Home » Secret schools defy Taliban to offer Afghan girls light and hope

Secret schools defy Taliban to offer Afghan girls light and hope

The first time she stepped into the secret school for girls, Maryam felt a rush of hope, as if rediscovering light after more than a year of darkness.

That was how long she had been confined to her home by the strict rules governing women’s behavior imposed by Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities. Now, she took her place on the red carpet among rows of other schoolgirls gathered in the drawing room of a private home in Kabul, transformed into an underground classroom.

It was a revelation, recalls the slight 17-year-old with wide eyes and thick eyebrows and a rim of black hair visible beneath her headscarf, who dreams of computer programming. “Girls were studying, they had their books open, and the teacher was in front of the whiteboard.”

“It gave me the feeling that I had when we went to school in normal times,” says Maryam, whose last day of formal education was Aug. 15, 2021, the day Taliban insurgents ousted the American-backed government in Kabul. Like other Afghan women interviewed remotely for this article, she asked not to be fully named for fear of Taliban retribution.

“I again felt that motivation, and felt there was still hope,” she remembers. She was further encouraged by her teacher, Ms. F., her school’s 23-year-old director, who told the girls to look beyond the “dark situation,” not give up, and be hopeful for the future because “no situation will stay forever.”

Now, five months later, Maryam’s dreams are under threat again. For the past week, Taliban gunmen – armed with a new edict reinforcing a ban on education for girls over 15 – have been going from street to street in Kabul, hunting for underground girls’ schools.

Ms. F. says she has been torn between the fear of being caught and severely punished by the Taliban and the joy of learning she sees in her students’ eyes. She has shut her doors for two weeks, for safety’s sake.

It pains her, deeply. “In the hour they come here, the girls are different people and in a different world,” says Ms. F. “They have been imprisoned at home, so this is a chance for them to get out, take some fresh air, and get hope.”

Teaching English, math – and hope

When it functions, the school teaches English – to boost chances of foreign scholarships – as well as math, physics, and Quranic recitation. Classes are taught by three volunteers and are offered free of charge to the 230 girls in a staggered schedule so as to avoid attracting too much attention.

“Beside studies, I always get them [the girls] to tell me their pains, their feelings, and their problems, and I just listen to them and give them hope,” says Ms. F. Several times before, she says, she has been tempted to close the school “in order to save mine and the girls’ lives,” especially last September, when a suicide bomber killed 50 students taking a practice university exam at an educational center in Kabul.

But always the girls protested and changed her mind. “It was really hard for me to send the girls home,” she says. “You know it is the only light and hope for them, and for myself.

“How could I sit at home and do nothing?” adds Ms. F., whose eyes reveal an unmistakable look of determination in the portrait she displays on a messaging app. “Life with risk is better than death, or life with no reason.”

But this time she is not certain she will be able to reopen, because of the Taliban’s determination to deny girls education. That determination sometimes appears stronger than the Taliban’s desire to meet monumental national challenges, such as humanitarian needs the United Nations says “are at an all-time high,” a third year of droughtlike conditions, a second year of “crippling economic decline,” and the effects of 40 years of conflict.

“It is something that really surprises us. Why women? Why women’s education?” wonders Ms. F. The Taliban “don’t care that people are hungry. They don’t care that people have no jobs, no health care, [that] they are hopeless [and] in the worst physical and mental health condition.”

Ever more draconian restrictions

When the Taliban seized all of Afghanistan in mid-2021, their officials promised that schools and universities would stay open for girls and women, in contrast to the strict ban on female education that had prevailed when the Taliban first ruled the country, from the mid-1990s to 2001.

Instead, Afghan women have been subject to ever-tighter restrictions, which range from closing girls’ high schools and violently disrupting university exams, to barring women from public parks and forbidding them to work for U.N. agencies or international aid groups.

In a 62-page report last week called “The Taliban’s War on Women,” Amnesty International detailed how the Taliban’s “campaign of gender persecution” and “draconian restrictions” against women and girls, coupled with “use of imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill treatment,” could amount to crimes against humanity.

UN Women, a United Nations agency, last month described the “latest assault on women’s rights” – the ban on women working for the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations – as a “culmination of almost two years of edicts, decrees, and behaviors that have aimed to systematically erase Afghan women and girls from public life.”

For female Afghan students, the Taliban measures have stifled 20 years of expectations that arose during the American-led occupation, when Western donors contributed billions of dollars for development aid that included schools for Afghan girls and steps to dramatically open civil society to women.

The Taliban’s return has forced many Afghan women to curtail their ambitions. When the Monitor first interviewed Ms. F. last August, for example, the women’s rights advocate and educator, who once aspired to being her nation’s economy minister, had already repurposed her activism to create the underground girls’ school.

Last year “I was a bit hopeful, but now I am totally confused, unfocused, and tired,” says Ms. F. “I have a notebook where I am writing all my dreams, goals, and memories. Believe me, I can’t stop my tears when I cross them out because I can’t achieve them.”

Still, she says that “most days, I feel like [the school] is the most valuable thing I have done in my life. The girls tell me, ‘the energy we take from here is enough for the whole day.’”

Among those energized is Marzia, a 17-year-old who says her parents have tried to stop her from going to school because of the risks.

“It’s clear that the situation is very dangerous, but I try to hide my school books and don’t linger on the way, because my dream is so important for me,” says Marzia, who wants to go into politics.

“The happiest moment for me was when I went to this school,” says Marzia. “I met girls with high motivation, which caused me to get more motivated. It is like an incentive for me.”

She says she considers her presence in class a form of resistance: “Of course, the Taliban limit us, but we continue our dream in different ways.”

Scott Peterson/ The Christian Science Monitor

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