Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Rights and Freedoms

Who Gets to Go to School? (1): What people told us about education since the Taleban took over

Kate Clark AAN Team 25 min

Taleban policy towards women and girls is one of the prisms through which the movement has been studied – and judged – ever since the Taleban first came to power in the mid-nineties. A touchstone for many Afghans and outside observers was whether, after capturing power nationally in August 2021, they would allow girls to go to school. Girls’ primary schools did indeed reopen, but schools for older girls have done so only patchily. This is far more than the Taleban allowed during their first Emirate when they banned girls’ schooling altogether, but also far less than many Afghans want and are used to. In a series of reports, the AAN team has been looking at Taleban practice and policy on schooling, especially for girls. In this first report, which draws on research from our ‘Living under the new Taleban government’ series, we try to get a clearer picture of where Afghan children are managing to go to school, and where they are not. (The series editor is Kate Clark.)

This picture taken on 14 November 2021 shows school girls sitting in a classroom at a secondary school in Nawabad village, in the Qarabagh district, some 56 km south-west of Ghazni, in Ghazni province. In some provinces, schools for older girls did reopen or, indeed, never closed. Photo by Hector RETAMAL/AFP

This series looks at schools (maktabs), rather than madrassas, which impart religious education. In literature and discourse, school education is often referred to as ‘secular’ or ‘modern’. These terms are not used in this series of reports unless in quotations: given the extensive religious syllabus of Afghan schools, they are hardly secular, while calling schools’ modern’ implicitly downgrades madrassa education as ‘backwards’ or, more positively, ‘traditional’. Nevertheless, these terms do get to the heart of why education has proved so controversial in Afghanistan over much of the last hundred years – and continues to be so. Schooling has brought opposing socio-economic and political interests and ideology into conflict, repeatedly pitting ‘modernisers’ especially within the state against mullahs, and the urban against the rural. 

Compared to earlier times, however, that conflict is much less fierce, as will be seen especially in the second and third reports in this series, where we examine the evolution of Taleban policy on schooling since the 1990s and then, a relatively new phenomenon, that some Taleban are themselves sending their sons and their daughters to school. Nevertheless, the tension over what is best educationally for Afghan children and the nation has only lessened, not gone away; in particular, permitting older girls to go to school is still a highly sensitive topic. Much of this series, therefore, focuses on their situation. 

The series begins with a report looking at who has been able to go to school since the Taleban took power on 15 August and what changes they have already made to education in Afghanistan. It also briefly looks at the state of the nation’s schools before the Taleban takeover. The report draws on interviews conducted in 40 districts across Afghanistan in the period just before and then in the months following their capture of power. 

What has happened to schools, schoolchildren and teachers since the Taleban took power

The Taleban capture of the seat of government on 15 August 2021, bringing with it the prospect of a change in national education policy, happened for most schoolchildren in the middle of their school year, which runs from 22 March to 22 December (2 Hamal to 31 Qaws). For those going to school in Afghanistan’s hottest provinces in the south, where the school year runs from 6 September to 5 June (15 Sunbula to 15 of Jawza), the change of government came during the final weeks of their main holiday when children, parents and teachers would have been preparing to return to school. It had already been a much-disrupted year for schooling in Afghanistan. The Taleban takeover came just weeks after schools had been asked to reopen following the latest closure prompted by Covid-19 (in the Afghan months of Jawza and Saratan, ie 22 May to 22 July) and after many months of intensified fighting and insecurity that had disturbed schooling in many districts (for an overview of the conflict in 2021 see this AAN report). 

Girls walk to school along a path early in the morning in Kandahar on 1 January 2022. Photo by Javed TANVEER / AFP

Soon after the Taleban captured Kabul, on 23 August, their Education Commission announced to its “dear compatriots” that following the closure of schools because of coronavirus and the postponement of their reopening “due to the takeover of provincial capitals and Kabul,” all primary schools should reopen for lessons on 28 August. As to the start-back date for secondary schools, “instructions will be given later” (see statement here and media reporting here).

Those instructions were issued on 17 September, when the Ministry of Education ordered teachers and pupils back to school, but with a proviso (see the Ministry of Education statement, also quoted here):

All Emirati [that is, government] and private schools, madrasas and dar ul-ulums [advanced madrasas] should restart their educational process from 27 Sunbula [18 September], so all male schoolteachers and male pupils must be present in their work.[1] In modern usage in Afghanistan, dar ul-ulum (literally ‘house of sciences’) is equivalent to university as madrasa (‘place of learning’) is equivalent to a school in … Continue reading

That specification, that only men and boys should return to educational establishments rang alarm bells, given that during the first Emirate, the Taleban had banned girls’ education and women working outside the home, except in healthcare. It also became clear that there would be an additional obstacle to getting girls’ secondary schools up and running: “There will be no male teacher for female secondary school pupils and no female teacher for male secondary school pupils,” the minister told the press on 7 October (quoted by Etilaat-e Roz). Female teachers make up just 34 per cent of the workforce, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – a proportion which falls in rural areas where some girls’ schools have relied on some male teachers to operate. The minister said they were working on a plan to create a “safe and secure environment” for girls that complied with the rules of Islam and that would be announced “soon”. Another obstacle raised in mid-January 2022 by spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahed was facilities. He said that for there to be complete segregation, “[i]n heavily populated areas, it is not enough to have separate classrooms for boys and girls — separate school buildings are needed,” as AP reported. Mujahed did not explain why boys should always be prioritised, but if this condition were to be followed through, new school buildings would be needed in some areas. 

Many girls’ secondary schools that already fulfilled all the Taleban’s requirements, ie separate buildings and no male teachers, were still not allowed to open and the Taleban authorities have given no explanation for this. Instead, a patchy, apparently random picture of where girls’ secondary schools were able to open and where doors to classes remained firmly shut has emerged.

Schools for older girls were open, said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Omar Abdi who met newly-appointed Minister of Education Sheikh Nurullah Munir in Kabul on 6 October, in Balkh, Jawzjan, Kunduz and Samangan in the north and Uruzgan in the south (as reported by Associated Press and UN here and here). The press also reported the reopening of girls’ secondary schools in Zabul on 24 November and in Herat where local communities, including female schoolteachers, led by the teachers union, successfully lobbied the provincial Taleban officials, including governor Mawlawi Nur Ahmad Islamyar (see this BBC report from 6 November). One Herati schoolgirl in particular, Sotuda Forotan, was introduced by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and activist Malala Yousafzai for The Financial Times’ 25 most influential women of 2021, including for a widely-circulated and moving speech she made at a local event attended by local Taleban officials, defending girls’ access to education (watch it here). Following media attention, schools in Herat were ordered to shut down about a week later (see reporting from 13 November here), only to reopen again (see AP reporting from 1 December). Local people from other provinces interviewed by AAN also mentioned that government schools for older girls were open in their areas, including Ghazni, Kunduz and Faryab, while others said some boys’ schools were still closed. Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told AP on 14 December that secondary schoolgirls were attending classes in ten provinces (without mentioning which). 

Nationally, some private schools for older girls are also reported to be still open, although the economy’s collapse has meant fewer pupils, which may force their closure anyway. Community schools, including NGO-supported ones that provide education to older girls, seem to have opened as normal.

As to staff working at the Ministry of Education, it was also decided at a 19 September meeting that “all male staff of the ministry may return to their work from tomorrow” (see this education ministry news post). A female former ministry official told AAN on 24 November that there had been no decision on whether the ministry’s female employees would be allowed to return to their jobs: “The male staff try to show up at the ministry to sign the attendance sheet three, four days a week,” she said, “but, as yet, there is no work plan.” As far as AAN knows, the Ministry of Education still has not called its female staff back to work.

Following the general pattern in the Taleban administration, the senior appointees to the Ministry of Education are all male and madrasa-educated. The acting minister and deputy minister, now in charge of all state schools, are: Sheikh Nurullah Munir and Mawlawi Sakhaullah, appointed on 7 September and 4 October 2021, respectively (for details on Taleban government appointments generally, see these recent AAN reports here and here).[2]There have reportedly been other senior appointments in the Taleban-run education ministry. They include, for example, Mawlawi Sayed Agha as Deputy Minister of Islamic Education, Mawlawi Abdul Hakim … Continue reading There is little publicly available information about their backgrounds, but the ministry website and its social media channels describe Munir as sheikh al-hadith wa al-tafsir, an expert in the sayings and actions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (hadith) and the interpretation of the Quran (tafsir), respectively (see the news section of the education ministry website).

A similar trend of assigning clerics to education offices can also be seen at the subnational level. Local schoolteachers and researchers in various provinces – Herat in the northwest, Helmand and Kandahar in the south, Logar and Paktia in the east and Balkh in the north – reported some clerics and Taleban-sympathising schoolteachers had been put in charge of provincial and district directorates of education. In Herat, for example, the new provincial director of education is Mawlawi Shahabuddin Saqeb, a Taleban-affiliated cleric from the largely Pashtun-inhabited Shindand district in the south of the province (watch him speak to the local private TV network Asr on 22 September). Shindand was the hub of the Taleban insurgency in the province.

On 15 November 2021, as the school year was drawing to a close, Ministry of Education spokesman, Nazar Muhammad Erfan, told Azadi Radio that older girls would not be taking exams:

Boys and girls in grades 1 to 6 will take their annual examinations. Boys in grades 7 to 12 will also physically attend their examinations. However, girls above grade 6 will be promoted to the next grade without examinations so that their academic year is not wasted.

Even girls in grade 12 would not have to pass exams to graduate. This outraged many, including high school girls, who felt cheated and mocked. They wanted “knowledge,” they said, and not just “a graduation certificate” (media report here).

While some girls have been attending class beyond grade 6 in some areas, the question throughout the autumn and into winter was when, and indeed whether the Taleban would allow older Afghan girls to go back to school nationally. The latest from the Taleban is that the schools will open after Nawruz (see AP reporting from 16 January 2022). Since then, there has been an offer of help from donors: the US Special Representative for Afghanistan, Thomas West, said in a BBC interview on 22 January:

[Concerning the] opening of girls’ schools in March, we want to open schools of all levels for girls in March, high schools and public universities all. We believe that education is a fundamental right of women. These and many more are important tests for the Taliban as the world watches, and we and the international community are ready to pay the salaries of female teachers across the country if the Taliban opens all girls’ schools.

With Nawruz now only two months away, there is no sign of the promised framework for girls’ secondary schools to be re-opened.

The state of education as the Taleban took over

The Taleban took over an education system where provision of schooling was not universal. In conservative areas where there was little or only weak demand for or outright hostility toward girls’ schooling, the Republic did not provide schools or provided only some grades, eg 1 to 3, or 1 to 6 for girls, and not the full education, which in Afghanistan is up to 12 grade, to boys either. Corruption in the old administration also meant there were ghost schools, which existed only on paper, with teachers’ salaries and running costs pocketed by bent officials (see this attempt by AAN in 2017 to pin down the number of government schools which did actually exist). 

As a result of various pressures and mores, some families have never sent their children to school even where schools exist. In its 2019 report into the schooling of adolescent girls in Afghanistan UNICEF described how insecurity held some families back from sending their children to school and that this affected daughters more than sons. Poverty can also be a major barrier, in this case, especially for boys, who may need to work outside the home to support the family. “[B]oys’ education opportunities,” reported UNICEF, “appear to be particularly impacted by poverty” whereas “girls have a high likelihood of being out-of-school across all wealth quintiles.” In other words, cultural taboos and expectations are more likely to restrict girls’ access to education than how well-off their families are. 

Map by Roger Helms for AAN, January 2022, based on original in UNICEF report p5.

Family disapproval of schooling, says UNICEF, quoting the 2016-17 Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey, is the reason why 40 per cent of girls, compared to just 3 per cent of boys, never start school in the first place and why 31 per cent of girls, compared to 1.5 per cent of boys, drop out of education. Families may deem it inappropriate or risky for girls to go to school at all or to take them out of education when they reach adolescence for many reasons. UNICEF cites the threat of sexual harassment, or worse, and “religious beliefs that assume girls are only meant to be protected inside the home.” It says economic considerations may also affect a girl’s chance of getting an education:

…a girl’s (perceived) purity also impacts marriage opportunities and dowry, and thus families may perceive a direct economic disincentive to allow girls to be educated, especially at adolescence. Keeping adolescent girls at home protects them and ensures their purity. This economic disincentive is not compensated by a higher likelihood of employment, since women seldom participate in the labor market. There is a widespread perception that women should become housewives, and there are very few job opportunities for educated women. In addition, cultural norms dictate that after marriage women live with their husband and in-laws, and any income potentially earned by women benefits her husband’s family.

If pressure on the household economy becomes acute and families who want to send all their children to school have to choose between educating their sons or their daughters, the tendency is to prioritise the boys. Although schooling is free, there are additional costs – school supplies, transport and uniforms – and families may consider that as boys stay in the household whereas girls marry and leave, if there is a choice, it is more important to educate their own future breadwinners. Factors that help support families sending their daughters to school include having a school nearby and their being taught by women teachers: both help mitigate the fears of families. In rural areas, however, the national shortage of women teachers (just 34 per cent of the workforce, according to UNICEF) is worse, presumably especially where there has been no tradition of girls going to school. 

Just how important local attitudes towards education are for whether girls have a chance to study can be seen in the maps below, taken from the UNICEF report, using data from the 2015 Afghanistan Demographic and Health Survey. The geographic variation in secondary girls’ enrolment is startling, especially when measured against relative poverty: several of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces – Ghor, Daikundi, Bamyan and Badakhshan – are among those with the highest proportion of girls enrolled in secondary school, while some of the richest provinces – Kandahar, Uruzgan, Paktia, Paktika, Khost and Kapisa – have the lowest enrolment rates (with poverty measured by the proportion of children in the lowest wealth percentile).

One other stark difference that should be emphasised is just how much has changed in the last 20 years. The provision of schools and educational enrolment since the years the Taleban were last in power; both have sky-rocketed, for girls and for boys. In 2000, UNICEF estimated that four to five per cent of primary-aged children were going to school, with far fewer going on to secondary and university education (quoted in a report by one of the authors published in 2000). In 2015, it found that 64 per cent of primary school-aged children were going to school; 38 per cent of children were attending the lower grades of secondary school and 28 per cent the higher grades (statistics here). There is, however, a clear gender gap, which widens with age: 73 per cent of boys and only 53 per cent of Afghan girls were going to primary school in 2015; 48 per cent of young secondary-age boys versus 28 per cent of girls and; 37 per cent of older secondary-age boys versus 19 per cent of girls. Even so, there has been a sea change in the last twenty years: far more Afghans are getting at least some schooling. Many parents want an education for their children and many children now expect to go to school. 

Map by Roger Helms for AAN, January 2022, based on original in UNICEF report p5.

The other context for understanding Taleban policy today is evolving attitudes toward education in their own ranks, which will be examined in more detail in the next two reports in this series. It is worth noting here that although the post-2001 insurgency began with the Taleban militantly hostile and violent towards government schools and schoolteachers, attitudes softened because of the demands of local people for their schools to stay open. In 2018-2019, when AAN delved into what life was like in areas of the country then under Taleban control, we found them permitting schools, including primary girls’ schools, to stay open. There was just one district in the sample which had a secondary girls’ school; it was allowed to stay open, but only when the teaching staff became all-female (older educated girls were employed to teach the younger ones, thereby filling the gap created by the ban on male teachers teaching girls). (A dossier bringing this research together can be read here). Schools in Taleban-controlled areas continued to operate within the government’s Ministry of Education framework, ie the ministry paid staff, provided textbooks, set the general curriculum and set exams, while the Taleban education commission locally sought to interfere with the curriculum and staffing. In some cases, it forcefully encouraged teachers to turn up to work where they had been lax. 

This then was the situation for Afghan schools when the Taleban took power on 15 August. Getting a clear sense of what has happened since has been difficult, but research undertaken as part of our Living with the Taleban project – with interviews carried out in close to 40 districts across the country – revealed several, sometimes contradictory trends: 

  • Where there were schools, interviewees mostly reported that boys up to grade 12 and girls up to grade 6 could go to school in their area.
  • Where schooling never existed to any great degree or grades were limited or only offered to boys, this has not changed. 
  • In some areas, the quality of education has deteriorated, with fewer grades offered or teachers not working.
  • In much of the north and some other provinces, or possibly some districts in other provinces, schools, including secondary schools for girls, stayed open or reopened quickly, although in some areas, there are problems with quality and/or attendance. 
  • In Panjshir, the last province to fall to the Taleban, schooling did not restart when it did for the rest of the country, for either boys or girls, and in the provincial capital, it had not begun at all by the time the winter break started.

Excerpts from the interviews are presented below. In the first group are what people said had happened to  the schooling in their area after their district fell, but before the Kabul fell. Second, are excepts from different locations of what has happened subsequently to schooling, grouped to illustrate the various trends mentioned above.

What people told AAN about education in their areas

The interim period, before the Taleban took the whole country 

The first few interviews took place in early August, before the Taleban had taken the whole country. They thus reflect a hybrid situation, where the Republic was still responsible for education nationally, while the Taleban decided what was allowed locally. In Afghanistan’s hottest provinces, schools were not open at all since it was still the summer holidays. 

Hazara woman, teacher from Jaghatu in Ghazni (district centre fell on 8 June, interview on 10 August): There are two high schools in our area, one for boys and one for girls. The schools were closed because of the coronavirus. Then, on 2 Asad [24 July], the government announced that schools should resume and we started to give the pupils exams, both girls and boys. There was no problem, but the Taleban did ask our schools to take on their curriculum. They told us to stop teaching subjects like sports, art, civic education and patriotism, and to [instead] teach Sirat ul-Nabi (Teachings of the Prophet), agriculture and Qai’da Nurani (basic lessons of the Quran). Also, we still had to keep reporting on the subjects we had been teaching to the [Republic’s then still-existing] education department. The Taleban also told students and teachers not to bring mobile phones with cameras to school.

Tajik man, tribal elder from Baraki Barak district in Logar (district centre fell on 29 June, interview on 9 August): The schools here were closed for two years because of Covid-19, but now I am sending my children to school [again]. It’s been a month since the mid-term exam began. Both girls’ and boys’ schools are open, but the Taleban have imposed restrictions on girls’ schools. They’re allowed only to study from grade one to six. They used to go to school here up to the 9th grade and after that, went to the girls’ high school in the district centre. Now, the Taleban allow girls to study the higher grades at home with a female teacher. They’ve also allowed them to take the exams, as long as a female teacher or an old male teacher invigilates. They don’t have separate or specific classes for them yet, but they have decided to do so [in the future].

Uzbek woman, local council member from Andkhoi district in Faryab (district centre fell on 26 June, interview on 10 August): My daughter and three sons used to go to school, but the schools are now closed because of the summer holiday. The Taleban called a meeting with the teachers and told them to reopen the schools whenever the holidays were over. They told the teachers to reopen both boys’ and girls’ schools. 

Sayed man, unemployed, from Lash wa Juwain district in Farah (district centre fell on 13 June, interview on 12 August): There might be around ten girls’ schools in our district. I think when the holiday is over, the Taleban will allow all schools to operate. They haven’t told anyone not to go to school. They said that anyone could go to school, including women. They only have to cover themselves with the hijab, which they were [already] using. The teachers in the girls’ schools are all women. They’ll be able to teach.

The situation after the fall of Kabul

In some areas, people reported that there was less education than before.

Pashtun man, university graduate/shopkeeper from Sayed Karam district in Paktia (district centre fell on 13 August, interview on 27 September): Before the arrival of the Taleban, schools were closed because of the coronavirus. After the mid-term exam, they started again in Saratan [21 June to 20 July], but they closed once again because the war escalated in our area. When the Taleban took control of the country, the schools remained closed for some time. Then after the Ministry of Education’s announcement, the boys’ schools opened, but the girls’ schools are still closed, except for grades 1 to 3. Girls in the higher grades are not allowed [by their families] to go to school, either because of poverty or because the situation is unknown and strange. My son and daughter still go, but there are no classes and no teachers. This is also a reason people don’t send their children to school. Previously, the female teachers were very good with the girls and the children, so they eagerly went to school. Now there are very few teachers and many don’t go to school because their salaries have not been paid. There were four girls’ high schools in the district where girls graduated every year, but now, most the girls are without a place to go. 

Pashtun woman, midwife from Qala-ye Naw, provincial capital of Badghis (fell on 12 August, interview on 23 October): My sisters are in 9th and 5th grade, my youngest brother is in 2nd grade. At the moment, only primary schools are open for girls – my sister, who is in 5th grade, is going to school. For boys also, only primary schools are open. My mother was a teacher in a girls’ high school teacher but now she’s staying at home. 

Sayed man, medical doctor from Yakawlang district in Bamyan (district centre fell on 15 August, interview on 25 September): All my children, sons and daughters, were going to school before the quarantine. Currently, they are also going. I will not stop them as long as there is no restriction from the Taleban because it is their right. If the Taleban don’t permit my children to go to school, I will leave Afghanistan with my family. Boys’ schools are now open from 1st to 9th class, but girls’ schools are open only to 6th class in Yakawlang.

Tajik man, former local government official from Feroz Koh, provincial capital of Ghor (province fell on 13 August, interview on 15 October): We were sending both boys and girls to school. My brothers are students in Takhar and Herat Universities and the youngest is in 10th grade. One of my sisters is at Herat University and the other is in 9th grade. If the Taleban reopen the schools and universities, we will let them study. Currently, both boys’ and girls’ schools are open only from 1 to 6 grade here, secondary schools for boys and girls are shut.

A second interviewee from Feroz Koh gave somewhat differing information:

Tajik man, civil society activist from Feroz Koh, provincial capital of Ghor (province fell on 13 August, interview on 20 October)Girls’ schools are open from grades 1 to 6 and boys’ schools from grades 1 to 12. Children go, but the quality of education in Ghor province is very low. It was low in the past and now it’s even lower. Most teachers don’t come to school because they haven’t been paid for almost four months. In the past, female teachers didn’t teach in boys’ schools in Ghor and they don’t do so now. There were male teachers in girls’ schools, but at the moment they’re not allowed to do their job or they have been transferred, at least the young ones. 

Pashtun man, tailor from Nad Ali district in Helmand (district centre fell on 27 June, interview on 20 September): We were sending our children to school before the schools were shut because of the coronavirus, but only the boys because there are no girls’ schools. Now, boys can go to school from grades 1 to 12. The girls aren’t going to school. There used to be one middle school for girls in Sayed Abad village, but it’s closed now. Also, a few months ago, a girls’ high school was inaugurated in the Chanjir area of the district; until now, not one girl has gone there to study. But the Taleban have said they’re working on a plan to resume girls’ schools. 

In some areas, interviewees reported that there were more opportunities for education than in the rest of the country, particularly in the north; in provinces such as Jowzjan, Kunduz and Balkh, schools had apparently not closed at all. 

Uzbek man, education department official from Sheberghan district in Jowzjan (district centre fell on 7 August, interview on 17 October): Girls and boys across the whole province, including my own children, are going to school. The Taleban, from the beginning, did not close the schools. Girls until 12th class are going; they were not stopped for even a single day. All female teachers are going to their schools too. When the new head of the education department was appointed – he is an Arab from Aqcha district of Jawzjan – he went to Kabul and made the ministry agree to continue education in the province, as it had been before the Taleban came. He told them he was ready to implement any decree of the ministry, once it decided on the closure or opening of the schools, but that [in the meantime] he didn’t want the girls to stay at home. 

Uzbek woman, loan manager and lecturer from Sheberghan district in Jowzjan (district centre fell on 7 August, interview on 17 October): All girls and boys from 1st to 12th class are going to school in Shiberghan. Girls wear abayas and cover their faces [with a scarf or face mask] and boys must wear traditional Afghan clothes. The people in Sheberghan did not close the schools from the very beginning. When the offices were reopened, the schools resumed their activities as well. 

Pashtun man, farmer from Dasht-e Archi district in Kunduz (district centre fell on 20 June, interview on 25 October): We were sending our children, girls and boys, to school before the takeover and we are again sending them now. We have a primary school in our village and the villagers send both girls and boys to this school. In the district centre and the provincial capital, girls go to school up to 12th grade. They were not stopped from going to school, even at the beginning [of Taleban rule]. All female teachers are also still teaching in their schools.

Sayed woman, (now) unemployed, from Kunduz city, provincial centre of Kunduz province (fell on 8 August, interview on 24 October): Boys’ schools are open up to the 12th class and girls’ schools are open until the 7th. In some girls’ schools, the 12th-grade classes are going, but very few girls attend. My sister is a schoolteacher, and according to her, the number of students has decreased and the quality of education is not as good as it was. 

Hazara woman, psychologist and teacher from Mazar-e Sharif, provincial capital of Balkh (fell on 14 August, interview on 10 October): For the last month, all boys’ and girls’ schools are open in Mazar, both boys and girls going till 12th class. That’s also the case in my family, both boys and girls are going to school. In my [private] school, we separated the classes and we now have female teachers for girls and male teachers for boys, where possible. The teachers have to wear longer clothes now [abaya] and last week we received a letter ordering even the little girls to wear a headscarf. We close the curtains now when they want to take them off. 

In several areas, interviewees commented that although schools were formally open, the quality of the teaching or the attendance, both of teachers and pupils, had suffered so much that they (almost) deemed it not worth sending their children.

Hazara man, landowner from Shahrestan district in Daikundi (district centre fell on 14 August, interview 23 on October): Both boys and girls in my family were going to school. One of my sons was in his last year of university and the other two were in 6th and 7th class. My daughter graduated from high school and then she got married. The boys’ schools in Shahrestan are open, but my sons don’t go because of the low quality of education. Many teachers have gone abroad and the rest don’t go to school because their salaries haven’t been paid.

Hazara woman, former government employee from Nili, capital of Daikundi (fell on 14 August, interview on 23 October): Three girls and two boys from my family were going to school. The girls are in 8th, 9th and 10th grades and boys in 10th and 11th. Girls’ schools are now only open till class 6. If the Taleban reopen the [secondary] schools, we’ll send [the girls] to school, but people are discouraged from sending their children to school and university when the Minister of Higher Education publicly says that they place no value on those who have studied during the last 20 years

Tajik man, teacher from Estalef district in Kabul province (district centre fell on 15 August, interview on 11 October): My children and my nephews used to go to school before the coronavirus breakout. This year they started taking the mid-term exams, but since the Taleban came to power, girls’ schools across the country have been closed to students above grade six. Those schools should be reopened as soon as possible. Girls also have the right to education. They are a large part of society which should not be harmed…. I call on the government to pay teachers’ salaries. For four months now, teachers have not received their salaries. If it continues like this, most teachers may leave their jobs. Already the number of teachers is very low. No one comes to school much because everyone is trying to find food for their family. If it continues like this, they will cause irreparable damage to the country’s education. There are very few students at the moment. People are disappointed. Where there used to be 40 students in each class, now just 10 to 15 show up. People don’t send their children to school at the moment. 

Currently, there are active female schools here from 1st to 6th grade and there, the students and teachers come. Grades above six haven’t yet started. And female teachers who taught in boys’ schools have been banned until further notice – but they have been told that their salaries would be paid.

One woman mentioned that her children were not going to school because she feared for their safety:

Pashtun woman, former government official from Asadabad, provincial capital of Kunar (fell on 14 August, interview on 22 October): Girls’ schools above grade six aren’t open here. Universities aren’t open either. Before the coronavirus, my children went to school, but now they don’t go, neither my sons nor my daughters. I don’t send them to school because we don’t live in the area where we used to live before the takeover. I moved to [a different] district. I don’t send my children to school because I’m afraid the Taleban would harm them if they knew they were my children.

Finally, in Panjshir, where interviewees describe the situation in at least parts of the province as resembling martial law, schools opened later or not at all. 

Tajik woman, school principal from Bazarak district in Panjshir (district centre fell in early September, interview on 9 October): Our children used to go to school, girls and boys, without any restrictions, but I don’t think that under Taleban control they will ever have the comfortable and relaxed feeling that they used to have. My brother and niece are in 10th class and my nephews are in 8th and 4th grades. Nowadays, they don’t go to school, but we hope they will [in the future]. Even if the other students aren’t going to school, we will let our children go as soon as the situation becomes normal. 

Tajik man, a former NDS employee from Khinj district (Hesa-ye Awal area) in Panjshir (district centre fell in early September, interview on 22 October): My children and my nephew and nieces used to go to school. There was no problem for them. There were public and private schools and people eagerly sent their children. Boys and girls were separate and there were female teachers for the girls. Last year and at the beginning of this year, Covid-19 stopped the children’s education. The pupils did take their mid-term exams, but then there was fighting and the Taleban came and the government fell. Now everything is damaged. Only some people are left in the district and they’re not sending their children to school. There is no education at the moment in Hesa-ye Awal district. The schools are closed. The Taleban have also established posts in some of the schools and madrasas. Tribal elders went several times and asked them to leave so the children could go to school again, but so far, nothing has changed. 

Tajik man, former government employee from Dara district in Panjshir (district centre fell in early September, interview on 19 October): My child and other family members used to go to school, both boys and girls. Only last year they didn’t go, because of Covid-19. This year, school was still off because of Covid-19, but then it started again. Now, they go to school normally. The situation in Dara district is better than in other Panjshir districts. Only for one month, they didn’t go to school, from the beginning of the fighting until the Taleban captured the province. After that, the situation became normal, schools started again and now the students go to school, from 1st grade to 12th. Universities aren’t open yet. Girls’ and boys’ high schools were already separate, so there are no obstacles for them. In the girls’ high school, the teachers are all female, and there are male teachers in the boys’ schools.

Repercussions and conclusions

These interviews say much about the variation in schooling in Afghanistan, both before and after the Taleban takeover. Provision, never universal, has been further squeezed by the new administration’s disinclination to let older girls go to school. Segregation of pupils was generally happening anyway, but an insistence that only women can teach girls, if that rule continues, will hit girls’ education hard. There is a shortage of female teachers nationally – as UNICEF has reported, they constitute just over a third of the workforce, with a lower proportion in rural areas. The insistence on completely separate facilities, and not just classrooms, will also be a problem in some places. Another potential issue is salary payments. The Taleban have said they paid salaries for August, September and October. Several of our interviewees mentioned problems with teachers getting paid and that this was having repercussions for both the availability and quality of education (although salaries may have been paid after the interviews were conducted). Pay is important in another way. Any income source is significant for families at a time of economic collapse, but for women especially, a salary increases their autonomy and relative power within the household. 

Our interviewees ranged from being sanguine about the lack of provision for educating older girls – in areas where there had never been provision, or not much – to upset and contemplating leaving their country if the situation did not improve. Girls’ education and the right for women to work outside the home have been core demands of women protestors in widespread demonstrations, which have continued since mid-August despite being formally banned on 8 September (see media reporting, for example, herehere and here). Such demonstrations have so far mainly been an irritant to the authorities, but continued upset at the lack of education for their daughters may still drive civil discontent or cause more technically-able Afghans to leave the country.

There is clear discomfort felt by many Taleban and the communities they come from, where women typically live in purdah, that teenage girls are outside and going to school. That uneasiness conflicts with many other communities who view girls’ education of all ages as normal and valuable. The education ministry has said that older girls will be allowed to go back to school once a plan is in place to ensure they can do so in a manner compliant with Islam, but so far, despite multiple promises, no plan has emerged. Practically speaking, any insistence on only women teaching girls or dedicated school buildings for girls, which would have to either be identified or built, will be an absolute obstacle to all secondary schools reopening any time soon. The fear remains, therefore, that these conditions will mean that for many older girls going back to school becomes a dream. After all, in the 1990s, the Taleban always promised to reopen girls’ schools when security had improved. As we see in the next report in this series, that never happened. 

There is also the question of when and if new schools will open or higher grades added for boys and girls where they do not yet exist. The desire for more Afghan children to have the opportunity to go to school seems likely to increase, and not only because this is where the historical tendency is pushing. The end of the conflict means it is now feasible to open schools in districts previously wracked by conflict or isolated by war from government services. 

All eyes are now on Nawruz, the spring equinox and the start of the new Afghan year of 1401 and, in most provinces, the new school year: Will the Taleban government allow all the nation’s schools to reopen and all schoolchildren to return to class, including older girls?


1  In modern usage in Afghanistan, dar ul-ulum (literally ‘house of sciences’) is equivalent to university as madrasa (‘place of learning’) is equivalent to a school in Islamic religious education.
2 There have reportedly been other senior appointments in the Taleban-run education ministry. They include, for example, Mawlawi Sayed Agha as Deputy Minister of Islamic Education, Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Hemmat Akhundzada as head of the minister’s office, Aziz Ahmad Rayan as director of public relations, Ustad Wahidullah Hashemi as director of international and donor relations and Mawlawi Ehsanullah Khattab as education director of Kabul city. See these ministry’s news posts here and here and this Afghan News Agency report.


Education girls education right to education Taleban