Education for Afghan girls has become an issue of money under the Taliban

Armed with a laptop and an erratic internet connection, one girl tells The National of her fight against extremist ideology

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Whether Afghan girls receive an education under the Taliban is turning into an issue of wealth, young women living under the regime say.

Shortly after taking over Afghanistan, the extremist group banned girls above grade six from attending school, leaving more than 850,000 Afghan girls out of education, Unicef estimates.

Perhaps ironically, Sajida was considered one of the lucky ones. The 17-year-old, who was hoping to enrol in university after senior school, was able to continue her education online.

“I will not wait for the Taliban to allow me go back to school, I need to continue via any possible means I have,” Sajida, whose name has been changed to protect her from retaliation from the extremist group, told The National.

She is fighting extremist ideology, she said. Armed with a laptop and an erratic internet connection, she logs into her online courses every weekday for four hours to quench her thirst for knowledge.

When she’s not online scouring the web for courses she can take, she organises a study group with her former classmates.

“They have only closed doors of the schools to us but we can buy books from the market and either study by ourselves or join online courses, which is a very useful method,” she explained.

But for many, the option of learning online isn't available.

Afghan girl's courageous speech on right of education goes viral

Afghan girl's courageous speech on right of education goes viral

"It has been one year but I still cannot go to school,” said Shukria, 16. "For [the Taliban] it has been only one year, but for me it was a long, dark year, where each day I watched my dreams being shattered and my hopes being snatched from me."

Shukria was in year nine when the Taliban seized power, ironically the same age her mother was when she was forced out of school by the Taliban in the 1990s.

But Shukria said she had left no stone unturned to try to continue her education.

“At the beginning of Taliban takeover, I joined a secret school that was run by my previous teachers who were all women,” she said, referring to several underground study circles, as well as some full-fledged school operations, that have sprung up in the past year, run by educators and education activists.

Unfortunately, the secret school Shukria attended was identified by the Taliban and closed after six months, forcing Shukria to seek alternatives.

Online courses were out of the question, because unlike Sajida, Shukria’s family cannot afford an internet connection at home.

“My father lost his job after the Taliban took power. We are struggling to find bread to eat; how would I be able to get a smartphone and internet to study online?” she said. Despite the shortcomings, she sets aside a few hours every day for her studies, going over past lessons.

A future without women

In March, when the Afghan school year officially began, the Taliban briefly allowed girls to return to schools, but only for a short few hours, after which they were turned away, many in tears. While they have not shared clear reasons for the ban, the Taliban said at the time that girls would be allowed back to school once they could make changes in the curriculum and agree on “appropriate Islamic school uniform”.

But even if Afghan girls can receive an education, the likelihood they will be able to put it to any use is low.

One Taliban member acknowledged that the group's ban on girls' high schools would eventually lead to a de facto ban on their university education.

“Automatically if we do not have high school graduates, we won’t have new female university students any more,” Maulawi Ahmed Taqi, a representative for the Taliban’s ministry of higher education, told The Guardian.

Many Afghan girls like Sajida and Shukria fear the longer they stay away from school, the more pressure will build to conform to patriarchal standards and marry. The World Bank estimates that for each year of secondary education, the likelihood of marrying before the age of 18 decreases by five percentage points or more.

“The schoolgirls in Afghanistan have already lost a year of education and this is the time that they can never get back, even if the schools open this afternoon,” Heather Barr, who follows the breaching of rights in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, told The National. "This can put girls at huge risk of child marriage, as well as [having] devastating impacts on their mental health."

The rates of child, early and forced marriage in Afghanistan are increasing under Taliban rule, Amnesty International said. Economic and humanitarian crisis, coupled with the lack of educational and professional prospects for women and girls are the most cited reasons that families force their girls to marry.

Shukria has also received many marriage proposals but her parents have respected her decision to reject them. Others aren’t so lucky.

“My best friend from school was recently forced to marry an old man because her father could not afford daily life expenses," she said. "There are no other options left for girls in this country, so her family decided that it would be better for her to get married and build her own life."

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Updated: August 09, 2022, 11:19 AM