Editors’ Note: The fallout from the abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August has been perhaps most harshly felt by the women and girls of the South Asian nation, as veteran foreign affairs correspondent and Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield author Hollie McKay has discovered in her return to the now Taliban-controlled country.
I have walked through the Ministry of Education – a run-down building with faded white walls and small patches of green rising from cracks in the concrete – multiple times since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in mid-August. The floors and stuffy office rooms are filled with the new government’s most devout – as evidenced by their long beards and constant twisting of prayer beads – only I am yet to spot a single woman inside the bustling halls or walls.
It’s a searing reminder of the state of girls’ education inside an Afghanistan in limbo, with next to no input from the gender suffering most amid the Taliban takeover.
While boys of all ages were ordered back to classrooms last month, girls’ education after the sixth grade – including some universities – has been indefinitely put on hold. And while private schools continue, the vast majority of Afghan girls and women who rely on the public education system are relegated to the home until further notice.
“Amendments will be made based on our new laws. Islamic scholars will make the decisions,” says Abdul Hakeim, chief of staff for the Minister of Education. “We want an Islamic perspective, and this means separate classes and transport. Once this is sorted out, girls can continue education for a lifetime.”
I have heard such justifications on multiple occasions in recent weeks.
Mawlawi Noor Ahmad Saeed, director of information and culture for Kandahar province – the birthplace of the Taliban – stresses to me that “the whole issue is about transport” and that it will “take time” to make sure girls and women have entirely separate transit and infrastructure facilities.
Moreover, the Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs, Hafiz Habib, insists that Islam allows “full rights” to women’s education. A leader inside the much-feared Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Mohammad Yousuf, echoes that the new government won’t deprive girls of the right to full and proper schooling.
Nevertheless, the Imam Mawlawi Hayat Khan, who heralds the famed mosque wedged in the primordial village of Sange Saar, of which Mullah Omar started the Taliban movement a quarter of a century ago, stresses that the reason for separation – and why women should cover their whole face except for the eyes – is so that men do not get “too tempted.”
As it stands in Afghanistan, most students do a half-day at regular school and spend the other half intensifying their religious studies in a madrassa. Official Taliban spokesperson Bilal Karimi also assures me from his office inside the Ministry of Information and Culture in Kabul that the stoppage is only temporary.
“We cannot teach our kids music and other things which are not part of our society,” Hakeim continues, adding that the Taliban of 2021 will be far more open-minded than the rule that started in the 1990s. “Now, we have advanced policies and strategies to catch up with the world. Back then, we did not have access to the resources and no capacity for new buildings or schools. Now we have much more power to make the changes.”
Yet Hakeim stresses that the country’s dire financial situation means that they urgently need support, not from other governments but non-governmental organizations. “Other governments want to implement their own mythologies and thinking on the local people,” he says. “We want (schools) to run on our terms.”
The top brass has made it clear that there will be changes – they prefer to use the word “amendment” to the curriculum. Leaked documents also show that subjects such as arts and music will inevitably hit the chopping block. An internal memo highlights that the revisions won’t be immediate, but once a “jirga” – a group of Islamic scholars – comes together, decisions will be made and acted upon.
During a visit to Kandahar’s Mirwais Neeka University, the women – huddled inside their microbiology classes as they embark on becoming doctors – all assure me that they prefer the newly enforced gender segregation. “It allows us to concentrate, without distractions,” one young student, who previously held a position working in the NGO health sector for Save the Children until the former government fell, quips.
Despite the outcry that often rings out across mainstream media, it is also important to note that the Afghan teachers I have spoken with – including some of the most staunch women’s rights activists across the country – tell me that such subjects were learned in outside classes or private institutions.
Khost is something of a bulwark enclave in and of itself.
The sleepy province, poised alongside the southern Pakistan border replete with undulating mountains and gushing valleys, is one of the few places I have visited whereby the old red, black and green Afghan flag still flies high beside the white-and-black Taliban emblem. Locals fearlessly stress that they will not allow the new government’s foot soldiers to remove the hallmark of the past until they have proven that rights for all will forge ahead and that the Taliban of today will be far less brutal than in their reign some two decades ago.
The deeply tribal society is not content to just listen to the Taliban’s words declaring amnesty for all – they want to see it in action.
For one, a 50-year-old language teacher and activist named Fazila notes that she makes a point of leaving her house every day and signing her attendance at the school even though there are no girls to teach and the fact that she has not been paid a salary in months – even before the Taliban came to power.
Representatives for the provincial Education directorate are keen to show that they have already organized separate living and classes facilities for women students, complete with their own private entrances away from male professors, their own prayer hall, and a special cafeteria and auditorium for engagement parties and celebrations.
“We want this to be an example for the rest of the country,” declares Mavak, who oversees tertiary education in Khost and three other surrounding provinces. “The money for education under the previous government never went to those who really needed it. So we will make sure (corruption) doesn’t happen.”
The male representatives say that they are desperate for women doctors and are going above and beyond to urge girls to study with the hopes of completing medical degrees.
Nadima, a Khost native and founder of the women’s support NGO “Dream Voice Act,” also illuminates the importance of giving the Taliban – officially termed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – time to put its modifications in place.
“I am very optimistic after what I have seen in Khost. How I was received tells me there is certainly going to be a door for collaboration with women in every aspect,” she says with confidence. “I felt welcomed. I wore my colorful clothes. How (the Taliban) were talking toward me tells me there will be great steps. So often people get resistant to this new government when it is affecting their economy; when their economy is not affected, people will accept this change.”
However, I cannot help wonder just how long the grace period among locals can last.
A fellow teacher and local women’s rights advocate, a widow named Nisreen, chimes in that they will not wait forever.
“We are worried about the girls. We need them in school. I need to work, but I am not going until I get paid,” she explains. “Girls are going to be left behind, the coronavirus pandemic started this in leaving girls behind, and we need them to catch up. And people are starting to become hungry.”
With each passing day, Afghanistan as a whole dips deeper into poverty. With economic assets frozen and little diplomatic recognition from the outside world, the UN estimates that 97 percent of the 38 million will have plunged into destitution by mid-2022 without urgent action from the outside world.
And needless to say, it is almost always the women and girls who will suffer the haunting repercussions.
As I sit on the floor sipping tea with these powerful elder women in Khost, who speaks passionately about the consequential necessity of female teachers and students, one of their small granddaughters – just 9 years old – slips quietly onto the cool concrete. She says nothing, her innocent face staring inquisitively into mine.
I learn that she is already engaged; her poor parents, made even poorer by the economic crisis gripping the beleaguered country, felt they had no choice but to essentially give her away to an older man.
It is likely the wedding will take place after she has her first period.