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KABUL: For most adolescent girls in Afghanistan, it has been a year since they set foot in a classroom. With no sign that the ruling Taliban will allow them to return to school, some are trying to find ways to prevent education from stagnating for a generation of young women.
In a house in Kabul, dozens of people gathered recently to attend classes at an informal school set up by Sodaba Nazhand. She and her sister teach English, science and math to girls who should be in secondary school.
“When the Taliban wanted to take away women’s rights to education and work, I wanted to oppose their decision by teaching these girls,” Nazhand said.
It is one of many underground schools in operation since the Taliban took over the country a year ago and banned girls from continuing their education beyond sixth grade. While the Taliban has allowed women to continue attending universities, this exception will become moot when there are no more girls graduating from high school.
“There is no way to close this gap, and this situation is very sad and concerning,” Nazhand said.
Humanitarian agency Save the Children surveyed nearly 1,700 boys and girls aged 9 to 17 in seven provinces to assess the impact of education restrictions.
The survey, conducted in May and June and released on Wednesday, found that more than 45% of girls are out of school, compared to 20% of boys. It also found that 26% of girls showed signs of depression, compared to 16% of boys.
Almost the entire population of Afghanistan was pushed into poverty and millions of people found themselves unable to feed their families when the world cut funding in response to the Taliban takeover.
Teachers, parents and experts are all warning that the country’s multiple crises, including the devastating collapse of the economy, are proving particularly damaging to girls. The Taliban restricted women’s work, encouraged them to stay at home, and issued dress codes requiring them to cover their faces except their eyes, although these codes were not always enforced.
The international community is demanding that the Taliban open schools for all girls, and the US and EU have drawn up plans to directly pay the salaries of Afghan teachers, keeping the sector going without funneling funds through the Taliban.
But the issue of girls’ education appears to have been embroiled in behind-the-scenes disputes between the Taliban. Some members of the movement support the return of girls to school, either because they see no religious objection to it, or because they want to improve their links with the world. Others, especially the rural and tribal elders who form the backbone of the movement, fiercely oppose it.
During their first rule in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban imposed much stricter restrictions on women, banning all girls from school, banning women from working, and requiring them to wear a full burqa if they went out.
In the 20 years since the Taliban left power in 2001, a whole generation of women have returned to school and work, particularly in urban areas. Apparently acknowledging these changes, the Taliban reassured Afghans when they regained control last year that they would not revert to the heavy hand of the past.
Officials have publicly insisted they will allow teenage girls to return to school, but say it takes time to work out the logistics of strict gender segregation to ensure a “framework Islamic”.
Hopes were raised in March: just before the start of the new school year, the Taliban Ministry of Education proclaimed that everyone would be allowed to return. But on March 23, the day of the reopening, the decision was abruptly reversed, surprising even ministry officials. It seems that at the last minute, the supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, bowed to the opposition.
Clandestine schools present an alternative, but with limitations.
A month after the Taliban took over, Nazhand began teaching street children to read with informal outdoor lessons in a park in his neighborhood. Women who could not read or write joined them, she said.
Some time later, a benefactor who saw her in the park rented her a house to teach there and bought her tables and chairs. Once operating inside, Nazhand included teenage girls who were no longer allowed to go to public school.
There are now about 250 students, including 50 or 60 schoolgirls beyond sixth grade.
“I don’t just teach them school subjects, but also try to teach them how to fight and stand up for their rights,” Nazhand said.
The Taliban have not changed since their first term in the late 1990s, she said. “They are the same Taliban, but we shouldn’t be the same women of those years. You have to fight: by writing, by raising your voice, by all possible means.
Nazhand’s school, and others like it, are technically illegal under current Taliban restrictions, but so far they have not closed theirs. At least one other person running a school, however, declined to speak to reporters, fearing possible repercussions.
Despite her unwavering commitment, Nazhand worries about the future of her school. Her benefactor paid six months’ rent for the house, but he recently died and she has no way of continuing to pay rent or supplies.
For students, underground schools are a lifeline.
“It’s so hard when you can’t go to school,” said one of them, Dunya Arbabzada. “Every time I walk past my school and see the door closed…it’s so upsetting to me.”