Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Rights and Freedoms

Who Gets to Go to School? (3): Are Taleban attitudes starting to change from within?

Sabawoon Samim 18 min

In the last of our three reports on the Taleban and education, especially of girls, we turn to what seems to be a relatively new trend. Guest author Sabawoon Samim* has been looking at views of girls’ education within the Taleban movement and finds it notable that some Taleban are now seeking out school and even university education for their sons and their daughters. He looks at how and why a significant membership of a group that banned girls’ education when it was last in power appears to be changing its attitude towards schooling. The series editor is Kate Clark.

Students graduate from Mirwais Nija University in Kandahar. The growing demand for education in Afghanistan is a trend which the Taleban themselves have not been immune to. A significant segment of the membership are now also looking to send their sons and daughters to school, and even university. Photo: Javed Taeenveer/AFP, November 2021

This is the third report in our series on the Taleban and education. The first two, “Who Gets to Go to School? (1): What people told us about education since the Taleban took over and Who gets to go to school? (2) The Taleban and education through time, looked at the current picture of schooling, and how and why Taleban attitudes to education have changed historically.

Information for this report was drawn from 30 interviews. Ten, with key informants, were conducted between July and September 2021, two by telephone and eight face-to-face; nine of the interviewees were senior Taleban officials, some of whom had recently relocated from Qatar and Pakistan to Kabul. The tenth was a Taleban sympathiser who has a madrassa for sons of Taleban in Pakistan and has had intensive interaction with the group’s commanders and officials. The 20 other interviews, all carried out face-to-face between November 2020 and September 2021, were with local residents, former government and NGO employees, ulema and civil society activists in Kunar, Badakhshan, Farah, Zabul and Ghazni provinces. 

The impact of an urban life on educational expectations 

The first generation of Taleban had an almost exclusively rural upbringing, mostly in southern Afghanistan, with a childhood and early adulthood spent in madrassas and as mujahedeen fighting the Soviet army. It is rare to find a single Taleban leader or senior member from the 1990s who had significant exposure to urban life. The puritanical ascetic rules that they formalised during the first Emirate and which were prominently seen through the orders of the amr bil-maruf (‘vice and virtue police’) which sought to regulate people’s behaviour represented the ethos of their own social background, rather than a well-thought policy informed by any systematic investigation of Islamic sources. 

By contrast, a sizeable number of the Taleban leaders and senior members of today have been exposed to city life and its modern amenities and services. They have lived in or been regular visitors to large cities and regional hubs outside Afghanistan, including Karachi, Islamabad, Doha and Dubai. Taleban commanders have preferred to base themselves, when not fighting, in Quetta and to a lesser extent Peshawar and its suburbs. Those who have chosen to live in these cities include almost all Taleban leaders (members of the Rahbari Shura, heads of commissions and senior commanders). Typically, they have lived there with their families. However, as they started to integrate into local societies over many years, they discovered certain advantages in those societies which they found attractive. That included education – in schools – certainly for their sons, but also, for many, their daughters. 

While the first generation of Taleban were either madrasa-educated or uneducated, the current generation includes a significant and influential segment who have had at least some non-madrassa schooling, including higher education, and with boys and girls in the family getting a school education. Where schools are available and everyone else is sending their sons and daughters to school, many Taleban leaders living in cities have chosen to do the same. This embrace of education has been most obvious in Qatar, where a significant number of the Taleban’s leadership lived during the last two years, or some the last decade. The majority of those living in Doha enrolled their school-aged daughters in school. One Qatar-based Taleban official who has been a member of the political office and Taleban’s negotiating team whose two daughters studied in a Qatari school told the author:  

We lived for three years not much bothered by education, but since everybody in the neighbourhood was going to school, our children demanded that they go to school too. So, in the fourth year, I had to send my three sons and two daughters to school.

One of his daughters completed her school education in 2020. While his children attended a Qatari state school, other Taleban chose private schools run by Pakistanis based in Qatar, which had a Pakistani curriculum and used English as the medium for teaching. 

According to another source within the Taleban leadership, the daughter of one leader, who holds a ministerial job and was previously a member of the Rahbari or Leadership Shura in Quetta, is now studying medicine in a Qatari university. Another Qatar-based official told AAN:

In Qatar, only one family out of 26 families of Taleban leaders sends their son to a madrasa; the rest send both their boys and girls to modern Qatari and Pakistani schools. Taleban members and their families who live here [in Qatar] have strong demands for modern education and no one opposes it for either boys or girls – of any age.

Two members of the Taleban’s Qatar office, who have now relocated to Kabul and taken second-tier jobs in different ministries, said they were in a dilemma as to whether to bring their families to Afghanistan or wait because of the “interruption it would pose to the boys’ and girls’ schooling.”

In Pakistan, where the majority of the leadership-level Taleban lived for most of the past two decades along with their families, many have gone through a pattern of hesitating and then embracing education for their boys and girls, according to sources within and close to the Taleban. However, unlike those in Qatar, the Taleban living in Pakistan always had a choice between schools and madrasas for their children. According to a well-informed source who lives in Pakistan in a neighbourhood with an abundant Taleban presence, his female relative taught English and Arabic language to the daughters of four Taleban military commission members and shadow governors for the southern region during the 2010s.

Another source within the Taleban leadership in Pakistan said his female relatives were not the only ones going to school. He said some leadership members and mid-ranking officials are opting to send their daughters to Iqra schools in Pakistan; this international network teaches a mixture of ‘modern’ school and madrasa subjects, with a wider range of religious subjects than the  current Afghan school curriculum. A Taleban official described the Iqra system as below:

The Iqra system is very good for Taleban who are looking to educate their boys and girls. It’s an Islamic educational system that teaches both modern school subjects and madrasa subjects. Most of our friends were looking for this kind of mixed system, and after this system was established in some cities like Karachi and Quetta,[1]The first Iqra school in Karachi was actually established in 2000 and the one in Quetta in 1977 as the Iqra Army School; they have a long international history, with both Iqra schools and … Continue reading they were sending their boys and girls to these schools.

The author also knows of current Taleban officials who had been living quietly or even clandestinely inside Afghanistan who enrolled their daughters in Afghan schools and universities. This includes former members of the group, who had left the insurgency and relocated to urban centres, while maintaining ties to former comrades, and also men living in Kabul and other urban centres with non-military links to the movement, including the media wing also known as the cultural commission. As soon as the Taleban took over, some of these men ‘came out,’ renewed their formal allegiance to the Taleban leadership and are now holding active jobs in some ministries.

A significant portion of the Taleban favouring schooling for their children is not a trend confined to civil-political cadres. Some Taleban commanders have founded schools, universities and private madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that admit girls. These madrasas are different from traditional madrasas in several aspects, most importantly by integrating non-religious subjects studied in schools such as mathematics, history, English, computer literacy.

One Taleban commander in Quetta, for example, runs such a private madrassa for daughters of members. Another example is in Ghazni province, where another Taleban commander established this sort of madrassa, hiring mullahs to teach younger girls religious subjects alongside a few school subjects. He employed female teachers to also teach adolescents and women.

There has also been high demand for short-term courses in English, computers and management skills among many younger Taleban. According to a source who was a friend of Mullah Yaqub during his madrasa studies in Karachi in the early 2010s, Yaqub himself also attended English and management courses in private educational facilities. The author also heard of several other mid-ranking officials from the Taleban Qatar office taking short-term courses in diplomacy, English language and computers over the past few years. 

Some other Taleban commanders and fighters, who took jobs in civilian ministries after the Kabul takeover, have also started English and computer courses in private educational institutions. For example, a Taleban official now in charge of an information technology department at one of the ministries has embarked on more advanced IT courses in Kabul. His educational expenses are reported to be funded by the Taleban government. Another mid-ranking official at the Ministry of Education has started learning English at a private institute in Kabul. AAN knows of two other Taleban officials, one in Ghazni and the other in Paktia province, who have started computer courses, learning Word and Excel programmes.

Women at school in Sharan city, capital of Paktika province, November 2021. The Taleban, now a nationally governing party, are dealing with a population where women and girls’ education is far more in demand. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP, November 2021

New trends in marriage

The next section of this report looks at what appears to be another education-related trend among leading Taleban and mid-ranking officials and commanders of seeking to marry educated, urban women as second or third wives.

This section, unfortunately, only draws on interviews with men. The author regrets that he was unable to gain direct insights into the thoughts and experiences of the women involved, whether new brides or existing wives, because of the difficulties involved in a male researcher interviewing women. What follows is – out of necessity rather than choice – drawn exclusively from interviews with men about trends in marriage among some Taleban. This section is also written with the acknowledgement that few Afghan women chose their spouses at the best of times. Given the economic catastrophe that has befallen most Afghans and the change in regime, many families may also feel they have far fewer options than usual when it comes to the marriage of their daughters. 

Marrying more than one wife is a relatively common practice in Afghanistan, particularly in the countryside, and especially when compared to other Muslim countries in Asia and the Middle East.[2]According to Pew research, Afghanistan had, by far, the highest rate of polygamous households in Asia and the Middle East at five per cent; rates were much higher in parts of west Africa in … Continue reading However, the trend being examined here is not Taleban marrying second or third wives per se, but that some are placing a value on education in a bride. This phenomenon seems to be quite recent and common in Taleban ranks, particularly at mid and high-levels, and appears to stem from some cadres experiencing urban life, mainly abroad, in Qatar and Pakistan. Interviewees suggested the trend also goes along with some Taleban officials and commanders devaluing their existing wives for being rural, illiterate and ‘backward’ – not fit for the urban life some of them had experienced during exile and that was awaiting them after the takeover of Kabul. 

The author has documented a deputy minister living in Quetta who married an educated woman from his home province as his second wife; one of his friends said he wanted such a second wife because his first wife was illiterate (the deputy minister also reportedly claimed that the marriage would also benefit his first wife as the new one was teaching her to read, although that seems a complicated way of providing her with literacy lessons). Another senior Taleban member, also living in Qatar, looked to a highly-educated family from a different province (itself not common) living in Afghanistan for a ‘modern’ educated bride for his son. 

The author was also told about several other senior Taleban commanders and political-civil officials seeking to marry for a second time and looking for brides from the urban centres they had conquered, both Kabul and cities such as Kandahar, Kunduz and Ghazni. With more interaction with educated women during their exile in Pakistan and Qatar, some Taleban commanders now consider an ‘improved’ life to be a priority and one which is only possible by having an educated wife. In some cases, the brides were nurses or other staff working in the health sector, or teachers. Some of those Taleban officials now hold ministerial jobs, according to well-informed sources. In one example, a Taleban healthcare official in Ghazni province, for example, proposed to marry a nurse working under his supervision. According to a well-informed source, the official proposed 1,800,000 Pakistani rupees, roughly 10,500 US dollars, as the walwar (bride price). However, the girl’s family refused his proposal. 

In mid-ranks, too, one can find many commanders and local officials who have married or are trying to marry women with urban backgrounds, and more importantly, with education, as one Taleban official holding a high-level position in a ministry told AAN: 

In the past, it was not common practice because very few women were literate, but now you can find well-educated women everywhere. Education allows them to live a good life. They know the rights of a husband better and can better train (tarbia) your sons and daughters. This is why a literate wife is a necessity nowadays.

Marriage is complicated, and in the absence of interviews with the women concerned, it is difficult to confidently assess what this trend means. The added value placed on educated wives may be the result of the exposure to urban life in Pakistan and the Gulf experienced by some Taleban. However, a desire to marry educated urban girls was also seen in Kabul during the first Emirate (as the editor of this series remembers), ie before the exposure of members of the movement to urban life. The motivation may, therefore, be more to do with wanting ‘trophy brides’. Either way, the author wanted to include this phenomenon as it seems an important strand for trying to understand modern Taleban attitudes towards education for women. 

The interplay of communities and commanders over girls’ schools during the insurgency 

Before looking at what these trends mean, both for the Taleban and wider Afghan society, it seems important to place them in how the Taleban have dealt with demands for girls’ schools in recent years. The second report in this series examined the evolution of Taleban policy in detail from the 1990s onwards. It looked at how in the days of the first Emirate, the Taleban banned all girls education and women, except health staff, working outside the home. The authorities did turn a blind eye to some girls’ schooling, but the situation was volatile and teachers risked punishment. Then, after they fell from power, during the early insurgency, the Taleban took a violently hostile approach to schools and school teachers. However, this proved deeply unpopular with local people whose support they sought in so many areas that the Taleban changed their official policy. From 2009 onwards, their Code of Conduct (Layha) dropped orders to burn schools and kill teachers who did not repent of teaching, and from 2010 onwards instead spoke of an Emirate’s education policy.

The Taleban’s more pragmatic approach to schooling, starting from about 2009 onwards, including working across frontlines with the Ministry of Education. The authors of this series’ second report noted that Taleban attitudes in the early years of the insurgency were, like the mujahedin in the 1980s, to some extent a response to the policy of the Kabul government and its foreign ‘infidel’ backers. Kabul promoted education, especially of girls and women, as a symbol of modernity and of Afghanistan emerging from the ‘darkness’ of Taleban rule. For those opposing the government, this looked like an attempt to indoctrinate Afghan children.

There has been a softening of Taleban attitudes towards government schools overall, but how that translates into what happens on the ground has been driven by highly localised factors, namely the attitude of the local Taleban leadership and of local communities. The Taleban in these later years have generally not had a problem with boys going to school (as AAN found in research in six districts conducted between 2018 and 2019, brought together in this dossier). As to girls’ education, in most of the provinces researched by this author – Farah, Kunar, Badakhshan, Zabul and Ghazni – the Taleban generally permitted girls’ schools where they existed to stay open until intermediary levels, ie to grade 9 (age 14-15 years old) and to a lesser extent, 12th grade (17-18 years old). However, this was, contingent on the local population’s wishes and available facilities. That maximum age may be significant, as the Taleban, now in government have so far, nationwide, only permitted primary girls’ schools to open, ie grades 1 to 6, although secondary schools have opened in, or never closed, in a number of provinces. Allowing older girls to go to school is still a tricky policy issue for the Taleban, an issue AAN explored in the first report in this series.

The author also found that communities had also occasionally been able to get girls’ schools opened in their areas despite Taleban control, although other issues – lack of funds, corruption, fighting and so forth – could still block schools being established. However, where local people have not demanded or facilitated girls’ education, the Taleban have not promoted it. 

The following section looks at some examples of how this has all worked out in practice in areas under Taleban control during the latter years of the insurgency.

Taleban and girls’ education during the insurgency

In Zabul province, according to several interviews with tribal elders, a government official and NGO employees, and a religious leader conducted in 2021, the local population is generally hostile to girls’ education and has not lobbied local Taleban commanders to permit it – as one respondent described: 

In Zabul, our people don’t like women’s education. It is considered pighur [a source of shame or stigma] for someone to send his daughter to school after [the age of] ten. People don’t even let their daughters go to the mosque after they turn nine [years old].

Similarly, in the Pashtun-dominated Andar district of Ghazni province, girls’ education is non-existent due to a similarly hostile attitude towards educating girls. Local people have not wanted girls’ schools and the former government did not build them. Interviewees in Andar said most people shared the local Taleban’s antagonistic view towards women’s education and when a minority of the local population had lobbied the Taleban to allow girls’ schools, they were sidelined. Rather, the majority of local elders oppose girls’ education and consider it ‘unnecessary’, a view shared by local Taleban. In one village in the district the Taleban told those who were lobbying for girls’ education to provide “facilities and finance” for building a school and hiring teachers. Interviewees said former government officials had said there were no funds available. One respondent described the situation in Andar:

People have not demanded schools for girls here because the situation is so bad. There are problems from every side in this regard. The youth are illiterate and rude and would be harassing any girls going to school. There have been cases when people sent their daughters even to a relative’s wedding and the daughters were abducted. So, people can’t accept this shame and dishonour in this situation. It is too risky to send girls to school. 

It is worth stressing that in Andar, it is education for girls, not education itself that most of the local population opposes, whereas local Taleban have at times been hostile to schools in general. The Taleban insurgency faltered twice over the issue of boys’ schooling, with local Taleban who opposed even boys’ education coming up against the anger of local people who supported it. In the early years of the insurgency, after the Taleban had gained control of the district, they almost lost it after forcibly closing boys’ schools,[3]For an excellent account of how the Taleban insurgency gained power in Andar and at how they nearly lost it early on because of extremist and abusive commanders, see C Reuter and B Younus, “The … Continue reading and then, later in 2012, the same hostility to boys’ schooling was one of the “ultra harsh policies,” as AAN reported, that sparked the ‘Andar Uprising’. 

In another example from Ghazni, the Taleban moved a girls’ school from a Pashtun-majority area of Qarabagh district to a Hazara-majority area in 2019. There were actually mixed views among the local Pashtuns about this. A majority were urging the Taleban to let the school stay where it was, but the local Taleban leadership decided to side with the minority that wanted it closed. In other areas of Ghazni, which are Tajik or Hazara-dominated, local populations have either pushed the Taleban to allow girls to go to school and/or provided facilities themselves. Schools for girls in those areas have functioned up to grade 12, with no Taleban resistance. 

The role of local sentiments was also evident in Farah province. In some districts of this province like Khak Sapid, people successfully lobbied the Taleban to permit girls’ education. Local Taleban commanders did not strongly resist the idea, thus allowing girls to go to school even up to grade 12. Ten girls from this district graduated from high school in 2020. However, according to interviewees, in other districts, such as Gulistan, girls’ education has been non-existent. When investigated local people, in this area, were reluctant to have their girls get an education. There were no schools and no requests for schools, said one interviewee: 

People [men] themselves are not literate and do not know the benefits of education, so how can they tell their daughters to go to school? After someone knows its value, he will surely provide his son and daughter with an education.

In Kunar and Badakhshan provinces as well, local demand drove the Taleban as an insurgent group to allow girls’ schools at least up to intermediary levels, as one resident of Kunar described: 

Why do we have both boys’ and girls’ schools in our areas – it’s mostly up to us because If the people want it, the Taleban will allow it. There are many problems in other provinces [where the Taleban don’t allow girls’ education]. Even boy’s schools have been shut down. But in all the 15 districts of Kunar, there has been a significant Taleban presence and they haven’t yet banned girls’ education.

During the insurgency, permission for girls’ schools to stay open was certainly subject to particular Taleban regulations. In almost every location researched, the Taleban’s foremost priority was strict segregation: girls should be taught only by female teachers and boys only by men. Furthermore, teenage girls and teachers should wear what the Taleban consider ‘hijab’, meaning they should cover their faces and hands when travelling to and from school. 

Despite this mixed picture of girls’ schooling in different provinces in areas under Taleban control during the insurgency, many interviewees said that most people in rural areas believe girls’ education beyond the intermediary level was, as a local resident from Zabul province put it, “unnecessary,” a “luxury”. This made it difficult for those who did want to start schooling for older girls to make a case for it, given the difficult economic situation and lack of existing facilities, with the old government and NGOs not always ready to provide schools in rural Afghanistan. Two commanders, one from Kunar and another from Farah interviewed before the fall of the Republic both said they thought schooling for older girls was unnecessary, at least, said the Kunari “at a time when fighting is going on everywhere.” The commander for Farah added the lack of “sufficient infrastructure and female teachers” to “insecurity and fighting” as the main obstacles making older girls education a “challenging task.” 

The author’s research did not find any case where the Taleban had not allowed girls schools in the face of intense community demand, but one example from Farah province shows how persistence can turn the tide. Some local elders had asked the local Taleban commander for permission to open a girls’ school, but he refused. They approached him multiple times, but he always defied their request. In the end, they travelled to Quetta in Pakistan to meet the group’s leaders and finally succeeded in getting their permission to open the school.

Secondary school girls in Qarabagh district, Ghazni province, Afghanistan. In areas under Taleban control during the insurgency, the Taleban generally acceded to local demands, whether to keep girls’ schools open, or to forbid them to be established. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP, November 2021

Prospects for schooling in the second Emirate

Attitudes towards education, especially for girls, vary geographically among the general Afghan population and have also developed over time. Compared to forty years ago, the sea change in views is remarkable, as schooling first for sons, and later also for daughters, became not just acceptable but desirable for many more Afghans. The major driver of change was likely the exposure to schools in Pakistan and especially Iran for Afghan refugees drawn from rural areas. Exile introduced them to the benefits, including the economic rewards, of getting an education and also presented schooling as a normal part of life in other God-fearing societies. It seems the Taleban were not immune to such outside influence either, if the number of senior and mid-level Taleban living in Pakistan and the Arab Gulf countries now wanting their children to be educated is anything to go by. In the last twenty years, Afghans have also had schools to send their children to. Provision, although by no means perfect, is far greater than in 2001. Schools are now an everyday fact for millions of children, boys and girls.

So, how to explain why some senior and mid-ranking Taleban cadres are getting their own daughters educated, with some also showing that they value education in a wife, while at the same time, their government has effectively been blocking many Afghan girls from going to school? It leaves these men, for now at least, open to the charge of preventing others enjoying benefits that they themselves have been able to access. 

Possibly, they fear hostility from those in their own ranks who oppose or are uneasy still with girls’ education (an attitude also found, of course, among many non-Taleban Afghans); that uneasiness is strongest when it comes to older girls who, in many rural settings, would already be living in purdah, out of sight of society and preparing for marriage. Many Taleban, especially in the rank and file have not had/may not have had the same exposure to urban life in foreign countries; for them, seeing large numbers of older girls outside the home could be jarring. 

The Taleban officials who have been getting their own children educated might not want to risk their position within the group by promoting older girls’ education publically. They may feel it will take time to bring the whole movement around to their views. Or they may believe the Ministry of Education’s insistence on fully-segregated schooling, of staff and facilities, is necessary and older girls’ will have to wait to go to school again until that is sorted out – although as the first report in this series found, fulfilling those conditions may prove very difficult in some locations and serve as an effective barrier to older girls returning to class.[4]The first report in this series described some secondary girls’ schools having re-opened after the Taleban takeover, or indeed, as never having closed. As during the insurgency, both local demand … Continue reading

Today, there is also the question of all the children who have never had a chance to get an education because schools never existed in their location. The Republic did not succeed in establishing schools, especially for girls, everywhere due to a mixture of hostile attitudes among the local civilian population and/or Taleban commanders, insecurity and corruption. The chances that those children might now see new schools opened may be reduced, even where there is demand. Foreign aid for education seems likely to be lower and less reliable than it was in the two decades after 2001, although that is not the whole story; the Taleban could also chose to invest revenues in this sector.

So what are the prospects for schools under the second Emirate? The Taleban, in charge of much of the country for several years, now rule all of Afghanistan. They have found just how transformed the experiences and expectations of education of Afghans have been in the last 20 years. This is the case especially for those living in the cities, but also, as AAN research in 2021/2021 into the views of women in rural areas on war and peace found, in the countryside as well. Taleban thinking on schools has certainly evolved a long way since the 1990s, but many Afghans feel it has a long way to go to being good enough. In particular, for the girls who are used to going to school and have been forced to sit at home this autumn, it has been a long wait already. They are losing precious time. 

The desire, indeed the expectation that there will be schooling for girls as well as boys is now far more widespread than in the 1990s and will be difficult for the new authorities to ignore. A policy which restricts older girls’ education will simply not be in line with contemporary attitudes to girls’ education in much of Afghanistan. What may prove significant, as this report has shown, is that a key section of the Taleban leadership has also discovered the value of school education for their own children and in their own lives. 

Edited by Kate Clark and Roxanna Shapour

* Sabawoon Samim is a Kabul-based researcher whose work focuses on the Taleban, local governance and rural society.


1 The first Iqra school in Karachi was actually established in 2000 and the one in Quetta in 1977 as the Iqra Army School; they have a long international history, with both Iqra schools and universities in various countries.
2 According to Pew research, Afghanistan had, by far, the highest rate of polygamous households in Asia and the Middle East at five per cent; rates were much higher in parts of west Africa in countries of various religious backgrounds.
3 For an excellent account of how the Taleban insurgency gained power in Andar and at how they nearly lost it early on because of extremist and abusive commanders, see C Reuter and B Younus, “The Return of the Taliban in Andar District, Ghazni”, in Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, Antonio Giustozzi (ed), Columbia/Hurst (2009) pp115–16.
4 The first report in this series described some secondary girls’ schools having re-opened after the Taleban takeover, or indeed, as never having closed. As during the insurgency, both local demand and the acquiescence of the local authorities appear to have been critical to whether older girls schools ran classes as normal. An insistence nationwide on full gender segregation will create real obstacles given the shortage of female teachers (they make up just 34 per cent of the workforce, according to UNICEF).


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