When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Society

With Taliban Back In Power, Brave Afghan Girls Again Risk Everything For An Education

Certain teachers and female students face extraordinary risks in clandestine schools for girls, recalling similar secret education operations when the Taliban were in charge before 9/11.

With Taliban Back In Power, Brave Afghan Girls Again Risk Everything For An Education

Girls attend a tenth-grade history lesson in Afghanistan, where Taliban officials have implemented restrictions on education for female students.

Elaine Unterhalter

In August 2021 the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, and since then secondary education for girls in the country has been banned. However, there have been reports of clandestine girls’ schools operating despite the ban. Teenage girls are reportedly taking extraordinary risks to attend lessons. Their teachers bravely share knowledge, even if they do not have extensive experience or the backup of an education system.

Education for girls was also banned during the previous era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan (1996-2001). In this period, too, girls attended secret schools.

Not much was known about these schools during Taliban rule. A 1997 report noted that the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan supported 125 girls’ schools and 87 co-education primary schools and home schools. An article in the Guardian in July 2001 stated that aid agencies had estimated 45,000 children were attending secret schools.

After the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, the educational work of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which they carried out during Taliban rule, was much documented.

Before 9/11, there was very limited international knowledge of these secret schools for girls. But after 9/11, the misogynistic actions of the Taliban regarding women’s rights and girls’ education became a pillar of the argument for the U.S. War against Terror.


When visiting Afghanistan in December 2001, UNICEF executive director Carole Bellamy referenced secret schools as part of a call for aid funding. The existence of these schools exerted considerable symbolic power.

Questions of dignity and power

Since the 1960s, the education of girls has been promoted in international development and aid policy as a way to limit population, address economic growth, or attend to political stabilization. Girls and their education have been portrayed as a development intervention and a “good buy” for project funding. The argument runs that when women are educated and working, they contribute to reducing poverty, enhancing the health of their children, and promoting social and cultural cohesion.

The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.

But these policies can fail to address or inquire into the needs, rights or capabilities of girls themselves, or the wider conditions of gender and intersecting inequalities. They are often promoted without any sustained engagement with wider policy goals for gender equality or women’s rights.

A commitment to women’s education can be hampered by insufficient long-term funding for broader gender equality initiatives, as well as and inadequate representation of gender equality concerns in peace-making discussions. They mean that even when girls return to school in large numbers, practices inside and outside education can still reflect the social divisions and gender inequalities that preceded the conflict.

In November 2001, Laura Bush, the wife of U.S. president George W Bush, made a high profile radio address condemning the “severe repression and brutality against women in Afghanistan”. “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” she said. War was justified because of the Taliban’s ban on girls’ access to school. A narrative emerged of the need to “save” Muslim women.

One consequence of this was the risk that conservative groups in Afghanistan could link the education of women and other women’s rights measures to American aggression and colonial or geo-political ambitions – meaning that a future anti-American movement could also look to restrict these rights.

A symbolic role

Young girls arrive to a primary school in Kabul. The Taliban government has banned girls from secondary school education and allowed schools to reopen for boys only.

Oliver Weiken/ZUMA

Clandestine schools

Nevertheless, in the post-Taliban era (2002-2021), a huge expansion of education took place in Afghanistan, with many important initiatives in girls’ education and women’s rights. Profound social divisions remained, though, and many girls still lacked schooling.

The Taliban seizure of power in August 2021 halted the growth of secondary and tertiary education for young women that had taken place over two decades. Promises made by the Taliban about reopening schools in 2022 were retracted.

The positioning of girls’ schooling, gender and women’s rights remains a work in progress.

In contrast to the limited reports on clandestine girls’ schools in the 1990s, many accounts are now circulating of secret schools. The more extensive reporting may come from better opportunities to share information using new technologies, or from the initiatives of educated girls and women.

But, to date, there has been no systematic analysis of these reports. There are reported divisions among the Taliban leadership on how, or under what conditions, girls should be in secondary school and university.

The fragmentary reports mean it is difficult to know who can and cannot attend clandestine schools, what the girls in these schools can and cannot do, and who is financing them.

Wider gender equality

In the 2000s, education for women became part of the narrative behind the War on Terror. Today, the positioning of girls’ schooling, gender and women’s rights in the process of peacebuilding remains a work in progress.

Key international organisations which oversee the allocation of funding and consult widely on strategic direction regarding education and gender equality are developing more wide-ranging policy on gender equality and women’s rights. An example of this is the UN’s Education Cannot Wait. According to its website, Education Cannot Wait is active in Afghanistan.

But one kind of initiative is seldom enough. Many coordinated processes are needed. These processes of global cooperation and policy direction are cumbersome and far away from the pressing needs and wishes of girls locked out of school in Afghanistan, but they are a necessary step.

The debate continues as to whether girls’ education alone is an approach which will allow other transformations to follow – or whether is just a limited intervention, which can be undertaken without engaging the politics of peacebuilding that would secure a stronger foundation for women’s rights.

*Elaine Unterhalter is Professor of Education and International Development, UCL.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.



You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Geopolitics

Why The 'Perfect Storm' Of Iran's Protests May Be Unstoppable

The latest round of anti-regime protests in Iran is different than other in the 40 years of the Islamic Republic: for its universality and boldness, the level of public fury and grief, and the role of women and social media. The target is not some policy or the economy, but the regime itself.

A woman holds a lock of her hair during a London rally to protest the murder of Mahsa Amini in London

Roshanak Astaraki

-Analysis-

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran on Sept. 16, after a possible beating at a police station, has sparked outrage and mass protests in Iran and abroad. There have been demonstrations and a violent attempt to suppress them in more than 100 districts in every province of Iran.

These protests may look like others since 2017, and back even to 1999 — yet we may be facing an unprecedented turning point in Iranians' opposition to the Islamic Republic. Indeed newly installed conservative President Ibrahim Raisi could not have expected such momentum when he set off for a quick trip to New York and back for a meeting of the UN General Assembly.

For one of the mistakes of a regime that takes pride in dismissing the national traditions of Iran is to have overlooked the power of grief among our people.

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
Writing contest - My pandemic story
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ