In trying to understand Taleban policy on state education, especially for girls, our first report heard from people around the country. They painted a picture of primary schools for boys and girls, and boys’ secondary schools having generally re-opened after the Taleban captured power on 15 August, but of girls’ secondary schools opening only very patchily. The Taleban have said they want to re-open schools for older girls when the environment can be made safe; many fear this could mean a de facto, ongoing closure. In this second report, AAN’s Kate Clark and guest author Said Reza Kazemi* try to set current Taleban policy on schools in context: tracing the evolution of Taleban thinking on education historically may answer the question of why the Taleban have been so uneasy about girls going to school.Men cycle past the locked gates of a girls's school shut down by the Taleban after they first captured Kabul in 1996. Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP, October 1996
“Who Gets to Go to School? (1): What people told us about education since the Taleban took over” was the first report in this series on schooling. A third report will look at how Taleban themselves are choosing to education their children, including the growing number sending their own sons and daughters to school. The series editor is Kate Clark.
When the Taleban captured power in August 2021, there was little detail known about their current ideas or plans for education, if indeed these had crystallised into any sort of policy. There have been some hints since, which we will detail here. Most of this report, however, traces the Taleban’s past practice on schools, as that seems to be a more useful indicator of where they may be taking schooling in Afghanistan now that they are in government. During the first Emirate (1996-2001), the Taleban banned all girls’ education, while also turning a blind eye to it in some places. In the early years of the insurgency, they were militantly hostile towards all government schools, both girls and boys, and fighters had explicit orders to attack schools and punish teachers who failed to heed warnings and desist from teaching. That morphed into a policy of trying to co-opt government schooling.
Hints of Taleban education policy
Statements made by the Taleban leadership, in particular the new acting Minister of Education, Sheikh Nurullah Munir, hint at two educational concerns which are both general and ambiguous.The first is what sort of education is suitable for Afghan children, with two themes emerging: education must be guided by Islamic sharia and promote what the Taleban refer to as melli aw eslami rohiya (a national and Islamic spirit).
In a major event introducing the new minister on 12 September 2021, the Taleban-affiliated mullah, Mawlana Muhammad Sharif, said that “the science of sharia is above all sciences” and that “only if they are guided by the values of the revealed religion of Islam and if they have an Islamic motivation, can an educated person serve Afghanistan and its people” (see reporting on the event by the state-run news agency, Bakhtar). Other speakers included Abdul Hakim Haqqani whom the Taleban later appointed as their chief justice (see this Etilaat Roz newspaper report) and the minister Sheikh Nurullah Munir himself. He stressed that he would give special attention to “the adab [habits/morals] of pupils and education in the light of the revealed religion of Islam.” At the same time, he also asked for “the free and unconditional humanitarian assistance of the world community for education in Afghanistan.”
Subsequently, in a 19 September education ministry leadership meeting, Munir told members of the Taleban’s education commission and the ministry’s heads of directorates that they must prioritise “the education of the homeland’s children with a national and Islamic spirit” (see this education ministry news post). On 21 September, meeting representatives of the teacher training institute union, he asked them to “educate the country’s children with an Islamic spirit and a sense of patriotism” (see this other education ministry news post).
In another interview with Bakhtar on 17 November, Munir called many parts of the existing curriculum “un-Islamic” and said they were working to “Islamise” it (see this Etilaat Roz report). In a 4 October interview with the Qatari TV network Al Jazeera, Munir gave a little more detail:
If we find content that contradicts shari’a law in any textbook, we will have to replace it. Subjects such as physics, geology, chemistry, and engineering will remain intact, but if there are things that contradict shari’a law, the laws of our country, or our customs and traditions, we will have no choice but to take the necessary steps. Some topics, like music, existed in the previous curriculum, but they are not compatible with our customs, religion, and traditions.
The Afghan school curriculum already contains extensive religious study. At the primary level, it begins with children studying the Quran and working from a book called Islamic Teaching and Upbringing” (Eslami Showana aw Ruzana in Pashto and Talim wa Tarbia-ye Eslami in Dari, with a different text for Shia Muslim school children). This introduces them to some short suras (chapters) and verses from the Quran, core elements of practice such as ablution and prayer, and of the faith, including the rights of neighbours, teachers and parents in Islam, and the life of the Prophet Muhammad and of the caliphs. Arabic and tajwid (the correct way to recite the Quran) are taught starting at grade 7, and the whole of the Quran (with translation) is studied from grades 7 to 12 along with hadiths of the Prophet and more advanced elements of belief (eg inheritance, zakat and Islamic business practice). In grades 10 to 12, children study tafsir (exegesis of the Quran).
The Taleban could introduce more religious elements, but this would be further Islamising the curriculum, not Islamising it. The ministry has not clarified what changes would need to be made to schooling to make it ‘compatible’ with Afghan culture and Islamic sharia, nor imbue it with a religious and patriotic spirit. There is so little to go on from ministerial statements to suggest how policy might develop now that the Taleban are in government that looking back at history is helpful. Attitudes to education have evolved among Taleban, and among the population more generally, and this may point to where policy is heading.
The second indication of change to education policy has come in the area of older girls’ schooling and female teachers’ employment. Girls’ and boys’ primary schools were ordered to resume classes on 24 August, but several weeks later, when secondary schools re-opened on 18 September, it was specifically only for boys and male teachers. Munir has insisted that the Taleban are not against girls’ education. They regard education as girls’ “Islamic and legal right,” but he said it should be “compatible with our Afghan culture, Islamic sharia and the acceptance of the majority of our nation” (Bakhtar report of 17 November).
As we detailed in the first report in this series, Munir promised as early as 7 October that a plan allowing the re-opening of girls’ secondary schools in a “safe and secure environment” that complied with the rules of Islam would be announced “soon” and after that, secondary schools for girls could re-open soon. That plan has yet to be announced and as the school year ended in most of Afghanistan on 22 December, secondary schools for girls were still largely closed.
Taleban education policy over time
Controversy over education, especially of girls and women, did not start with the Taleban. The subject was deeply contentious when schooling on any scale was first introduced in the 1920s under King Amanullah, and then again since 1978 and over the last forty years of conflict. All the various governments and armed groups since 1978 have used education as a ‘political football’ – and indeed a case could be made against successive pre-1978 governments for also having manipulated the curriculum for political leverage. Both the early People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) governments and the post-2001 Republic promoted – and the PDPA tried to enforce – education in order to display ‘modernity’, progress and nation-building. As Giustozzi reported, the PDPA caused outrage after the Saur Revolution by pushing for mixed classes in schools, using textbooks to spread leftist propaganda and insisting that adults, including women, attend literacy classes. After 2001, the Republic and its foreign backers with similar fanfare again made education a signature policy comparing, in the words of then US president George Bush to mark the start of the school year in 2002, “liberated Afghanistan” with the dark days of “fanaticism and bigotry” under the Taleban.
The reaction by both the mujahedin in the 1980s and the Taleban in the early years of the insurgency to what were perceived as attempts at indoctrinating children with ‘un-Afghan’ and ‘un-Islamic’ ideas was to attack schools and school teachers. Both viewed schools as symbols of a much-hated, infidel-backed state and as sites for spreading propaganda. Yet, from the other side, there were also attempts at indoctrination, for example the militaristic Islamist textbooks, American‐designed and funded, which were promoted in the schools in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan: they famously taught the alphabet with ‘J (jim) is for jihad’ and ‘M (mim) is for mujahedin’. Taleban policy towards schooling both now and during the first Emirate did not come out of a vacuum.
First Emirate (1996-2001)
The Taleban took power after a period when plans by the Rabbani government to ‘re-Islamise’ state education had fallen by the wayside as energy and resources were focussed on fighting between the various mujahedin and former PDPA militia factions. Whatever plans the Taleban might also have had for state education at this time were not implemented to any considerable extent because they were also busy fighting those factions which had largely come together to form the Northern Alliance. The Taleban also did not have the money to roll out the extensively destroyed education system. They did make some changes, though. They increased religious instruction so that it made up around 50 per cent of teaching time, including at Kabul University; medical students there reported to one author that they now had to study the Quran, tafsir (exegesis of the Quran) and other Islamic subjects at the cost of their core medical study. The Taleban continued to pay some teacher salaries. They also entertained the idea of redesigning state education so that madrasas, where the Taleban themselves were educated (taleban means students of madrassas), would teach ‘modern’ subjects too.
Most controversially, the Taleban closed girls’ schools and banned female teachers, indeed all women except health workers, from paid work. The ban on women teachers affected boys’ education too because many women taught in boys’ schools.
However, the Taleban never absolutely or wholeheartedly enforced their ban on girls’ education. Some Taleban ministers and governors themselves sent their daughters to NGO-run or home schools. One of this report’s authors visited a mixed primary village school in Kabul province supported by CARE and the local community: “These children are very lucky to have a school,” the teacher Bilal Muhammad told her. “When they go to other villages, they wear their pens in their shirt pockets to show off the fact they go to school.” The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) also enrolled thousands of pupils, including girls during the first Emirate, educating them using a curriculum consisting of a mix of the Taleban’s religious teaching and school subjects. In 1999 and 2000, SCA was also able to start girls’ education above primary school, but they did this in all the rural areas where they operated. There were also schools unsupported by NGOs that escaped the Taleban ban: in Malestan district in Ghazni province, for example, one of the authors was told at the time that after the Taleban captured their district in the late 1990s, women teachers had gone on hunger strike outside the district governor’s office: he reportedly told them to carry on as normal, reopen the schools, but not to tell anyone.
It seemed as if there was some understanding, even if patchy, at work during the first Emirate: the Taleban might allow education for girls where communities seriously wanted it, especially if there was NGO support, but if they did, it would mostly to entirely be constrained to the primary level. Also, the arrangements were extremely volatile:
As most local Taleban officials were exchanged after six months under those days’ rotational system, the NGOs’ struggle started anew with each newly appointed official. Even the minister’s green light was sometimes not sufficient […] individual mullahs tried to interfere, or […] disagreement in or between Taleban ministries or the Taleban cabinet in Kabul and the movement’s leadership in Kandahar surfaced frequently […]
The Taleban policy practice of ‘turning a blind eye’ to some girls’ schools in some places was, of course, a very precarious basis for teachers to work and girls to study. Permission was unspoken and could be withdrawn at any moment and the official ban enforced. Schools could and were shut down by the Taleban. Homes were raided and those teaching beaten or detained. Educating girls, especially older girls, required courage, persistence and organisation. In places with a history of schooling, there were brave educated women and older girls who were willing to risk punishment to pass on learning. Elsewhere, unless children were lucky enough to have the support of an NGO, neither boys’ nor girls’ schools were likely to open during the Taleban’s first Emirate.
The basis of the Taleban’s ban on girls’ schooling was precarious. As mullahs, it was impossible for them to argue that girls’ education was unIslamic given that education plays such a primary role in the religion: ‘Read!’ (iqra) is held to be the first word of the Islamic revelation. The official reasons given for the ban were feeble. The Taleban argued that, on the one hand, security was not good and on the other that they did not have the funds to run girls’ schools. Yet, in most of the country, security was excellent and funding would have been available for girls’ schools if allowed. It seemed rather that, as one of the authors wrote in 2000: “In the eyes of many mullahs, secular schooling leads to decadence, immorality, and too much freedom for women and girls.”
For a movement that stems from rural communities where women and girls from adolescence live in purdah, girls going to school is deeply problematic. In banning girls’ education, the Taleban were pursuing the aim, as AAN colleague, Thomas Ruttig wrote, of “pushing women and girls out of public life, part of what they understood as a ‘pure Islamic society.'” (see footnote 7 for full citation). Practically speaking as well, educated women are far less easy to control, as the Taleban’s current administration has found in the number of women demonstrating against their policies. That conflict between fear or uneasiness about allowing girls to be educated and the clear injunctions of their religion may have been what led not only to the ‘turning a blind eye’ policy, but what seemed to the outside world to be some strange decisions. For example, one NGO that was permitted to open girls’ and boys’ schools for IDPs from the Shomali who had fled a Taleban offensive in summer 1999 and found refuge in the old Soviet embassy was told they could teach the girls to read, so that they could read the Quran, but not write, for fear they might write love letters.
In 2000, a UNICEF estimate quoted by one of the authors found that only four to five per cent of primary-aged children, girls and boys, in Afghanistan were then getting a broad-based schooling, with far fewer going to secondary school or university.
The drastic changes made by the Taleban in their approach to education during the insurgency are well researched They were initially far more hostile to schools and teachers than they had been in power. The first reports of intimidation of teachers and pupils in state schools emerged in 2002 and of setting fire to school buildings in 2004. They attacked girls’ schools more frequently than boys’ schools. Attacks in general peaked in 2006. Although the Taleban might not have been behind all the attacks, targeting schools was an official order of their first code of conduct, or Layha, which was issued in 2006 (see AAN’s 2011 special report on the Layha, which includes the texts of all three versions of the code here). The Taleban saw not only teachers, but also school buildings as symbols of the state they were battling to overthrow. Clauses 24-26 of the Taleban’s 2006 Layha said:
24. It is forbidden to work as a teacher under the current puppet regime because this strengthens the system of the infidels. True Muslims should apply to study with a religiously trained teacher and study in a mosque or similar institution. Textbooks must come from the period of the jihad or the Taleban [regime].
25. Anyone who works as a teacher for the current puppet regime must receive a warning. If he nevertheless refuses to give up his job, he must be beaten. If the teacher still continues to instruct contrary to the principles of Islam, the district commander or a group leader must kill him.
26. Those NGOs that come to the country under the rule of the infidels must be treated as the government is treated. They have come under the guise of helping people but in fact are part of the regime. Thus, we tolerate none of their activities, whether it be building of streets, bridges, clinics, schools, madrassas (schools for religious studies) or other works. If a school fails to heed a warning to close, it must be burned. But all religious books must be secured beforehand.
Such hostility should be seen in the context of a government that had supplanted them and was supported by ‘infidel’ foreigners who used schools as propaganda. In the previously quoted speech by President George Bush to mark the new school year in 2002, he said:
For many girls, this will be the first time in their young lives that they will have set foot in a classroom. Under the Taliban regime, educating women was a criminal act. Under the new government of a liberated Afghanistan, educating all children is a national priority. And America, along with its coalition partners, is actively helping in that effort. When Afghan children begin their classes they will find that the United States has already sent more than 4 million textbooks to their country. The textbooks are written in the Afghan languages of Pashto and Dari. And before the end of the year we’ll have sent almost 10 million of them to the children of Afghanistan. These textbooks will teach tolerance and respect for human dignity, instead of indoctrinating students with fanaticism and bigotry.
It is hardly surprising that the Taleban attacked schools, as the mujahedin had before them. However, the post-2001 state roll-out of schools was popular; schooling was seen as useful, a route to socio-economic progress. Those who had experienced schooling before, either in PDPA times or as refugees in Pakistan and especially Iran, where refugees had successfully demanded to also be allowed to go to school, were keen to get their children educated. The Taleban offensive against schools provoked civilian resistance in many places. That led to a change of policy. The Taleban removed the authorisation to attack state schools from their Layha in 2009. In the 2010 Layha, it implicitly referred to a Taleban educational policy, stipulating that all educational activities must be “according to the principles and guidance of the [Taleban] education commission” and that “[p]rovincial and district officials carrying out their educational affairs shall follow the policy of the commission.”
Thereafter, the Taleban changed their approach from attacking to trying to co-opt state education. Contacts were established between the Ministry of Education and Taleban insurgents on and off from 2007 to around 2010. The ministry saw the contacts, wrote Antonio Giustozzi and Claudio Franco in their special 2013 AAN report “The Ongoing Battle for the Schools: Uprisings, Negotiations and Taliban Tactics, as “a confidence-building measure for future political negotiation,” while the Taleban viewed them as “the need to bridge the gap with the rural communities.” However, attacks on schools did not cease completely, said the two authors, “because of command‐and‐control problems, because non‐Taleban elements were involved or because of alternative reasons for carrying out attacks against specific targets (as opposed to an all-out campaign against state schools).” To come to an agreement, the ministry conceded to various Taleban requirements aimed at controlling state education, including changes to the curriculum to increase time for religious teaching and to remove controversial textbook passages, giving Taleban influence over teacher recruitment and teacher attendance and performance monitoring, banning English language subject for girls and allowing Taleban to, as Ruttig put it ‘proselytise.’ Obviously, the government did not publicise the agreement, he wrote, as it would have provoked protest.
Towards 2013, talks between the education ministry and the Taleban stalled, reported Giustozzi and Franco, and attacks on schools continued. The Taleban continued to expropriate school buildings as temporary military or command bases, as did the Afghan National Security Forces (as reported persistently in UNAMA’s reports into the civilian harm caused by the conflict). However, in areas away from the military frontline and under Taleban influence, as AAN researchers found when looking at life in districts under Taleban control in 2018-2020, there was a hybrid situation (See our research series “One Land, Two Rules”.)) The state, backed by foreign donors, continued to provide the framework for schools, funding them and paying teachers, and setting the curriculum and examinations. The Taleban, through their local education commissions, supervised schools, monitored and in some cases altered the curriculum to make it more ‘Islamic’, and tried to get their people hired. They insisted that teachers turn up for work, thereby improving the quality of education in some areas.
During this period, where primary girls’ schools already existed, they allowed them to continue. Beyond that, there could be problems. Only in one of the districts studied by AAN, Obeh in Herat province was there an existing girls’ secondary school. The Taleban did allow it to reopen, but only after extensive lobbying by the community and after the school had substituted recent female high school graduates to replace the male teachers who had worked there. The quality of the education presumably suffered, but schooling continued.
“Education,” wrote Antonio Giustozzi in his 2010 AAN special report on education, “is never a neutral undertaking and arguably there is always an ideology underlying it. In the case of Afghanistan, this proved particularly controversial because of the deep ideological divides and of the great rural‐urban gap.” What is remarkable about the last 40 years is not only how true Giustozzi’s description remains, but also how much has changed, seen both in Taleban attitudes and in the demands of many rural Afghans for their children to get a schooling.
It can be seen how far the Taleban have moved on from their views of the 1990s and of the early insurgency. After they captured the Afghan state on 15 August 2021, they allowed primary girls’ schools to open with no apparent dissent in the ranks. They have also said that secondary schooling for girls is permissible, if fully-segregated and compatible with what they call Islamic sharia and Afghan culture. However, the conditions they say they want to impose, of staff and facilities both being completely gender-segregated will still hamper and could effectively stop secondary schooling for girls in some areas (for more detail on this, see the first report in this series, “Who Gets to Go to School? (1): What people told us about education since the Taleban took over”). There is still a fear that it will serve as an excuse for not allowing the full re-opening of girls’ secondary schools – as ‘insecurity’ did for all girls’ schools in the 1990s.
Girls education remains a sensitive issue, with political repercussions. It is a key demand of the western nations that are still not only Afghanistan’s main donors (the US has proposed that donors will pay teachers’ salaries if all girls are allowed an education), but also key players in deciding to waive or maintain sanctions, both in Washington DC and at the UN Security Council. A far more powerful and influential constituency, however, are Afghan parents who want their children, boys and girls of all ages, to be educated. As we saw in the first report in this series, the demand for older girls to go to school is not universal in Afghanistan, but it is very strong in certain provinces and in urban areas generally.
For Afghan women in particular, over the past 20 years, many have seen how an education can change lives and give women greater options. This may be the case even for women who have never had the chance to go to school themselves. In a special AAN report on rural women’s views on war and peace published in July 2021, we heard from women, including in conservative areas whose populations are seen as the Taleban’s ‘natural’ base, who expressed a strong desire for both their sons and daughters to get an education; some interviewees who had missed out on school hoped to get an education for themselves as well. Elsewhere, going to school is now a normal, expected part of life for many older girls and their families, as is going out to work for female teachers and other women working outside the home. The Taleban will need to consider the power of this constituency and their strong demands, indeed expectations, that secondary girls’ schooling continues.
Those expectations come up against the uneasiness felt by many within the Taleban at the prospect of older girls and female teachers being outside the home and getting an education which gives them greater autonomy and the means to potentially take on public roles. At the same time, however, others in the movement are much more relaxed about and supportive of girls of all ages going to school. The third report in this series will hear from Taleban who are already sending their children, boys and girls, to school. As a group which prioritises internal coherence, more conservative elements may still be able to ensure policy stops or restricts all Afghan girls getting an education.
An education, once received, cannot be taken away. What it leaves behind is indelible – aspirations, expectations and a greater awareness of different options in life. Twenty years of better, albeit always far from perfect, access to education for Afghanistan’s children have left their mark. If the Taleban government does decide to restrict girls’ education, they may find that Afghanistan’s population is far less acquiescent to losing this right than it was in the 1990s.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour
* Said Reza Kazemi is a visiting researcher in the Institute of Anthropology, Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies, University of Heidelberg in Germany. Previously, he was a researcher at AAN.
This article was last updated on 8 Feb 2022