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Education without girls: the second year of the education ban

By Kreshma Fakhri 

Hamida* was a 10th grade student in Badghis province before the Taliban came to power. She studied day and night, in pursuit of one goal: to be a midwife. “There are few female midwives in Badghis, and mothers die during childbirth, that’s why I wanted to study to become a midwife so that I can help these mothers,” she says to Zan Times.  

But after the Taliban closed schools for girls in September 2021, she realized that her goal had become impossible to achieve. Since then, she has spent most of her days at home. Now 18, she says, “I’m like a prisoner who can’t do anything.”  

Last week, the second academic year without the presence of girls in the classroom started in Afghanistan. A small group of girls and women protested the closures in Kabul. Their chants included “Education, work, freedom,” “We are all together against oppression,” “Education is our right,” and “We are here to raise our voices against the crimes of the Taliban.” They dispersed soon after Taliban reinforcements arrived at the site of their march, though other reports said that three women were arrested.  

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Although the Taliban once promised that schools would be opened for girls, now, not only are the schools still firmly closed, but avenues of education for women, from universities to private educational centres, have been ordered off limits to women. Zan Times spoke to six students who are now deprived of education. They all use the word “imprisonment” to describe their lives and say they are struggling with psychological problems that stem from frustration. They want the international community to stand against the Taliban discriminatory policies and stop this misogynistic situation from continuing any longer. 

After her school closed, Hamida sought to get rid of the feeling that she’s a prisoner in her own home by learning tailoring and leather work at the women’s market in her province. She spent five hours of the day in the sewing course, one hour in an English language course, and devoted a few more hours to reviewing Grade 11 textbooks, just to keep her hope of being a midwife alive. In December 2022, her aspirations were again crushed by the Taliban, which closed all educational institutions for girls. “When they closed the courses to us, it was the second shock that hit me,” she says. “I cried a lot that day, because they took away our last hope.” 

After experiencing that second shock, Hamida says that she fell into depression and lost her aspirations for the future. She says that she isn’t alone, telling Zan Times that most of her old classmates were forced into arranged marriages while many suffer from depression like her. Though she’d still be willing to continue with her studies to be a midwife, she can do nothing right now.  

The potential loss of a generation of new midwives like Hamida would be devastating for the women of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has the highest maternal mortality rate in Asia with 620 deaths per 100,000 births, according to data from the World Health Organization. In January 2023, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) stated that the Taliban decree banning women from working with non-governmental organizations has endangered the lives of female patients and female health workers. Although MSF employees are currently exempted from this ban, there is no guarantee that they will be allowed by the Taliban to continue their work. Brienne Prusak, a MSF spokesperson, told Voice of America that the Taliban’s ban on women’s education and work hinders women’s access to health services and has increased women’s health needs. 

Since their return to power, the Taliban have pursued a policy of gender segregation and systematic discrimination against women. In line with this policy, they emphasize that women can only be seen by female doctors and other medical staff. Yet at the same time, the Taliban is closing educational avenues for women, depriving Afghanistan of new generations of badly needed health and social workers, including doctors and midwives, at a time when many professional women are either leaving the country or finding it increasingly hard to perform their duties.  

Beheshta* was an eighth grade student in Kabul when the previous regime fell in 2021. Like Hamida, the 16-year-old has a passion for medicine. Beheshta wanted to be a dentist. “I had excellent grades in science subjects and my friends called me doctor,” she recounts to Zan Times. “I slowly came to believe that I could become a dentist because there was a good market for it. And I could contribute to solving our economic problems in addition to achieving my dream and serving the people.” 

Six months after the schools closed, her parents forced her into marriage as a way to help the family of six, which was having financial problems. Now she is waiting for the arrival of her 35-year-old fiancé, who has been a long-time resident in Germany. “I am very depressed. I still think about going to school and being with my friends but without even being asked, my family prepares for the wedding ceremony and then my migration to a foreign country,” she says. “A path has been drawn for me and I don’t know where or how it will end?” 

As the new academic year began in Afghanistan, organizations and nations around the world asked the Taliban to allow girls and women above the sixth grade to return to schools, higher education and work. In a joint statement, United Nations human rights experts, including Richard Bennett, its special rapporteur for Afghanistan, asked the Taliban to immediately open schools and universities to girls and women in Afghanistan. They said that Afghanistan, as a signatory of the UN human rights treaties, especially the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, is obliged to respect the right to education without discrimination. 

They also warned of the harmful consequences of banning girls from education, saying that the number of child marriages and children required to work has increased since the ban was imposed. 

The Taliban are unlikely to acquiesce to such requests. In justifying their ban on girl’s education, the Taliban have repeatedly said that schools will reopen when school uniforms are designed according to their sharia requirements as well as Afghan customs and culture. But this decision is still pending. So for now, the schools are closed. 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees. 

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