Women teachers in Afghanistan have told VICE World News they will keep fighting for women and girls’ rights to education despite signals from the Taliban that girls will not be allowed to go to school.
The militant group, which took over the country last month following a withdrawal of US and NATO forces, said last week that secondary schools for boys were ready to resume classes, sparking fears that girls’ schools would remain closed indefinitely.
On Tuesday, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid addressed the international outrage, telling reporters that “the ministry of education is working hard to provide the ground for the education of high school girls as soon as possible, work is underway” – but many teachers in the country fear the group will not keep its promises and hard days are ahead.
“It is really devastating to even speak about how girls would be restricted in school, and what subjects should be kept away from them, but this is the new Afghanistan under Taliban,” a teacher from Kabul said.
When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, women were banned from working and girls were barred from school for “security reasons”.
Today, the Taliban has again cited security as a reason for most women not to return to the workplace. Mujahid said the group is working to provide a “safe environment” to allow girls back to secondary schools, but did not provide any further details.
To show solidarity, many boys and young men across the country skipped their first few days of school this week.
The Taliban has already made it clear that the group will not allow women to be taught by men, and it will impose its own draconian version of Sharia, Islamic law, over all aspects of life in the war-torn country. The group's higher education ministry has announced new measures, including total gender segregation and a compulsory conservative Islamic dress code for women at university.
In another alarming move, the Taliban has reintroduced its ministry of “promotion of virtue and prevention of vice”, a morality police force previously notorious for lashing women out in public without a male guardian.
The Afghan teachers we spoke to dismissed Mujahid’s comments, saying the group was intent on undermining Afghan women and the move was just the beginning of many “tricks” played by the Islamist group to buy time in their attempts to avoid international scrutiny.
“It feels like seeing a horrible nightmare all over again, but we have to be resilient and make sure our girls get their basic right of education,” said another teacher from Kabul. “We have come a long way in Afghanistan to educate girls, and still have more to do, and we haven’t given up yet. As teachers, we don’t mind a dress code. As long as our daughters get a chance to attend classes, we are ready to make the sacrifices.”
In the 20 years since the US-led invasion, successive Afghan governments have been notable for little except endemic levels of corruption. One of the only success markers has been the number of girls getting an education, which has gone up from almost zero to 2.5 million. With the confusion over what the Taliban will decree, even the little progress made on this front now faces “generational catastrophe” according to the latest UNESCO education report.
Public schools in Afghanistan are already segregated to meet the demands of the ultraconservative society, with classes separated by gender from year three.
“Right now, we can only try to put pressure as much as we can on the Taliban leaders to realise that the world and Afghanistan have changed a lot, but it is really hard to even get to a Taliban member to speak to a woman,” said another secondary school teacher. “It is going to be really tough times ahead for us all.”