Millions of teenage girls across Afghanistan are anxiously waiting to return to the classroom, as high schools continue to remain closed, raising fears about the future of female education under Taliban rule.
The country’s new rulers allowed boys in the same age group – seven to 12 – to attend classes last month, but said that “a safe learning environment” was needed before older girls could return to school.
At that time, the Taliban’s Deputy Minister of Information and Culture Zabihullah Mujahid said the group was working on a “procedure” to allow teenage girls back into the classroom.
In the Taliban’s first news conference after taking over Afghanistan on August 15, Mujahid had pledged to “allow women to work and study,” as it tried to allay fears of its rule between 1996-2001 that was marked by a curb on women’s rights.
The continued exclusion of girls from schools has only exacerbated fears among the Afghan people that the Taliban could be returning to their hardline rule of the 1990s. Those five years had the distinction of being the only time in modern Afghan history where women and girls were legally barred from education and employment.
In the month and a half since they came to power, the Taliban has told female government workers to stay at home, announced an all-male cabinet, closed down the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and faced accusations of harassment and abuse of female protesters across the nation’s cities.
Toorpekai Momand, an education advocate, said the delay, coupled with the Taliban’s actions, have led adolescent girls to contend with dangerous questions, “Why do the Taliban have a problem with us? Why is it our rights that are being taken?”
Momand, who has spent 10 years working as a school administrator, is among hundreds of women in Afghanistan and abroad who are trying to ensure that the Taliban live up to their promises to allow girls and women back into schools and offices.
For many of these women, this struggle means dealing with what they see as unpopular, but necessary realities of life in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Jamila Afghani, another education advocate, said that the Afghan people are left with little but to try and engage with the Taliban, especially as the international community has refused to recognise the group.
“I didn’t bring them. You didn’t bring them, but they’re here now, so we have to keep pushing.”
But both Afghani and Momand and dozens of others have experienced first-hand the difficulty of trying to get answers out of the Taliban. When their colleagues met officials from the Taliban-run Ministry of Education, they were told that the group is working “very hard” to adhere to conservative norms in the education of teenage girls.
Momand said the Taliban is particularly careful with its wording, “They never just come out and say ‘no,’ they keep saying ‘we’re working on it,’ but we have no idea exactly what it is they’re working on.”
All of the women Al Jazeera spoke to said that in the 100 years since the Afghan government established official schools for girls, those institutions have always adhered to religious principles. Primary and secondary schools were always gender-segregated and dress codes were always in place.
Momand, in particular, said she has a hard time accepting the Taliban’s claims of religious reasoning for the continued wait, saying, “In a girls’ school, everyone, down to the cleaning staff, are women.”
The Taliban has also made references to a review of the curriculum, something Afghani said could further delay the education of school children.
“Redoing a curriculum takes a lot of time and a very detailed understanding of educational models,” Afghani said.
All of the sources Al Jazeera spoke to shared Afghani’s scepticism of the Taliban’s actual understanding of the complexities of establishing an education system for 9.5 million schoolchildren.
Last month, the group’s acting minister of education, Mawlawi Noorullah Monir, caused a social media uproar when he said, “No PhD degree, Master’s degree is valuable today. You see that the mullahs and Taliban that are in the power, have no PhD, MA or even a high school degree, but are the greatest of all.”
For some, the prospect of the Taliban trying to reform the curriculum is particularly frightening.
Fatimah Hossaini, a well-known photographer who taught classes in the fine arts faculty at Kabul University, said she feared for the future of arts programmes under the Taliban. She pointed out that art was the least funded discipline at Kabul University even under the former government of President Ashraf Ghani.
At one time, Hossaini was the only female professor in a small faculty that had to make do with the most basic and often out-of-date equipment. Now, she fears what the department will look like under the Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban refers to its government.
“They have already said there will be no music in public. They’ve been going around Kabul covering murals. In 2001, they blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, so do you think they will allow students to continue studying sculpture?”
Even if the programmes are allowed to continue, Hossaini feared the Taliban would impose restrictions like those in neighbouring Iran, where she studied.
Art, said Hossaini, requires “freedom” to flourish, but she feared that the Taliban would impose tight restrictions on self-expression.
“Most of my students, especially the girls, are busy looking for ways out,” said Hossaini, who fled to France along with tens of thousands of Afghans fearing return of Taliban rule. Even those who have stayed are haunted by a sense of foreboding, said Hossaini. She used one of her graduating female students as an example.
“She cannot bring herself to go collect her diploma and transcripts. She keeps saying, ‘I don’t want to have the stamp of the Islamic Emirate on my diploma.’”
Though Hossaini is no longer in the country, the women Al Jazeera spoke to said there are tens of thousands of Afghan women who have had their lives put on hold by the stalling of fully reopening all schools across the country.
Masuda Sultan, an Afghan-American entrepreneur and activist who has also joined in the efforts to restart employment and education for women, said it is not just the girls who are heavily affected by the continued shutdown of secondary education for female students.
“More women are employed in education than any other sector in Afghanistan,” said Sultan.
UNICEF estimated that roughly one-third of Afghan teachers were women, and Momand and Afghani said a further 150,000 are employed in other facets of the education sector.
“For a lot of families, teaching is the only job they’ll let their women have,” said Sultan referring to the decades-long practice of gender-segregating primary and secondary education in the country.
Because of this, Sultan said it is imperative to reopen all schools across the country as quickly as possible, “If you don’t employ these teachers, then we are failing women in Afghanistan.”
Afghan, the other education advocate, agrees. To her, restarting girls’ education in full should be a priority for the international community, who used women’s rights as one of the justifications for the 20 years of US-led occupation.
Afghani feared that the international community’s co-optation of women’s rights as a basis for their occupation may have had a lasting impact on how the Taliban see issues of gender equality.
“They kept hearing the foreigners talking about women’s rights, so in their minds, women’s rights are tied to the occupier,” Afghani said.
Afghani argued it is important for Afghan women themselves not to let up on their demands for basic rights they had enjoyed for decades, like access to education and employment.
Last week, Afghani and Momand were among a group of female educators, health workers and rights activists who held a news conference to urge foreign donors to restart financial aid to the country.
More than 100,000 female teachers have not received their salaries for the past two to three months due to the war, as the Taliban had launched its offensive to capture power.
“We have a chance to let the women and girls of Afghanistan decide what happens in the country,” said Afghan.
Momand agreed, saying the tenacity and bravery of Afghan girls are what pushes her to continue her work.
Afghan girls, she said, “Went to school through the explosions in the cities, through the fighting in the villages and districts. Even when their schools came under direct fire, Afghan girls never gave up on their education.”