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

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The director of a girls’ school in Kabul is eager to learn more about the Taliban’s plan for girls’ education. But she cannot attend the weekly Taliban committee meetings on education. They are for men only.

“They say, ‘You have to send a male representative,'” said the principal, Aqila, at Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School, which was destroyed in May by a terrorist bombing that killed dozens of girls.

But Aqila and other Afghan educators don’t need to attend meetings to understand the harsh new realities of education under the Taliban rule. The emerging government has made it clear that it plans to severely curtail 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 type 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 seem to intend to rule not strictly by decree, but by inference and intimidation.

When schools reopened for grades seven through 12 on Saturday, only male students were told to register for their studies. The Taliban said nothing about girls in those classes, so they stayed at home, their families worried and uncertain about their future. Both boys and girls in groups one to six went to school, with the students in the higher three classes being segregated by gender.

When the Taliban was in charge from 1996 to 2001, women and girls were banned from school. After the US-led invasion overthrew the Taliban rule in late 2001, female students began attending schools and universities as opportunities blossomed. Women could study for careers in business and government, and in professions such as medicine and law.

In 2018, Afghanistan’s female literacy rate reached 30 percent, according to a new UNESCO report.

But the Taliban attacked Kabul and seized power on August 15, and have since said they will enforce their strict interpretation of Sharia.

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

The Taliban have also announced that men will no longer be allowed to teach girls or women, further exacerbating the already serious teacher shortage. This, coupled with restrictions on paying teachers’ salaries and the cessation of international aid, could have “immediate and serious” results for education in Afghanistan, the UNESCO report warned.

Female students will be required to wear an “Islamic hijab”, but the definition remains open to interpretation. At a pro-Taliban women’s rally last week, many women wore niqabs, a piece of clothing that covers a woman’s hair, nose and mouth so that only the eyes are visible.

“We are working on a mechanism to provide transportation and other facilities needed for a safer and better educational environment,” Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesman and deputy deputy minister of information and culture, said Monday, adding that classes for girls in the grades seven and above would soon be resumed.

“There are countries in the region that have pledged to help us in our education sector,” he said. “This will help us provide better education for everyone.”

While many girls and women in Kabul have embraced Western standards of women’s rights and opportunities, Afghanistan remains a very conservative society. In rural areas, while not all women are necessarily happy with the Taliban rule, many are used to habits that kept them at home cooking, cleaning and raising children even before the Taliban took power in the country. the nineties.

The acting minister of higher education said last week that women could continue to study at universities and graduate programs as long as they were in gender-segregated classrooms, but on Friday the new government gave an ominous signal of its intentions. The grounds of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs were converted into offices for the religious vice squad, which two decades ago brutally enforced the militants’ interpretation of Sharia. The building now houses the Ministry of Invitation, Guidance and Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Female educators, administrators and students are bracing for tough new restrictions. Many say they started wearing niqabs and preparing classrooms to accommodate classes strictly segregated by gender. (Many schools also provided boys-only and girls-only classes under the US-backed government.)

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

“We’ll wear it, but we don’t want to stop training,” Parisa said.

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

Parisa’s efforts to learn details of the new Taliban curriculum have come to nothing, she said. She and other teachers said they had been told to continue teaching the current curriculum only until the Taliban complete their own version.

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

For female students, the sudden end of their academic freedoms was both traumatizing and crippling. Many say that the joy and anticipation they once felt entering classrooms has been lost, replaced by fear and an overwhelming sense of futility.

zayba, 17, survived a devastating bomb attack at her 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 dropped out of school after the Taliban takeover, which she said had robbed her of all motivation. “I like studying at home,” she says. “I’m trying, but I can’t because I don’t see a future for myself with this regime.”

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

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

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

She is still in a state of shock. “I can’t focus on my studies,” she said. “When we think about our future, we see nothing.”

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

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

But for now, even male teachers say they are anxious and gripped by fear.

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

Morale has sunk even lower since the Taliban took power, said the teacher, whose name is being withheld to protect his identity.

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

Mohammad Tariq, a private school administrator in Kabul, said Taliban education officials had told him at meetings he attended that the new curriculum would include “special subjects” teachers should teach. Girls are taught by women and boys by men, he said.

“Change will come in the books, in the Islamic books,” said Mohammad Tariq. “Some subjects will be canceled for girls: technology, government studies, cooking, vocational education. The main topics remain.”

Taliban spokesman Mr Mujahid denied that specific subjects would be removed from the schools’ curricula.

For many girls, the end of their educational freedom also means the abandonment of their dreams. Zayba, the 12th grader, said she planned to study for a career as a surgeon since childhood.

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

“The day the Taliban took power, I thought, this is the end of life for women,” she said.

Sami Sahak contributed from Los Angeles.

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