Every morning, in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the Afghan capital, Kabul, girls gather at home to study in secret, something that millions of girls around the world do freely.
As the world celebrates International Education Day on Tuesday, Afghanistan is the only country where girls are not allowed to go to school. After describing restrictions on learning and education as an attack on human dignity, UNESCO dedicated its speech this year to Afghan girls and women.
Shortly after the Taliban regained power in August 2021, most secondary schools for girls in the country closed, preventing millions of girls from accessing education beyond the sixth grade. The ban has lasted nearly 500 days, despite international appeals to lift the ban.
While most government and private schools for girls remain empty in Afghanistan, clandestine schools are proliferating.
beam of light
The secret school in Kabul is part of a network of eight schools in five cities. It is supported by an Afghan organization called “SRAK” which, according to its website, operates in areas most affected by the ban on girls’ schools. “SRAK” means “first ray of morning light” in the Pashto language.
Parastou, who asked that only her first name be used for security reasons, is one of its founders. She tells VOA that shortly after the Taliban took control of the country, she received calls from female teachers asking for help setting up secret schools. She had experience in the education sector in President Ashraf Ghani’s government, and that’s how she started working.
Setting up schools is not difficult, says Parasto, because “women and children come to us and ask for help.”
Through her network, Parasto helped transform basements, living rooms and bedrooms into schools for teachers and students willing to risk everything for education.
Rahileh, a former maths teacher who also asked that only her first name be used for security reasons, works as a volunteer at the school.
Rahile says she fell into a deep depression when the Taliban closed girls’ schools, but then her neighbors started asking for help with math.
“I realized that the students and I need each other,” she says. “We both gave each other hope.”
She soon ran out of space in her home due to the growing number of female students. It was around this time that she met Parasto, who helped her rent a large room in a house in Kabul where Rahilah and two other teachers taught math, English, science and other subjects for three hours a day to nearly 100 girls learned.
Eighteen-year-old Camila is one of his departing students. She loves chemistry and English and dreams of becoming a lawyer. If not for the ban, she would have finished high school soon. But now she is re-reading material from previous grades to make up for the hiatus in learning.
“I’m studying so that my future will be bright and tidy,” says Camila, “and I won’t be illiterate like my mother.”
About 250 women affected by the Taliban’s ban on education in the 1990s are also now learning to read and write in the underground schools.
Tuition is free in these schools, as most families cannot afford to pay tuition. SRAK members and their supporters pay rent and supplies, such as personal computers and other supplies.
The Taliban regime claims that the educational materials and environment are not in line with the country’s cultural values and Islamic laws. The regime has consistently ignored international calls to resume girls’ education.
And in December 2022, the Taliban extended a ban on gender-based education to women in universities.
Nada Muhammad Nadeem, the Taliban’s minister of higher education, rejected international pressure and told a local gathering that religious laws would be implemented “even if they impose sanctions on us, or use a nuclear bomb on us or even if they go back to another war. “
Since the Taliban took power some 17 months ago, the regime has failed to gain international legitimacy, largely due to educational restrictions imposed on girls and women.
Challenge and despair
Despite the possibility of being arrested and killed, Rahila says, teachers and students go to secret schools because “our greatest fear was the death of our souls and our emotions.”
The owners of the houses where the schools operate know how to fend off the nosy Taliban police who regularly question them about activities on their property.
To avoid attention, the girls are asked to come and leave in pairs and not to bring books with them.
“We leave our books at home and our pamphlets in class,” says Camila. “If we have homework, we write it on a piece of paper with our pen and put it in our pocket.”
As the network of secret schools expands, it’s not clear how girls like Camila will ever get their high school diploma, or how far they can go.
SRAK member Parasto says there was a time in Afghanistan when girls dreamed of becoming doctors, scientists or engineers, but now it’s a struggle just to get a high school diploma. “Look at the dreams we killed in our hearts, inside our minds.”