Another school year is underground in Afghanistan, but missing from classrooms across the country are girls and young women.
It has now been more than 500 days since the Taliban banned female students first from secondary schools, then later from universities in August 2021.
The Taliban have imprisoned the most famous supporter of girls’ education, Matiullah Wesa. For years, Wesa has been promoting the importance of education in southern Afghanistan. Despite international outcry including the UN, EU, and the US, he is still in prison.
At the beginning of their rule, the Taliban cited Islam as the reason for preventing girls from attending school. Later, the former Minister of Education for the Taliban said it was about cultural sensitivity for the people of the south, Pashtuns.
Pashtuns mainly live in the south and east of Afghanistan and, according to a national news agency, the majority of Taliban officials also belong to this ethnicity. Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks make up the majority of Afghanistan’s nearly 30 million population, besides the other ethnicities.
Pashtana Durrani, executive director of LEARN, said that the current Taliban’s rules have nothing to do with Pashtun culture or Islam.
LEARN was founded to make education available to girls in Afghanistan who don’t have access to schools, and to provide access to technological education through community schools in underserved and impoverished areas.
Durrani said it’s gender apartheid.
“Afghan women will continue to resist. I am optimistic that this will not be the end for us.”
Somaia Saba, 15, used to dress in a white scarf and a black dress every morning and enthusiastically embraced school. In ninth grade in the western province of Herat, he said he was most interested in mathematics and religious sciences and hoped to become a civil engineer one day. But that wish disappeared after August 2021.
“I have been very interested in engineering since childhood. I saw myself belonging to drawing, solving mathematical problems and working on new buildings, as an engineer. I don’t have any aspirations now,” Saba said, speaking in Persian.
Thinking that the schools might be opened for girls, Saba challenged the decision in the presence of the local Taliban officials and demanded that the gates of the schools be opened. The video of her speech went viral and Saba repeated the request in interviews with the media shedding tears with her impassioned plea. But the request was not answered.
“My only sin is being a girl. Although my fate and that of thousands of girls in my country is painful, it is too early to lose hope. If I have no hope, I will create it myself.”
Saba said that she and her peers always wore black clothes from school, which symbolized love for education and hope for the future. Many were going to become doctors, some lawyers, some wanted to go into politics, and others, like themselves, wanted to become engineers.
“I am a girl who lost my country after the rule of the Taliban.”
“I don’t know about the days of the week. Why should I know when it’s Friday? Does Saturday and Tuesday make a difference to a girl who doesn’t have a school or a teacher?”
“The food has no taste. No matter how blue and bright the sky becomes, I am drowned in the darkness of my sorrows.”
Saba said that this situation is not only her story but the story of thousands of Afghan girls.
Being excluded from school, Saba now helps her mother with the housework and reads school books. She also participates in television programs where she remains vocal about the right to education.
After years of hard work, Lida Kashifpor, 33, had found a job she loved as a school teacher.
But after August 2021, her teaching job ended and she lost her ability to be self-sufficient.
“The house has become a prison for me and I don’t know when I will be released from it.”
“During the day, I mostly thought about my unknown future and my throat hurts and I cried silently.”
Kashifpor said that he used to teach English and Arabic to girls in eighth and ninth grades. She added that the motivation she saw in her students was very rewarding.
“One day, I asked one of my 16-year-old students what she wanted to do. She replied that she wanted to become a journalist and wanted to be the voice of the people, especially women.”
Kashifpor said that she is going through the most bitter days of her life.
“When the night comes, I’m glad that another day has been cut off from my life, because this situation is exhausting for me.”
“I never thought that one day I would face such a fate. I used to say to myself that the world would not allow the Taliban to dominate our destiny again and destroy the achievements of twenty years. But the same international community Afghanistan submitted to the Taliban’s hands.”
“When I see the wild faces of the Taliban fighters on the roads, my hope for the future is cut off and I see the future is very dark. But I pray to God to destroy them one day.”
“I don’t have a good financial situation; my father is not alive and my mother is sick. My brother was a soldier during the republic, but he is currently unemployed. He drove a taxi for a few days, but he did not get any income.”
Being denied the right to teach, Kashifpor now spends most of her time with her sick mother. She cooks and thinks about better days.
Meena Shams Naseri, 22, who studied political science before the Taliban rule, was interested in geography and international politics, and wished to continue her master’s degree and one day become a diplomat. But now she sits in the corner of the house and thinks about her unfulfilled dreams.
Naseri said that she studied with passion and motivation and had hope for the future.
“For days, I have thought about what my fate will be. Will the sun of hope rise in my life tomorrow?”
“I dreamed that after my postgraduate education I would become an ambassador and every day I woke up with this hope.”
Naseri said that the most bitter time of her life was the day when the Taliban took over Afghanistan.
“The continuation of the Taliban rule will be the gradual death of a generation in Afghanistan. Because of this situation, we are being destroyed every day.”
Naseri is now studying books on international relations and is busy with chores at home.
Masiha Sherzad, 26, was a student in the third semester of a master’s in international relations and worked for the former president of Afghanistan before August 2021.
Besides continuing her postgraduate degree, she worked with a team collecting youth ideas on the Afghan Peace Talks.
“Working in a high-ranking official place before the Taliban is not comparable to living in a corner of the house after the Taliban.”
“I completely lost everything. Education, jobs, expertise, and hope. I remember Sunday of Aug. 14, 2021, when besides my daily tasks at the office, I printed my proposed titles for submission to the master’s thesis board of Kabul University for confirmation, but my degree remains incomplete.”
“I fled to Pakistan in early 2022 only for my safety… and after passing months of difficulty, I moved to Canada in mid-2022 with my husband and a newborn baby. Currently, besides babysitting and household work, I am reading books and eagerly looking for scholarships, education and job opportunities, while taking my baby to the library and getting books for him too.
“I am thinking about my destiny, which is the same as my mother’s destiny. Back in 1996, when the Taliban first occupied Afghanistan, she was in the same stage of life as I am, a young mother with a newborn baby. She would never have thought that her daughter would have the same destiny 25 years later.”
“I lost 20 years of effort, the same as my mother and other women of my age.”
“I had the printed titles for the dissertation of my master’s degree in hand and ready to submit to the faculty for approval. In only 3 hours, I and all of the Afghans lost our life’s endeavours.”
Shirzad is now taking care of her child in a land of exile and has started life from scratch.
“I have never thought of my destiny as a refugee in a western country.”
“Amidst all of the darkness and hopelessness, I believe that sooner or later I will find my way to continue my education. After every cold winter, the blossoms will flourish again, and so do I. I will flourish again with more power.”
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