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Afghan girls still want to go to school

Lynzy Billing Kabul
August 20, 2021

The Taliban say they will not stop girls from going to school, but experts say it is hard to trust them. For young girls, who have just started school and had never seen the Taliban, it is a difficult situation.

Girl students at the Zarghoona High School in Kabul, before the Taliban took control of the capital
For families that still want their daughters to continue their education, safety and protection is paramountImage: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Seven-year-old Zaynab lives in the suburbs of the Afghan capital Kabul, which has recently been captured by the Taliban. The militant group overran the city on August 16 without facing any resistance from the ousted President Ashraf Ghani's forces.

The Islamic fundamentalist outfit, which previously ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, says it will not target women and minority groups, and that girls' education will not be discontinued. But reports coming out of Afghanistan paint a grim picture.

Zaynab had spent only a year in school before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. She says she had heard about the Taliban before, but she and her brothers had never seen them. She watched a video on her neighbor's phone showing the militants just two days ago. "They were riding someone's bicycle. Then they started shouting, while some were singing," she told DW.

The Taliban have so far not come to her area. Her father says life appears to be "normal" and that all of his children are still going to school. But he says he will stop their education if he doesn't feel safe.

Afghan women fear dark days ahead as Taliban return to power

"Zaynab doesn't know the Taliban, but I remember them. Zaynab saw a video of them causing havoc on the streets, but I have seen videos that are much worse. I hope she never has to see such things," he told DW.

Zaynab's father is keeping an eye on the situation and is concerned about her daughter's safety. "But she loves school, so why shouldn't she go there?"

"I don't know for how long she can study, so why not let her go to school for now? She doesn't need to feel that her life has changed, just because the country has changed," he added.

Unclear stance

Under the strict Shariah, or Islamic law, that the Taliban imposed when they controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s, women and girls were barred from education and employment. Veils became mandatory in public, and women could not leave home without a male companion.

Heather Barr, co-director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, says the Taliban's policy on girls' education is unclear right now. "Their practices on the ground have been inconsistent as they have regained territory in recent years, but in most cases, they have not permitted girls to continue studying beyond sixth grade," Barr told DW.

"At Tuesday's press conference, the Taliban were trying to appear legitimate to the world, and they know that most of the world finds their policies toward women and girls abhorrent, so they were careful to mention women's rights. But even then, they included their usual language about women having rights 'based on our rules and regulations' and 'within our frameworks of Islam,'" she added.

"This is heartbreaking, especially for a generation that grew up believing that the Taliban were part of a dark past that harmed their mothers and grandmothers but would never touch them."

Samira, a 15-year-old girl who lives near Kabul, has not attended school since last week. "My mother is not allowing me to go to school. Maybe, if things calm down, I can return," she told DW.

"I don't want to talk about it, or think too much about it, because it's sad and incomprehensible," she added.

Her older sister, Nahida, will not be returning to her university either. "I would have to walk past them [the Taliban] every day. I don't know if I can do it."

The funding issue

Protection and empowerment of women and girls have been part of the Western rhetoric since the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

International donors have poured billions of dollars into school education, particularly for girls. Twenty years after the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan, out of the roughly 9 million school-going children, as many as 3.5 million — about 40% — are girls.

For families that still want their daughters to continue their education, safety and protection is paramount.

Barr says that even if the Taliban leadership allows some sort of schooling, it is likely that local commanders, administrators or lower-level Taliban fighters might not find it acceptable.

The international community's role in educating Afghan girls has mostly revolved around financial aid. As the West froze its funds to Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, "it won't matter whether the Taliban are willing to allow girls to go to school or not," according to Barr.