Afghan ambassador defies the Taliban over girls' schooling

They can stop teaching our girls but they can’t stop us learning, vows Manizha Bakhtari

Manizha Bakhtari, Afghan ambassador to Austria. Photo: Manizha Bakhtari
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From her cramped office tucked far from the grandeur of central Vienna, an Afghan ambassador is on a defiant mission to covertly educate her country’s oppressed women.

Defying Taliban orders, Manizha Bakhtari is staging a stealthy revolution against the extremists by forming a group of emigres to help teach Afghan girls.

There are only 28 mentors assigned to the “Daughters”, a Facebook page used to help tutor girls who have been denied teachers from the age of 11.

But Ms Bakhtari, 50, formerly Afghanistan’s foreign affairs chief of staff, is undaunted, knowing that another eight million girls and women are being deprived of an education and livelihood.

“They can stop teaching our girls, but they can’t stop us learning,” she told The National from the Afghan embassy now in Vienna’s suburbs.

“They are desperate, they are disappointed, but they haven't lost their hope. There is a hunger for education in Afghanistan and the girls are really, really into it.”

The ambassador frequently refers to her “daughter” when discussing the girl “taken under my wing”, giving her tutelage, advice, access to online lessons and money to buy books.

She is passionate about their chances.

“I have hope because if I don't have hope I couldn't continue,” Ms Bakhtari said.

“We should continue to fight for democracy, freedom and girls’ education, because these are fundamental rights and Afghanistan is the only country that denies education to half of its population.”

Vienna emissary

It was very different when Ms Bakhtari took up residence at the Afghan embassy in January 2021, where just a short walk would take her past the renaissance glory of the Vienna Opera House and imperial palaces of the Habsburg dynasty.

Appointed by president Ashraf Ghani, she had established her credentials in central Europe when seven months into the job the elected government was toppled by the Taliban.

Initially the Taliban’s minister of foreign affairs demanded all Afghan emissaries attend a Zoom meeting, with the clear intention to berate and bully

Ms Bakhtari refused and has heard barely another word from the Taliban since.

With all finances cut off she and with the rest of Afghanistan’s diplomatic diaspora, including 16 in Europe, were forced to make ends meet.

A Taliban fighter stands guard as women wait to receive food rations in Kabul. AP

“I was in a state of shock when the Taliban took over, but then I decided to remain and to use this as a platform,” she said.

Forced on to a shoestring budget she let her staff go, retaining just three diplomats and two local employees, covering the 47,000 Afghans in Austria plus those in Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia.

“I visibly reduced the cost and moved my office to a much cheaper rental place,” Ms Bakhtari said.

“I gave up my residence, my driver, secretary, and I humbly asked my local employees to leave as I could not provide them a salary. Now I have a self-sustaining mission.”

Outside the nondescript building the Afghan government’s flag defiantly flies as its ambassador boldly continues her mission.

“It’s not important to have a big office or live like an ambassador,” she said.

Threatening women

Twenty years of American-backed rule from 2001 saw a dramatic change in Afghan women’s fortunes, giving them education and good jobs.

Their elevation to equality was abhorred by the Taliban, who have returned women’s rights to the Dark Ages.

“They see an educated woman as a threat,” said Ms Bakhtari. “The Taliban view women as the second gender to raise a family or use as a sex object.

“They do not have the intellectual capacity to run Afghanistan and they certainly do not want strong women to participate in society.”

So the regime has imposed “gender apartheid, persecution, segregation and violence”, while “normalising systematic discrimination against women”, she said.

This has caused several mental health problems alongside feelings of total abandonment by the international community.

“They do not have any leverage to raise their voices, they are living under persecution,” Ms Bakhtari said. “Even peaceful protest is met with violence.”

But the idea of “the possibilities of what we can achieve” has not gone away, she said.

“We have a highly educated new generation of women and they won’t stop studying. They are trying to find new ways but it's difficult because they cannot receive formal education.”

The Taliban’s education approach also threatens to influence a generation of boys.

“They are trying to educate them like extremists,” Ms Bakhtari said.

Afghanistan “will have many extremists in the next generation in a matter of years”, she predicts.

Afghan children attend an open-air school near Kabul.  EPA

The Daughters

Excluded from school from Year 6, millions of Afghan girls face a life of drudgery without promise of relief.

But there is a seed of hope in the handful who have been taken on by Ms Bakhtari’s ad hoc education scheme.

Afghan woman living abroad have each “adopted” a 14-year-old girl, giving them mentoring, access to online learning and a small amount of money to buy books.

“My daughter in Afghanistan – I call her my daughter – has already read some really good books like Animal Farm and David Copperfield,” Ms Bakhtari said.

There are some underground courses including an online school run from Canada, where there are more than 90,000 settled Afghans, although classes are not seamless.

“But everything is interconnected and Afghanistan is a poor country with little electricity to power the internet, and having a room for yourself to study is really difficult for many families,” Ms Bakhtari said.

The Daughter programme is not “super-secret” but they do not reveal the girls' names or locations to avoid Taliban attention. It also needs more mentors.

“We are trying to encourage those Afghan women abroad to take one girl from Afghanistan under their wing.”

The teaching does not replicate university education, especially that needed for medicine, which threatens the future of women’s health.

While the Taliban has allowed female doctors and nurses to continue working, all medical teaching has been stopped.

“I'm not sure if we will have female doctors for the next generation,” Ms Bakhtari said.

Afghan women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group, in Kabul. AP Photo


The future for Afghanistan under Taliban rule is bleak, with change unlikely despite the efforts of the opposition National Resistance Front led by Ahmad Massoud.

“It's very tough and we have a long way ahead of us,” said Ms Bakhtari, also an author of works including Three Angels, highlighting Afghan women’s challenges.

Her embassy makes ends meet by dealing with low-level administrative work for the Afghan diaspora, bringing in a very modest income.

While diplomacy takes a back seat, the ambassador is determined to continue campaigning.

“We need to collectively work, raise awareness and stay strong on our demands,” Ms Bakhtari said.

“It’s very important to make networks at national, regional and international levels, but it might take years to reach our goals. But definitely, we don't stop.”

There are fortnightly Zoom calls with her fellow European Afghan ambassadors and she attends international conferences and UN meetings.

Manizha Bakhtari, Afghan ambassador to Austria. Photo: Manizha Bakhtari

End days

“How long will you stay as ambassador?” is a question she is asked “over and over again” by her husband and four grown children.

“I do not have an answer. I'm like, ‘OK, let's stay for three months, for another six months’, but it's been 21 months,” Ms Bakhtari said.

“Of course, it cannot last for ever. But as long as I have this platform, I don't want to lose it because I can use it for a while for the sake of women and girls.”

The daughter of Afghan poet Wasef Bakhtari, she admitted there were “many criticisms” of the former government, including corruption, but it was still a system that worked for all.

“I'm loyal to the Afghan republic,” she said. “I believed in that system, in democracy, and I believed in the republic.”

Updated: June 04, 2023, 4:26 AM