By RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi
December 22, 2021
Dozens of Afghan girls speak in hushed voices as they cram inside a house in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
For months, the house has served as a secret school, with around 50 girls attending science, math, and literature classes.
They are among the millions of girls who have been denied an education since the Taliban forcibly seized control of Afghanistan in August.
Since its takeover, the militant Islamist group has only allowed girls in grades one through six to attend school. But girls’ secondary school education has been restricted to only a handful of the country’s 34 provinces.
Mursal, a university graduate, has risked her life by running the secret school. The sole teacher at the school, she believes educating the dozens of girls in her neighborhood is a risk worth taking. Her students, too, face severe punishment by the Taliban if they are caught.
“The aim of establishing this school is to help girls catch up on their studies after their education was stopped after [the Taliban] grabbed power,” Mursal, who requested that her real name not be used out of concern for her safety, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.
Mursal, who is in her 20s, runs the school at her own expense, providing school supplies for her students.
Suraya, one of Mursal’s students, says the return of Taliban rule feels like being sentenced to a life in prison.
“Many girls were hopeless and suffering from depression and stress,” Suraya says. “This school has helped us a lot.”
“My request to the Taliban is to reopen schools so that girls don’t remain illiterate and without a future,” says Gul Meena, an 11th-grader who attends the underground school.
“Seeking an education is compulsory for all Muslims, men and women alike,” she adds, referring to Islamic principles under which education is considered a religious duty for both males and females.
‘Don’t Want Girls To Go To School’
The Taliban claims that its ban on girls’ secondary school education is temporary while the new regime ensures a “safe environment” for all girls to go to school.
Critics point out that the militants made similar pledges during their first stint in power from 1996-2001. Yet they banned girls’ education during their entire six-year rule.
Millions of girls, particularly in urban areas, flocked back to school following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime.
Nazar Mohammad Irfan, a spokesman for the Taliban’s Education Ministry, told Radio Azadi that the hard-line group was not opposed to private or informal schools for girls.
“We are committed to working with them as much as possible so we can raise the literacy and education levels across the country and overcome our shortcomings,” Irfan said.
But many are not convinced.
“I think it is very clear that all of the reasons that they are coming up with are just ways to try to cover up the fact that, essentially, they don’t want girls to go to school,” Heather Barr, the associate director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL.
She says the real aim of the Taliban’s delay seems to be gender segregation — something the Taliban has gone to great lengths to enforce in universities and government offices.
“Government secondary schools were already segregated by gender, so it is very difficult to see what they want to do,” she adds.
Barr says some schools have reopened in eight of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. In many cases, the schools have reopened after negotiations between local teachers and local Taliban officials.
Private schools, often run by nongovernmental organizations, are allowed to operate in theory. But many of them have shut down amid the country’s devastating economic and humanitarian crisis.
“The policies that the Taliban has already put in place that are so harmful to women and girls could actually become even worse and more rigid and more violently enforced,” Barr warns.
Since regaining power, the Taliban has reimposed some of the same repressive laws and retrograde policies that defined its former brutal rule, when it banned girls from attending school and women from working outside their homes.
In September, the Taliban formed an all-male government that was made up exclusively of senior militants. The militants also abolished the Women’s Affairs Ministry and reestablished the feared Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
The Taliban has advised women to largely remain indoors for their own safety. The militants have also ordered tens of thousands of former female government workers not to return to work, even as their male colleagues went back.
Neda, one of Mursal’s students at the secret school, says the future of girls and women under the Taliban weighs heavily on her mind.
“What will our future look like?” she asks.