Educators are calling for international help to pressure the Taliban to keep its promise and provide education for women in Afghanistan, so that students such as Zala can ditch their laptop and safe house — and return to the classroom.
“I’m missing my old physical [in-person] classes. I’m missing the very beautiful and sweet memories that I had with my professor, with the students in the cafeteria,” the 19-year-old political science student told The Current guest host Michelle Shephard.
It’s been one year since the Taliban took control of the country. At the time, the group said it would ensure women and girls would still be able to get an education.
That hasn’t been the case.
In March, Taliban leadership decided against reopening schools to girls above the sixth grade.
CBC is withholding Zala’s real name and instead using a pseudonym, as she fears retribution from the Taliban. She says she is in a safe house, because she studies at the American University of Afghanistan and was supposed to be arrested for it.
She said she is only able to leave the safe house once a week, and she has to be very careful when she does.
“It has been very tiring days,” Zala said. “I have been exhausted of this life.”
Time for change
Zala’s professor, Obaidullah Baheer, says women’s education has to become more accessible in Afghanistan. Baheer is a lecturer at the American University in Afghanistan and a visiting scholar at the New School for Social Research in New York City.
“There are so many girls out there that fear for their safety, that fear for their future. And it seems that the space for them to exist is shrinking,” Baheer said.
He said when the Taliban took over, there was one day left in the summer semester.
“The last class had very few students present. And [there was] panic within the groups, how no one knew what was to come next.”
Amid the uncertainty, the university has found a way to continue classes online. Zala has been able to study free of charge.
And while there is no official ban on women attending university in Afghanistan, Baheer said that the ban on high school girls attending school effectively means none of them will be able to go to university.
“There’s very little earnestness from the Taliban that we’ve heard as to why and what the reason is,” Baheer said. “This isn’t a sustainable Afghanistan and this isn’t a fair Afghanistan that anyone should live through.”
Hope for compromise
Baheer says conversations need to continue with the Taliban, and hopefully some middle ground can be found — whether it be segregated schools, different days for different genders or a strict dress code.
It’s not ideal, he acknowledges, but he said it’s better than the alternative.
And he believes it’s possible.
He says there are those within the Taliban who actually support women’s education, but the powerful minority is preventing it from moving forward.
For real change to happen, he says, outside forces need to step in.
“It’s up to the international community and activists like myself and others within Afghanistan,” he said.
“We both have to be in sync to make sure that we present a united front and put enough pressure on the Taliban to realize that if they don’t go along with the very basic requirements of the world and Afghans as a whole, that their rule is going to be short-lived.”
Baheer is optimistic. He feels that if there isn’t change from within, change will be forced upon the Taliban.
“I refuse to believe that this ban is going to last long,” he said. “If the Taliban don’t change policies, every Afghan citizen will take to the roads.”
Playing politics with women’s education
Former Afghanistan education minister Rangina Hamidi says there’s no reason girls in Grade 7 and above can’t be sent back to school immediately, noting the Taliban has said for almost a year that it is working on a plan to do that.
And as for those compromises Baheer suggested? She said many of them have already been in place.
“I don’t know what other mechanisms are needed to create an Islamic Sharia-compliant environment for these schools to operate,” said Hamidi, who was replaced as education minister shortly after the Taliban took over.
“Girls’ middle schools and high schools were already separated [from] boys. We never had — and we never have had in the history of Afghanistan — where girls and boys are sitting in the same classrooms beyond the sixth grade. Girls were already wearing the hijab.”
Hamidi has since left the country, but she still cares about the education of many girls, like Zala, who remain.
She said the lack of movement from the Taliban to allow girls back at school tells her that this isn’t about Sharia law, but that it has become a tool to use in international negotiations.
“Our girls’ future is being used as a political bargain,” Hamidi said.
“Unless that opportunity comes to throw the bargaining chip, our girls, unfortunately, will suffer…. They’ll be married off, they will get pregnant, and they’ll become mothers, and there will be an end to their educational future. “
Lucky, but little hope
Sitting in her safe house, working from the floor instead of a desk, Zala isn’t confident change will come to Afghanistan quickly enough for her own benefit.
“I don’t see any hope or optimism about continuing the girls’ high school,” she said.
Zala hopes the international community will find ways to offer online education for high school girls in the country, so they can get the same opportunity she has now.
For now, she said she’s choosing to look at the positives. She listens to a transistor radio to keep informed on world news, reads books and writes in her diary.
She isn’t sitting around feeling sorry for herself, either.
“I can consider myself as the luckiest person in this Afghanistan. At least I have the education opportunity.”
Produced by Samira Mohyeddin.