The Taleban made their move against education for older girls about a month after they took over Afghanistan when they ordered secondary schools for boys to re-open, but made no mention of girls. Since then, there have been a few instances of false hope, notably in March 2022 when the government reneged on its promise to reopen girls’ secondary schools. Yet even before the fall of the Republic, many Afghan girls had no access to education – because of conflict in their area, or local conservative mores and a lack of female teachers, or because functioning schools did not exist. In this latest instalment of the Daily Hustle, we hear from one young Afghan woman about how elders in her community managed to open home schools for girls and appointed her as a teacher. That was five years ago. Now, there are rumours that the Taleban will close her school down. Many Afghan girls have long struggled to get access to education – because of fighting, conservative mores, ghost schools, or since August 2021, because the Taleban have banned secondary education for them. Photo: AFP/Aref Karimi
I live in one of the largest and most populated districts in our province in southeastern Afghanistan. During the Republic, there was a fight between the government and the Taleban over control of our province and danger was everywhere. We lived in fear of bombs, checkpoints and night raids, day and night. Because of the fighting we didn’t benefit as much as other provinces from the foreign aid that was coming into the country or from the development work the government was doing. There were few healthcare facilities in my area and the schools were closed most of the time, either because of the fighting or because there were no qualified people willing to come work here.
There are than 65 schools in my district – 20 of them are for girls – but the buildings are either neglected or were damaged in the fighting. Some only exist on paper. Over the years we learned that they call these ‘ghost schools’. In those years, the girls’ schools were not allowed to operate in the areas the Taleban controlled and where there were schools, there were few female teachers. But many people still wanted to educate their daughters. Finally, the tribal elders stepped in. They asked each village to find an educated woman in their own community who could teach girls in their home. They asked the parents to pay the teachers whatever they could afford. This is how I came to run a school in our house five years ago.
A home school for girls in the village
I used to have big dreams of going to medical school in Kabul, but my father wouldn’t agree. He thought I’d be a burden on my brother and his family in Kabul and that I should stay in the village until my fiancé could get enough money together for us to get married. But my family could see that I was chafing for something to do and one day my father came home and said I could use the big room in our house as a classroom for girls. And so, armed with my high school diploma, I joined the ranks of literate women and older men who’d opened their homes to educate the girls of our district.
My home school started with 20 girls but as our reputation grew and people started to learn about the classes my class grew until I eventually had 50 students between 7 and 18 years old. It was difficult for me to ask for money from the parents. I knew many of my students didn’t have enough to eat at home and paying fees for their daughters’ education was a hardship, so I didn’t press anyone to pay me. The parents gave me what they could afford, which came up to about 7,000-9,000 afghanis (100-150 USD at the time) each month.
A new curriculum
One day, after the Taleban came to power, UNICEF and an NGO came to our area. They said they wanted to establish community schools for girls and the elders told them there were already home schools in the district. So they met all the teachers and tested us to ensure we were qualified to teach primary school. They kept most of the existing schools and established some new ones. Now we have about 200 home schools in the district. UNICEF gives us educational materials including books, notebooks, school bags and pens for our pupils. They pay me 9,000 afghanis (now about 105 USD) each month so I don’t have to rely on the largesse of parents and it eases the financial burden on very poor families who’re struggling to survive.
The province’s Directorate of Education and UNICEF introduced new rules and a formal curriculum. They reduced the number of students from 50 to 35. Now the girls are between 7 and 12 years old. We cover two grades in one year, so it takes three years to complete the primary school curriculum. A team from the NGO and the district education office come twice a month to monitor my classes and make sure I’m sticking to the curriculum and the quality of teaching is up to par.
In the past, I taught my students Pashto, spelling, maths, religion, the biography of the Holy Prophet and the Quran. Now, with the new curriculum from the district’s education office, I teach Pashto, life skills, maths, calligraphy, art, religious education, which includes fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] and hadiths [the sayings and actions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad], and the Holy Quran. The official school hours are 7 am to 12 pm. After lunch, I hold free Quran classes for the older girls.
My family is not in favour of the afternoon classes. They say I’m working too hard and that the girls tire me out. They’d like me to take a break in the afternoons and recharge my batteries for the next day, but I think it’s a good deed and will bring Allah’s blessings on our home and my life. It’s true, my pupils are lively and the classes can sometimes be raucous, but it makes me happy to educate young girls and make sure that they have literacy and numeracy skills and know the holy word.
Rumours fuel uncertainty
Lately, there have been rumours that the Emirate wants to close the home schools. People are very worried. I don’t understand why the government would do such a thing. The home schools use the official curriculum and, anyway, what could possibly be wrong with teaching girls to read, write and do arithmetic? There used to be war before, but now it’s their government [ie those who had been the armed opposition]. They are in charge and all the people want education. Now that the war is over, the government should create more facilities, refurbish the old schools and build new ones. Girls should be able to go to school, same as boys. If the Emirate has really made this decision [to close home schools], it could affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of pupils across the country. It seems like an injustice.
It’s not only education for girls [that is at stake] but also the livelihoods of the teachers. The salaries the teachers get also help keep their families afloat. People are suffering financially and the money they earn helps put food on the table. We are 12 in my family – my parents, four brothers, four sisters, my sister-in-law and me. I am the only one who works and my income supports the household.
My father used to work in the Gulf and send money home for the family, but times have been hard since he lost his job and came back home to Afghanistan. [One] brother has a university education, but he’s unemployed. He farms our land, but we have [only] a small plot and we don’t have water. We can’t afford to hire a drill to dig a well, so we have to buy water from other people. Another brother was a teacher in one of the schools in the district, but he lost his job after he fell ill and had to go to Pakistan for medical treatment. He’s trying to get a passport so he can go aboard for work. If he manages to get a visa and find a job in one of the Gulf countries, he can send money home and that will help ease our financial burdens. For now we must make do with my small income, and if the government closes the school, we’ll face serious difficulties. I’m not the only one. Times are hard for most families and for the teachers who have classes at home, the money they earn is a lifeline. Their lives will be devastated if the schools are closed.
Keeping hope alive
If there is one thing I’ve learned in my years, it’s that nothing is ever certain or forever. For now, we have the home schools and I must focus on the present and do my best to educate the girls that come to my classes. I’m hoping my fiancé will have enough money for us to get married this year. I don’t want the school to close after that, when I’m no longer living in the village. So I’m training my younger sister and my sister-in-law to take the school over when I move to Kabul with my husband. My fiancé is very supportive of my dream of becoming a doctor. Who knows, maybe by then the Emirate will allow women to go to university. Wouldn’t that be the best of dreams come true?
This article was last updated on 5 Jul 2023