Anxious wait for Afghan girls as secondary school opening stalls | New

Millions of teenage girls across Afghanistan eagerly wait to return to class, as high schools remain closed, raising fears for the future of women’s education under the Taliban.

The country’s new rulers allowed boys of the same age group – seven to 12 – to attend classes last month, but said “a safe learning environment” was needed before older girls can go back to school.

At the time, the Taliban’s deputy minister of information and culture, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the group was working on a “procedure” to allow teenage girls to return to class.

At the Taliban’s first press conference after taking control of Afghanistan on August 15, Mujahid pledged to “allow women to work and study,” as he tried to allay fears about his position. regime between 1996 and 2001, marked by a restriction of women’s rights.

The continued exclusion of girls from schools has only exacerbated fears among the Afghan people that the Taliban could revert to their uncompromising rule of the 1990s. These five years were unique in being the only time in the modern Afghan history where women and girls were legally excluded from education and employment.

In the month and a half since taking office, the Taliban have asked government workers to stay at home, announced an all-male cabinet, shut down the Women’s Ministry, and face charges of harassment and abuse. abuse of female demonstrators across cities across the country.

Dangerous questions

Toorpekai Momand, an education advocate, said the delay, coupled with Taliban actions, has led teenage girls to face dangerous questions: “Why does the Taliban have a problem with us? Why are our rights being taken?

Momand, who spent 10 years working as a school administrator, is among hundreds of women in Afghanistan and abroad who are trying to make sure the Taliban keep their promises to allow girls and women to return to the country. schools and offices.

For many of these women, this struggle means facing what they see as unpopular, but necessary realities of life in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Jamila Afghani, another education advocate, said the Afghan people had little left but to try to engage with the Taliban, especially as the international community refused to recognize the group. .

“I didn’t bring them. You haven’t brought them in, but they’re here now, so we have to keep pushing.

But Afghani and Momand and dozens of others have experienced firsthand the difficulty of trying to get answers from the Taliban. When their colleagues met officials from the Taliban-led Education Ministry, they were told that the group was working “very hard” to adhere to conservative standards in adolescent education.

Momand said the Taliban are especially careful with his wording: “They never just say ‘no’, they keep saying ‘we are working on it’, but we have no idea exactly what they are working on. “

All the women Al Jazeera spoke to said that in the 100 years since the Afghan government established formal schools for girls, these institutions have always adhered to religious principles. Primary and secondary schools were still segregated by gender and dress codes were still in place.

Momand, in particular, said she found it difficult to accept the Taliban’s claims about religious reasoning for the continued wait, saying: “In a girls’ school, everyone, down to the cleaning staff, are women.

Change of program

The Taliban also referred to a curriculum review, which Afghani said could further delay the education of schoolchildren.

“Redoing a curriculum takes a lot of time and a very detailed understanding of educational models,” Afghani said.

All sources Al Jazeera spoke to shared Afghani’s skepticism about the Taliban’s real understanding of the complexity of establishing an education system for 9.5 million schoolchildren.

Last month, the group’s acting education minister, Mawlawi Noorullah Monir, sparked an uproar on social media when he said, “No doctorate, a master’s degree is valuable today. You see the mullahs and Taliban who are in power, do not have a doctorate, masters or even a high school diploma, but are the greatest of all.

The continued exclusion of girls from schools has only exacerbated fears among the Afghan people that the Taliban could revert to their hard-line rule of the 1990s

For some, the prospect of the Taliban trying to reform the program is particularly frightening.

Fatimah Hossaini, a well-known photographer who taught in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Kabul University, said she feared for the future of art programs under the Taliban. She pointed out that art was the least funded discipline at Kabul University, even under the former government of President Ashraf Ghani.

At one point, Hossaini was the only female professor in a small faculty who had to make do with the most basic and often outdated equipment. Now she fears what the department will look like under the Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban refer to her government.

“They have already said that there will be no music in public. They traveled around Kabul to cover murals. In 2001, they blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas, so do you think they will allow students to continue studying sculpture?

Even though the programs were allowed to continue, Hossaini feared the Taliban would impose restrictions like those in neighboring Iran, where she studied.

Art, Hossaini said, needs “freedom” to flourish, but she feared the Taliban would place strict restrictions on self-expression.

“Most of my students, especially the girls, are busy looking for ways out,” said Hossaini, who fled to France with tens of thousands of Afghans fearing the return of the Taliban regime. Even those who stayed are haunted by a sense of foreboding, Hossaini said. She used one of her graduate students as an example.

“She can’t bring herself to go get her diploma and transcripts. She keeps saying, ‘I don’t want to have the Islamic Emirate stamp on my diploma.’ “

Women’s employment

Although Hossaini is no longer in the country, women Al Jazeera spoke to said there were tens of thousands of Afghan women whose lives had been put on hold by blocking the full reopening of all schools across the country.

Masuda Sultan, an Afghan-American entrepreneur and activist who has also joined efforts to boost women’s employment and education, said it is not only girls who are heavily affected by the continued closure of the secondary education for female students.

“More women are employed in education than in any other sector in Afghanistan,” Sultan said.

UNICEF estimated that about a third of Afghan teachers are women, and Momand and Afghani said another 150,000 are employed in other facets of the education sector.

“For many families, teaching is the only job they will leave to their wives,” Sultan said, referring to decades of practice of gender segregation in primary and secondary education in the country.

For this reason, Sultan said it was imperative to reopen all schools across the country as quickly as possible: “If you don’t employ these teachers, then we are letting women down in Afghanistan.

Afghan, the other education advocate, agrees. For her, the full recovery of girls’ education should be a priority for the international community, which has used women’s rights as one of the justifications for the 20 years of US-led occupation.

Afghani feared that the international community’s co-opting of women’s rights as the basis of their occupation could have a lasting impact on how the Taliban view gender issues.

“They kept hearing foreigners talking about women’s rights, so in their minds, women’s rights are tied to the occupier,” Afghani said.

Afghani argued that it is important that Afghan women themselves do not abandon their demands for basic rights they have enjoyed for decades, such as access to education and employment.

Last week, Afghani and Momand were among a group of educators, health workers and rights activists who held a press conference to urge foreign donors to boost financial aid to the country.

More than 100,000 female teachers have not received their salaries for two or three months because of the war, as the Taliban launched their offensive to seize power.

“We have a chance to let the women and girls of Afghanistan decide what is going on in the country,” Afghan said.

Momand agreed, saying the tenacity and bravery of the Afghan girls drives her to continue her work.

Afghan girls, she said, “went to school through explosions in towns, through fighting in villages and districts. Even when their schools came under direct fire, Afghan girls never gave up on their education. “


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