For Shukria Barakzai, much that is happening in Afghanistan these days brings a shudder of déjà vu. The poverty, repression, violence. The public beatings, the dress codes, the closure of schools, the bravery of women and girls. It all churns up memories of her own childhood, growing up under a misogynist regime run by men who would have preferred she didn’t exist.
In 20 years Afghanistan has come full circle. After the Taliban returned to power last August, they made liars of those who’d said they had changed. Gains for women in health, education, employment and human rights have been reversed. The ban on girls’ education and women’s employment was akin to condemning half the population to a “lifetime of lockdown”, said Barakzai, an award-winning magazine journalist, women’s rights advocate and former parliamentarian who helped to draft Afghanistan’s constitution.
Barakzai says that keeping girls out of school and barring women from participating in the life of their country will have a detrimental impact that will last for generations. She should know. She ran a secret school in Kabul during the Taliban’s last attempt at ruling Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. Kabul was around a fifth of the size it is today, then a quiet and pretty city of less than a million. She estimates she helped educate about 100 girls in her four-room flat.
Barakzai scoured markets and bazaars for textbooks, and bought pens and notebooks at stationery stores. She rounded up friends who had been teachers but were forced to give up their jobs when the Taliban banned women from working. Older girls helped to teach the younger ones. The students had to sneak into her flat, and were taught never to tell anyone where they were going or where they’d been.
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“Our major concern was the youngest, in case they were asked anything by the Taliban. Little ones do talk,” she said. And when school was in session, the imperative was to keep quiet, so “everyone had to whisper”.
She took in girls of all ages and as word spread, quietly and secretly, more women began transforming their homes into schools for a few hours each morning and afternoon, six days a week, teaching everything from reading and writing to history and algebra.
“When we started, my daughter Fatema was one and half years old, and when we finished she was five, and she qualified for the third grade when the schools re-opened,” Barakzai said. All the girls from her home school did well, she said, because throughout the Taliban’s reign, like girls and women across the country “they had nothing else to do; learning became their hobby and their fun”.
Since the Taliban’s return on 15 August 2021, it’s become clear that any statements they made about allowing girls to return to their studies were meaningless platitudes. Much excitement surrounded the announcement in early March that girls’ secondary classes would resume at the start of the new school year, on 23 March. Excitement turned to heartbreak when, after a couple of hours, the Taliban closed the schools again. In the days that followed girls put on their school uniforms, picked up their text books and marched in the streets carrying banners calling for their right to education.
Girls have been locked out of learning for more than 200 days, and their anger and frustration are growing. On 4 April, extraordinary footage was circulated of a crowd of women and girls, who had been summoned to a gymnasium in the central province of Bamiyan for a pro-Taliban rally, cheering as some among them stormed a stage and began tearing posters from the walls. They then began shouting for girls’ secondary schools to be reopened. In the days that followed, the Taliban arrested girls who attended the event. Their fate is still unknown.
Girls and women have been at the forefront of protests against the excesses of the Taliban, risking detention, beatings, even their lives to condemn the cancellation of their rights. As media outlets have been shut down, information is increasingly difficult to come by, creating further concerns about abuses.
What cannot be disputed is the long-lasting impact of the education ban. In the past 20 years Afghanistan’s population has exploded; the UN Population Fund estimated in 2020 that 67 per cent of Afghans are younger than 25, and put the median age at 19, making Afghanistan one of the world’s youngest and fastest-growing countries.
Elizabeth Negus, a founding fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching and author of How World Events are Changing Education, says that keeping children out of education leads to poverty, ignorance, ill-health and early death. Afghanistan risks being left so far behind the rest of the world that it will never catch up.
“As society progresses into a digital learning environment, the demand for quality teaching, learning and assessment becomes ever more critical,” she said. “An uneducated child equates to a poor society.”
As history appears to be repeating for Afghanistan, Barakzai says that kitchen classrooms may not be the answer this time around. The Taliban are targeting home schools, too, she says. “There are some private schools but only for the very few people who can afford them.”
The humanitarian and economic meltdown that has been exacerbated by the Taliban’s inept rule means that only a tiny percentage of homes have electricity, and expanding control of communications will probably mean that online learning is not an option for long. “The world knows from the pandemic about how serious the impact of school closures is on the development and mental health of children,” Barakzai said. “[Afghanistan’s girls are] asking themselves, asking society and asking the Taliban what’s wrong with us. This is the question that no one can answer.
“It is not their fault that they are girls. The Taliban are punishing them for a crime they never committed. They are being punished just for being women.”