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Afghan girls set up 'secret school' amid Taliban ban

Hussain Sirat | Ahmad Hakimi
October 22, 2021

After coming to power, the Islamist group imposed a ban on girls' education, prompting some Afghans to set up an "underground school." DW spoke to some of the girls who are determined to continue their studies.

 A female student wearing a headscarf, face hidden
Attending 'secret school' is full of risks for Afghan girlsImage: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Fourteen Afghan girls gather every day in the basement of a building in Kabul to continue their studies. Their teacher is a senior student who teaches them mathematics.

The school is hidden from the outside world — the door and windows are shut so that nobody can see or hear the students.

A whiteboard is placed at the corner of the room, where Nooria (name changed) is teaching her students about logarithms.

After the Taliban overthrew Ashraf Ghani's government and captured the capital, Kabul, in late August, they reimposed restrictions on girls' education. In some cities, girls are not allowed to attend schools after sixth grade, and in some areas, older girls are not allowed to sit with male students.

The measures are arbitrary but in stark contrast to the Islamists' initial statements that they would respect fundamental human rights.

The Taliban first ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 with an iron fist, barring women from work and imposing restrictions on their mobility. Girls were not allowed to go to schools, and the Taliban fighters flogged women if they broke the strict Shariah laws imposed by the group.

There have been several protests by women against the new Taliban regime across the country since the Islamists took charge of the government. Women in Afghanistan are persistent in their demands for the right to education, employment and assembly, which have so far been denied by the group.

The only way to continue education

Running the "secret school" under these circumstances is not an easy task, but many parents are determined to educate their daughters and are ready to take risks.

The students of this school take different routes to join their classes at different times during the day so that they are not noticed by the authorities.

There are no desks and chairs in the classroom; girls sit in a circle on the floor. DW spoke to some of these girls, but for security reasons, their identities have been concealed.

Saleha (name changed), a 12th grade student, said that after a two-month school closure she had no other choice but to join the "underground school."

"We didn't accept the restrictions; therefore, with the help of a teacher, we started this secret school. We want to continue with our studies," she told DW over the phone.

Nooria, who teaches at this school, was a student of computer science at the University of Kabul prior to the Taliban takeover of the capital. She told DW that she wanted to become a computer programmer, but her dream has been shattered now.

"It feels like I have a body, but I am not alive," she said, adding that she hopes that the "dark days" will be over soon.

A risky endeavor for girls' education 

The former Afghan government was marred by corruption, but women's education was one of its big successes.

When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and toppled the Taliban regime, girls' education was almost non-existent in the country. By 2020, millions of girls had attended schools, and tens of thousands of women went to universities for higher education.

The United Nations has urged the Taliban to ensure that girls continue to receive education in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan economy in crisis as prices soar

But the Taliban don't appear to be listening, and now the risks associated with girls' education are high.

"If the Taliban find out about our 'secret school,' they will punish us. But despite this risk, we will not quit," Saleha said.

Shamsia (name changed), a ninth grade student of the "underground school," admits there are risks but said she doesn't want to lose her nine years of education.

"Yes, I am scared. I try my best to be as secretive about my education as possible," she told DW.

Financial constraints

Students of this school pay a small fee to their teacher, but the financial situation of most families in Afghanistan means that even a small sum is a huge burden on them.

Afghanistan's economy is on the brink of collapse, with hunger and poverty growing exponentially in the war-ravaged country.

The United Nations has predicted that around 95% of Afghanistan's population could go hungry in few years, and as much as 97% of the population risks falling below the poverty line.

The international community has pledged financial aid to Afghanistan, but most countries are reluctant to deal directly with the Taliban.

The US has frozen billions of dollars in aid for Afghanistan in line with international sanctions against the group.

For Nooria, however, money is secondary to her desire to provide girls with education. She said there are many families in Afghanistan who live in extreme poverty but are still committed to educating girls.

"I don't take money from poor families. I am doing a service," she said.