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Taliban have yet to give timeline on when Afghan women can return to school

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The old-fashioned classroom is tucked behind a snaking stretch of rocket-cracked roads and arid plains inside a village named Abbazak. There, boys with UNICEF notebooks sit at simple wooden tables and scribble math equations on the chalkboards.

This is the students’ first week back to the books since the sudden Taliban takeover of the Presidential Palace on Aug. 15.

While the boys’ education continues, it’s unclear when – and if – girls too will be allowed to resume their education. The Taliban thus far have only allowed boys of all ages to return to school. Girls sixth grade and under have returned, but only under strictly gender-segregated conditions. However, high schools are still firmly shuttered with no mention from the Ministry of Education regarding a re-opening anytime soon.

“Afghanistan is an Islamic country, women and girls should go to work and schools, but we face economic issues. We want girls to be separate from boys, and arranging that will take some time,” says Mawlawi Noor Ahmad Saeed, Director of Information and Culture for Kandahar province. “We have the facilities, but we don’t have the transport part. So the whole issue is about transport.”

The Taliban has yet to give an official timeline of when women and young girls will be allowed to go back to school.
The Taliban has yet to give an official timeline of when women and young girls will be allowed to go back to school.
HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

Saeed vows that while private schools and universities under the previous government already had pre-arranged transport for female students to ensure no male interaction or “distractions,” they don’t have the funding to do this in the public system.

“It is the economic support we need; we don’t have the resources. But if (these) can be provided by any country, if countries can support us with buses, then there is no issue with girls going to school,” he laments. “We want women to have the highest level of education possible. We want experts. But Islam demands separation; the culture demands it. So if there are two separate (facilities) and the transport is all separate, people would prefer it and more people would get into education and work. That is the morals we have. There are no other issues.”

The United States – along with most of the international community – was quick to freeze funds in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover. Foreign aid and NGOs almost entirely pulled out, sending the country’s economy into a dizzying freefall into even deeper levels of poverty. While the Taliban are desperate for international diplomatic recognition and thus financial assistance to bolster the bleeding nation, analysts warn it isn’t likely to come anytime soon over worries about the former insurgency’s human rights record.

Director of Information and Culture, Mawlawi Noor Ahmad Saeed, has said the problem facing Afghanistan women returning to school is the economy and funding.
Director of Information and Culture, Mawlawi Noor Ahmad Saeed, has said the problem facing Afghanistan women returning to school is the economy and funding.
Jake Simkin

Bilal Karimi, a spokesperson for the Taliban, echoed that the halt on girls’ education hinges on the issue of transportation, surveying every facility to ensure complete gender separation and then security.

“First, we need to manage the transport and create a safe environment for the girls. For example, tens of gas poisonings have happened across the country to girls, where they have fallen asleep for hours,” he claims. “We need to make sure there is separation, so this does not happen. Girls have been abused on their way to school. We are going to build a new system where they are fully safe and secure so that they can go to school with the comfort of their hearts.”

During the Taliban’s previous rule across Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, girls were simply prohibited from a secondary education under their stringent interpretation of Islamic Law. The regime this time around has sought to portray itself as gentler and modernized, espousing vague statements that women will have “full rights” under the veil of Islamic Law but at the same token say a full judicial team of Islamic scholars are yet to determine what that is.

The Taliban has enforced segregated class, by ensuring that men and women study separately.
The Taliban has enforced segregated class, by ensuring that men and women study separately.
Jake Simkin

And at the university level, it’s a mixed and worrisome bag.

More than 70 teaching staff from Kabul University – many of whom have PhDs and dedicated their lives to academic advancement – resigned in protest over the weekend after the Taliban fired the doctorate-level Vice-Chancellor and replaced him with one of their own members who has had significantly less formal education.

Then on Monday, the Taliban’s new chancellor announced that women would be indefinitely stopped from the institution either as teachers or students.

“I give you my words as chancellor of Kabul University,” Mohammad Ashraf Ghairat said in a tweet. “As long as a real Islamic environment is not provided for all, women will not be allowed to come to universities or work. Islam first.”

According to the new Afghan Government, girls are allowed to attend schools through the sixth grade, but anything higher is currently not open to them.
According to the new Afghan Government, girls are allowed to attend schools through the sixth grade, but anything higher is currently not open to them.
Bilal Guler/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Yet classes in most private universities are open for all – but under the strict mandate of gender segregation.

“The only change that has happened (under the Taliban) is separating male and female students. But we have also been witnessing that we have a lot fewer students than we had before,” says Bahrullah Safi, Chancellor of the Mirwais Nika University in Kandahar, the conservative provincial birthplace of the Taliban in the 1990s. “We aren’t sure if they will come back.”

Safi notes that the university typically has around 3,200 students enrolled, including some Taliban members, but more than 15 percent haven’t returned since last month’s change, primarily women.

Students in a secondary school attend a lesson as education in primary and secondary schools continue in the Taliban's stronghold city Kandahar.
Students in a secondary school attend a lesson as education in primary and secondary schools continue in the Taliban’s stronghold city Kandahar.
Bilal Guler/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“Most people come to study so they can get a good job,” he continues. “So it is important – especially for our female students – that they know they can still get a job in the future.”

Classes resemble a shell of what they were before. Women sheathed from head to toe enter through the right side and their male counterparts through the left. Little girls with their student mothers lurk inquisitively outside on the quiet street.

At an “appreciation” ceremony honoring teachers and students for achievements inside, male students and faculty sit on one side, and just half a dozen women take seats on the other. A fresh slate of plastic-wrapped reading materials has just arrived, including a translated version of retired US Army Lieutenant General Daniel P. Bolger’s “Why We Lost” at the top of the pile.

Some young women prefer the segregated classes saying that they find it easier to concentrate and avoid male staring.
Some young women prefer the segregated classes saying that they find it easier to concentrate and avoid male staring.
HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

In one all-women classroom studying microbiology, taught by male educators, the women lament to me that they almost all had jobs in the health sector – in addition to their studies – all of which they lost when the Taliban seized the reins.

“We are all nurses, midwives, NGO workers,” says Layla, who previously worked for Save for the Children, says defiantly. “We have lost our incomes, and that means we aren’t sure that we can pay for our studies anymore. And even if we complete our degrees, there probably won’t be work for us.”

However, in the multiple classrooms I visit, the women say that the only Taliban-induced adjustment so far has been the segregation and that it is something they prefer – enabling them to feel more comfortable and avoid stares from their male counterparts.

Two young Afghanistan girls do their school work in a Taliban-controlled classroom.
Two young Afghanistan girls do their school work in a Taliban-controlled classroom.
Jake Simkin

Before the frantic US departure last month, some 3.5 million Afghan girls were estimated to be in school, a number that has taken a dramatic and overnight tumble. The panicked takeover immediately prompted many girls and women to flee or go into hiding, destroying their schoolbooks and evidence of education in the process out of fear of reprisal akin to the 1990s rule.

And while some Taliban officials pledged to me in recent weeks that subjects in education overall won’t be removed from school curriculums – unless they directly promote other religions – an official at the Education Ministry on Kabul tells me this week that Islamic scholars are yet to come together to make decisions, but music and art will likely face the chop.

Yet the overall education sector – and in due course, the future of the whole country for both males and females – hovers in a precarious position in many ways.

As per Taliban and Islamic law, women who attend classes must be completely covered at all times.
As per Taliban and Islamic law, women who attend classes must be completely covered at all times.
Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Even the boys’ school teachers say they haven’t received salaries in more than two months, for the last month of the embattled Ashraf Ghani-led government and then since the Taliban swept to power more than a month earlier. The teachers say the new Emirate has promised to pay soon – but precisely when and how remains unclear as the economy continues to plunge into ruinous levels and unemployment soars.

Typically, Afghan boys – most prominently in pockets outside the capital Kabul – attend regular academic classes for half the day, and then religious lessons in a nearby mosque or madrassa for the other half, with the two types of schools working in tandem in swapping the two groups between mornings and afternoons.

Nonetheless, woes over salaries and the halt on international aid – which propped up the ailing Kabul machine for almost two decades – also put the complete education of boys in duress.

From the foot soldiers to the new ministry and provincial department heads, almost every Taliban member says they attended regular school to either the sixth or ninth grade, followed by full-time Islamic studies at a madrassa and then a quick step into the group’s fighting fray.

“Without proper schooling, boys won’t have many options other than to join the jihad,” cautions one Kabul-based political analyst, who requested only to be identified as Hashmat for security reasons. “This only drives the extremism further. Then what happens to our country?”

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