Unique effort reopens girls’ schools in Afghan province

High school girls are sitting at home almost everywhere in Afghanistan, banned from going to class by Taliban leaders. But there is one major exception.

For weeks now, girls in western Herat province have been back in high school classrooms – the result of a unique and concerted effort by teachers and parents to persuade local Taliban administrators to allow them to reopen.

Taliban officials never officially approved the reopening after the lobbying campaign, but neither did they stop it when teachers and parents started classes on their own in early October.

“Parents, students and teachers joined them in making this happen,” said Mohammed Saber Meshaal, the leader of the Herat teachers’ union that helped organize the campaign. “This is the only place where community activists and teachers have taken the risk to stay and talk to the Taliban.

The success in Herat highlights a significant difference in the current Taliban rule over Afghanistan compared to their precedent in the late 1990s. At the time, militants were intransigent in their harsh ideology, forbidding women to public life and work and prohibiting all girls from access to education. They used force and brutal punishment to enforce the rules.

This time, they seem to recognize that they cannot be so ruthless in an Afghanistan that has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. They imposed old rules but were ambiguous about what is allowed and what is not. The ambiguity could be aimed at avoiding alienating the public as the Taliban battles an almost total economic collapse, a shutdown of international funding, an alarming increase in hunger and a dangerous insurgency by militants of the Islamic State group.

This left small margins where the Afghans can try to push back.

When the Taliban took power in August, most schools were closed due to COVID-19. Under strong international pressure, the Taliban quickly reopened schools for girls in grades 1 to 6, as well as schools for boys at all levels.

But they did not allow the return of girls in grades 7 to 12, saying they must first make sure classes are conducted in an “Islamic way.” The Taliban have also excluded most women from government jobs, their biggest job.

In Herat province, however, teachers quickly began to organize.

“When the Taliban arrived, we were very worried, because of everything that had happened before,” said Basira Basiratkhah, principal of the Tajrobawai girls’ school in Herat, the provincial capital.

Teachers’ union officials met with the Taliban governor and the head of the education department. They didn’t raise the issue of girls’ schools at first, focusing on building a relationship until “the Taliban come to see that we represent the community,” Meshaal said.

When teachers called for a reopening, Taliban officials hesitated, saying they could not authorize it without an order from the Kabul government. The teachers continued to insist. About 40 school principals, including Basiratkhah, met with senior Taliban education officials in September to address their main concerns.

Afghan girls participate in a class at Tajrobawai Girls’ High School in Herat, Afghanistan on November 25, 2021.

“We assured them that the classes are separate, with only female teachers, and that the girls wear appropriate hijabs,” Basiratkhah said. “We don’t need to change anything. We are Muslims and we already observe all that Islam requires.

In October, teachers felt they had the Taliban’s tacit agreement not to stand in the way. Teachers began advertising on Facebook pages and messaging app channels that girls’ high schools would reopen on October 3. Parents set up a phone channel to spread the news, and the students told their classmates.

Mastoura, who has two daughters who attend Tajrobawai in first and eighth grades, called on other parents, urging them to bring their daughters to school. Some feared the Taliban would harass the girls or that militants might attack. Mastoura and other women continue to accompany their daughters to school on a daily basis.

“We had concerns, and we still have them,” said Mastoura, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. “But girls need to be educated. Without education, your life is held back.

Fadieh Ismailzadeh, a 14-year-old teenager in ninth grade, said she cried with happiness upon hearing the news. “We had given up hope that schools would reopen,” she said.

Afghan girls walk out of classrooms at Tajrobawai Girls' High School in Herat, Afghanistan on November 25, 2021.

Afghan girls walk out of classrooms at Tajrobawai Girls’ High School in Herat, Afghanistan on November 25, 2021.

Not all of the students showed up when the doors opened in Tajrobawai. But as parents grew more confident, classes filled up after a few days, Basiratkhah said. Approximately 3,900 students are in Grades 1 to 12.

Recently, girls in a grade 10 chemistry class took notes while a teacher explained to them the elements that make up water. Queues of younger students marched through the hallways to the schoolyard.

Shehabeddin Saqeb, the Taliban’s education director for Herat province, insists the group has no problem with girls going to school.

“We are openly telling everyone that they should come to school,” he told The Associated Press. “The schools are open without a problem. We never issued an official order that high school girls shouldn’t go to school. “

Herat is the only place where girls’ high schools are open across the province, although schools have also reopened in a few districts in northern Afghanistan, including the town of Mazar-e Sharif.

Meshaal highlighted the changes within the Taliban, saying some factions are more open. “They understand that people are going to resist the subject of education.”

He said the Taliban are not corrupt, unlike the government overthrown and supported by the international community.

“With the previous government, if we came up with something for the good of the schools, they threw the idea away because they couldn’t take advantage of it,” he said.

“The Taliban spent all of their time in the mountains fighting. They don’t know the administration. So when we meet them, we try to give them advice and after the negotiations they start to come back, ”he said.

Yet the teachers are struggling. Like other officials, they haven’t been paid for months. The education department did not provide funding for other needs such as maintenance and supplies, Meshaal said.

And the opening of the girls’ high school in Hérat remains an exception. Other parts of the country have been less successful.

Teachers in the southern city of Kandahar approached local Taliban officials about reopening girls ‘high schools, but they were turned down, said Fahima Popal, principal of Hino No.1 Girls’ High School. Officials said there was nothing they could do without orders from the central education ministry. Meanwhile, Popal said parents asked him when their daughters could return to class.

“We hope that one day we will have good news for them,” said Popal. But she said she believed it was better to wait for the central government to act rather than repeat Herat’s experience. If provincial authorities allow a reopening, the ministry could reverse its decision, which “would hurt students and teachers,” she said.

A full return of girls is a major demand of the international community and is likely to take place before UN agencies agree to pay teachers’ salaries directly.

So far, the Taliban have refused to set a timetable and most schools are starting a winter break until March. In a speech on Saturday, Taliban Prime Minister Mohammed Hassan Akhund insisted that “women are already receiving education”, adding only: “There is hope to expand it, as God allows”.

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