptical that the Taliban would follow through on their pledge, owing to pressure from radicals. Zarine (not her real name), a school teacher and principal at a private school in Kabul, said she became suspicious when Taliban officials came to her school for an inspection a few days before the official reopening.
"The first thing they said to us was that 'we are not the previous government. We do what we say.' I could sense a threat in their voice," Zarine recalled.
The school staff cooperated with the officials, who expressed displeasure at the school's online material and asked them to make hard copies of everything. "They said, 'we want to see what you teach the students,' they even condemned us for teaching American history in our curriculum."
Zarine's school, which had already been offering online classes when the pandemic struck, requested that leadership let girls study at home while it is still hammering out its policies. But it refused.
"If their issue with senior girls is policy-related, why didn't they allow online classes?" Zarine asked. "I don't think they intend to open schools for girls anytime soon because opening schools would mean allowing them to graduate and join universities. University girls after completing education would demand jobs. They are not prepared for this level of change."
Zarine, who married at the age of 16 to an uneducated man from Kapisa Province in northeastern Afghanistan, is living proof of the value of an education. Returning from Pakistan during the regime of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai, Zarine was fortunate to receive a formal education but was later married into an ultraconservative family as her father's last wish before he succumbed to cancer. She remembers that even under U.S. rule life was not easy, but at least there was opportunity.
In rural Kapisa, she said, girls were not traditionally allowed an education. "We had to fight our battles at home. My brother-in-law opposed my job and education, often threatening to sever ties with my husband if he didn't stop me."
Zarine's husband, who studied only until the sixth grade and is currently jobless, continued to live in Afghanistan while the Taliban first ran the country and Zarine emigrated to Pakistan. He worked odd jobs to support his mother and sister who were not allowed to leave home without a mahram, a male guardian to accompany women on outings, as required by the Taliban.
"Sometimes I tell my [13-year-old] daughter, I wish you weren't a girl or we weren't Afghans," Zarine said. "This is such a sad thing to say because I love my country."
"This is so unfair"
Many Afghan women and girls had already been hedging their bets, assuming the Taliban would ultimately renege on their promise. Hasanat Adeel, 14, from the central province of Bamyan, had been training as a hairdresser, assuming she would never be allowed to return to school.
"When they closed the schools last year, I waited for a few months for them to reopen," Adeel said. "We couldn't go out, couldn't go to the market, couldn't go to school, so I decided to work with a hairdresser to learn a new skill rather than wasting my time at home.
"I pay them 2,000 afghani ($22.50) every month to teach me this job. What if they never let us study? I wanted to have a backup option."
When the news that schools would reopen arrived in her tiny hamlet, Adeel dropped her salon training in a heartbeat to prepare for school the next morning. But that day was no different for her than for thousands of others. She resumed her salon training the following day, struggling to learn much due to a lack of customers.
Yusra, 12, an eighth-grader at Zayd Bin Haris Private School in Kabul who aspires to become a doctor, was devastated by the ban. "This is so unfair," Yusra said. "How can they do this to us? What will they do when their own sisters, daughters and wives become sick? They need women to treat their women but won't let girls study."
Sarah, 18, a 12th-grader at Rabia Balkhi High School and elder sister to Yusra and Anbaren, said she never trusted the Taliban to reopen schools for girls but believed it after her social media accounts began to buzz with the news.
"I laid out my black uniform, picked out a green headscarf and covered all my books with new sheets," she said. "My father even bought me a new bag and a set of pens."
For Rowzia, Sarah's 55-year-old mother who recently finished her master's program at Kabul Education University, the ban reminded her of the 1990s, when the Taliban first came to power.
"They are just this much better than before," Rowzia said, pinching her thumb and index finger. "In the past, girls even below sixth grade were not allowed to go to school. It was compulsory to wear a burqa, and a mahram was mandatory. Not following these rules would attract public punishment. But that isn't happening anymore."
However, many women see the school ban as part of a pattern: The Taliban promise tolerance but fail to deliver. "They are changing the country gradually every day," Zarine said, "bringing back the same old restrictions."
In a recent slew of restrictions, the Taliban segregated public parks. Women may visit them on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, while men can go during the rest of the week.
"Our only joy as a family was to go to parks on holidays," Zarine said. "We can't even do that anymore. I took my children to a bagh [garden] in Nowruz. Even though they were playing, the happiness in their eyes was missing. The Taliban soldiers were patrolling the gardens. The men with guns scared my children."
Homeira Qaderi -- author of "Dancing in the Mosque," a memoir in which the author tells her son why she left him and Afghanistan for California -- also vividly remembers the Taliban's initial rise to power.
"Back then," the activist and professor said, "when they closed the girls' school, I didn't think it would last for five years. In the first week, I washed and ironed my school uniform. The next week I started writing some lessons. But weeks went by and we heard no news about the schools reopening. Then little by little, my classmates got married. They were still children. Several of my classmates set themselves on fire. We were a forgotten story."
"We are not the women of the 1990s"
What is different under the second Taliban government is that Afghan women are prepared to stand up for themselves. "Girls these days are connected to the outside world and the media is following the situation of women in Afghanistan," Qaderi said. "Although the world has left us alone, the world media cannot forget us."
Qaderi also believes women are more aware of their rights now.
A day after the Taliban announced it was postponing the day girls would be allowed back at school, many activists and students protested outside the Ministry of Education.
Zolia, a 37-year-old women's rights activist and mother of a 13-year-old daughter, has been at the front of many of these protests, sometimes putting herself at great personal risk. Four Afghan women's rights activists who participated in a number of protests in Kabul were arrested at home in January by armed Taliban; they were released a few weeks later following allegedly forced confessions.
"My husband worries for our safety when I go to these protests," Zolia said, "especially after they arrested some girls from one of our protests. But I did it for my daughter who has been crying now for a week. The day she was sent home from school, she was so depressed that she asked me to protest with her. I want them to know that we are not the women of 20 years ago. They cannot take our employment and education rights."
Mahbouba Seraj, a journalist and the director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center in Kabul, echoed Zolia's concerns. "I don't want this movement of these women to stop," she told Nikkei. "I want this movement to grow and grow as much as it can."
"But I always err on the side of caution. I don't want to be killed by the Taliban because they don't like the way I'm dressed or because I'm not wearing the proper covering. I don't want the girls to die for these stupid reasons because they have a lot to do," Seraj said.
Seraj's center is the only women's shelter for victims of violence still operating in Afghanistan. It hosts 22 women and provides education and training, including English and computer classes, as well as daily exercise and sewing lessons.
Set up in 1999, the center is a refuge for women experiencing domestic violence, often as a result of forced marriages. But Seraj fears that the support system for vulnerable women established under U.S. rule will fall apart under the new regime. Before the Taliban takeover, "there was a lot more understanding among people, not only in Kabul," she recalled. "The change was really happening."
Along with limitations on female education, the Taliban ordered the closure of all women's shelters almost immediately after coming to power. "Some of [the Taliban] are more reasonable, but especially the younger ones are not at all," says Seraj.
And the restrictions do not stop there. The Taliban have not issued any outright bans on women's sports, but many women say they dare not go running, play football or ski as they did before. As differences between Taliban factions emerge, women say they are not free to practice and train in the open. Even before the Taliban, only women in big urban areas were able to play sports.
Adel, a 17-year-old from Bamyan, trained three times a week to compete in a marathon last year. "But now I can't do anything," she said. "I'm in the house all day. I'm so bored and sometimes I just cry."
Adel says it would be impossible for her to go out alone and run. "It would be dangerous, [though] I see men doing it all the time," she said. "This is not fair. I can't even go to my mother's shop now. The Taliban came and said they heard there were girls wearing short outfits. It wasn't true, but I'm scared now."
Adel's friend, Rehana (not her real name), was also a keen sportswoman before the U.S. withdrawal. "This was me," she says, showing a picture that now looks futuristic -- a girl in a yellow ski suit and sunglasses, lips pursed in determination during a slalom race on the slopes of one of Bamyan's surrounding mountains. Now she is in a shop, covered from head to toe, bored.
"We just want to leave," Adel and Rehana both say.
Under the previous government, Afghanistan achieved significant progress in gender equality and education. According to UNESCO, in 2018 nearly 10 million Afghan children were enrolled in school, 40% of whom were girls. This is up from 1 million children in 2001, all of whom were boys.
The country's literacy rate also climbed during the past decade, to 43% in 2018 from 32% in 2011. Female literacy increased from 17% to 30% during the same period.
Before August 2021, there were no directives that barred girls from accessing higher education in any of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Since the Taliban takeover, girls have only been able to access schools up to the sixth grade, and are barred from secondary education in 27 out of 34 provinces, according to U.N. Women. Young women also struggle to access university-level education.
The future is dim for women who have taken advantage of the previous gains to climb the education ladder. Noor Ali, from the eastern province of Logar, told Nikkei he did not have anything encouraging to say to his seven daughters.
"The women of Afghanistan are half the pillar of our society," he said. "If they are not allowed to contribute, how do you expect this country to grow?"
Ali's son works as a construction worker and is the only earner in his family. "One of my sisters got admission to the law faculty and the other one in the journalism faculty at Paktia University," he said. "They are both sitting at home. If they could finish their studies, they would have helped me in supporting the family. Right now I am struggling alone to provide for 10 people."
Amid international condemnations of the ban, the Ministry of Education is hopeful that schools will reopen as soon as policies are in place, but the regime appears to have lost the trust of its young population.
"I don't trust them," 16-year-old Anbaren said. "I don't think they will ever reopen schools. All I see is a very dark future for me."