Euroviews. I went to secret schools during the first Taliban rule — how many more years will Afghan girls lose?

Earlier in March, Afghan teenage girls should have been going back to school, marking the beginning of a new academic year. 

In most other countries, girls of 11 or 12 years of age would be preparing to begin their secondary education.

In Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, female education ends at grade six.

I know full well how it feels to live in fear and uncertainty. My first encounter with the Taliban was back in 1996 when I saw two women whipped on their feet for not covering their faces.

I was five years old and had become one of the millions of girls deprived of their education during the first Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001.

I was one of the “lucky” ones, however — I was home-schooled and attended a secret school for girls in Kabul. 

But the fear of getting caught followed us everywhere, especially as we travelled to and from our classes. My classmates and I would hide our schoolbooks in cloths used to cover the Qur’an.

Two years ago, I watched in horror in March 2022 as the Taliban U-turned on their promise to reopen girls’ secondary schools — a ban that is estimated to affect over 1 million girls. I saw girls break down in tears in front of news cameras. 

It was a pain that felt personal to me.

A vortex women are stuck in

Since the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, girls have been banned from secondary school for over 900 days — a shocking figure when we consider the effects of school closures on children globally during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just think of how Afghan girls have been impacted — not only have they lost the opportunity to progress academically, but they’re missing vital opportunities to socialise, develop friendships, and grow as individuals during the formative years of their lives.

Health experts have expressed concerns over the impacts on girls’ mental health, with surging cases of depression and anxiety, and near-daily reports of female suicides.

Edicts have strengthened male family members’ control over women’s behaviour and clothing and could potentially pave the way for more inter-familial violence, thanks to a culture of impunity that thrives under the group’s rule.

An Afghan women’s football team poses for a photo in Kabul, September 2022

Here at Afghan Witness, a project run by the Centre for Information Resilience, we’ve been speaking to women and girls since the Taliban’s takeover. Their sobering accounts reveal how it feels to be deprived of the most basic of human rights.

Sofia*, a university student, described the current situation as a vortex: “the women and girls of Afghanistan are stuck in it. No one can even shake their foot from it. All their dreams and goals are outside”, she said.

Gawhar*, a high school student before the ban, told us: “I wanted to become a journalist in a local media agency. A fellow female classmate wanted to become a doctor — unfortunately, all of us became hopeless.”

Edicts as a means of oppression

Since their takeover, the Taliban have issued 80 edicts in total — 54 of which specifically target women and girls, according to the Feminist Majority Foundation. Among them are requirements for women to be accompanied by a male guardian when travelling over 72 kilometres and to cover their faces in public.

These edicts have strengthened male family members’ control over women’s behaviour and clothing and could potentially pave the way for more inter-familial violence, thanks to a culture of impunity that thrives under the group’s rule.

There are also very real economic consequences to restrictions on women’s work and education. The talent and opportunity lost will impact not only individuals but Afghanistan as a country.

Taliban leaders attend a ceremony in Kabul, May 2023

There are also very real economic consequences to restrictions on women’s work and education. The talent and opportunity lost will impact not only individuals but Afghanistan as a country. 

There’s already been an exodus of professionals, and, with half of the population deprived of higher education, sectors such as health, justice and education are destined to suffer.

But make no mistake: the women who have studied and become lawyers, journalists, teachers or doctors over the last twenty years refuse to give up their livelihoods so easily.

Some have taken to the streets in protest, and when their protests were met with suppression and violence, they took their campaigns online. They have shared videos of indoor demonstrations, coined hashtags, campaigned for the release of those in detention, and used theatre, music and dance to tell stories of Taliban brutality.

Do not underestimate Afghan women — but do protect them

The ability of Afghan women to adapt should not be understated. 

Many have poured their time into advocacy, while others have set up secret schools or online classes. Those who managed to leave Afghanistan have worked tirelessly to tell the stories of those who remain, establishing women-led newsrooms that operate in exile to ensure Afghanistan is not forgotten.

And while the resilience, strength and creativity of these women offer a glimmer of hope in the darkness — the reality is that being a woman in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan means living in fear and uncertainty.

In January, reports emerged that a number of girls and women had been arrested for non-compliance with the Taliban’s hijab rules. 

Suicide cases among women in Afghanistan appear to rise year on year and are possibly linked to domestic violence, forced marriage, and the group’s restrictions. Reports of femicide are also frequently recorded by our investigators at Afghan Witness, with family members, Taliban, and unknown individuals often cited as perpetrators.

Afghanistan has dropped off the news agenda, but the violence and oppression continues — and for too many of us Afghan women, no matter how loud we shout, it feels like the world has stopped listening.

Meetra Qutb is the Relationship Manager and Communications Specialist at the Centre for Information Resilience’s Afghan Witness project. She previously worked as an associate lecturer at Kabul University’s law and political science faculty and is an independent researcher and commentator on human rights and politics in Afghanistan.

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*Names have been changed by Afghan Witness to protect the women who chose to speak out from repercussions by the Taliban.

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