Down a sandy, unpaved road in rural Kandahar province, children curiously peer out from the colourful, rusted metal gates of their fortress-like mud homes that stand tall against a barren landscape.
Hidden within the high walls of one unassuming mud home is an unexpected scene—a secret school. A group of 60 schoolgirls in bright, vibrant hijabs, aged five to 15, sit on striped tarp mats in the courtyard of the house. Despite the already sweltering morning heat at 8am, the girls are focused on a small-statured young woman writing on a whiteboard.
“The girls and women in my village are illiterate. I wanted to become a teacher to change this. If there are no female teachers, girls will remain uneducated,” 20-year-old Sabira told VICE World News. She has been operating this secret school out of her home for three years and asked to use a pseudonym for her and her students’ protection.
Afghanistan’s education system was thrown into uncertainty after the Taliban seized control of the country in August 2021. They soon banned girls older than 11 or beyond sixth grade from going to school. Those who defied the ruling could face public flogging or worse. The Taliban claim since the ban on higher schooling, they have seen a rise in attendance of girls under age 11 in primary schools.
For Sabira’s community and other remote areas that have historically experienced nothing but war or Taliban control, schools have always been in secret, if they existed at all. But since the official Taliban takeover, the number of secret schools across Afghanistan only increased.
Even before the U.S. withdrew their troops last year, the Taliban had long been a consistent presence in Sabira’s province. She opened her home school, in which she and three others teach 110 female students, because girls in her community would otherwise have no opportunity to access formal learning or education beyond Islamic studies. She herself was forced to travel hundreds of kilometres to Kandahar city in order to study.
There is no documented number of secret schools, but sources VICE World News spoke to gave estimates that varied upwards of 100 to 300 across the country, serving thousands of children, mostly girls. Teachers who are motivated to teach in their homes, in secluded caves, or in basements, scrape together resources through donations and attract students because there is a demand, sometimes even from the Taliban.
All girls were prevented from going to school during the Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, an era in which harsh sharia law was implemented nationwide. After the Taliban was overthrown by U.S. forces in 2001, education reform became a critical focus to carry the country towards peace and development. But the system continued to suffer setbacks from school attacks to widespread corruption, where schools said to be functioning on government funds or international aid were never actually opened.
The Taliban have not formally announced how they plan to grow the current education system, let alone open schools in the poorest areas. Many of their own fighters attended madrassas—Islamic seminaries—and remain opposed to secular education, but some want to embrace it. Taliban officials did not respond to repeated requests from VICE World News about their girls’ education policy. In public announcements, they cite gender segregation and uniforms as the main reasons why girls’ high schools have not reopened.
Despite the risks, Sabira will continue to run her secret school, but she wishes for change. “I hope that the Taliban will allow all girls to go to school and open more schools. With education, only then can we change our society and Afghanistan.”
Almost 700 kilometres away from Sabira’s school, in the Hazarajat, Afghanistan’s ethnic-Hazara majority region, Fatima Husaini is another example of a teacher operating a secret school out of her home—in a naturally-lit cave in the mountains. The classroom is in the living room of her family’s three-room cave house where they have resided since 2012.
Around 35 boys and girls, ranging in age from five to 17, sit shoulder-to-shoulder cross-legged on the floor of the cave. Brightening the rock walls of their compact classroom is their artwork: portraits of their mothers, comic book superheroes and the mountain villages they grew up in.
The 19-year-old also asked to use a pseudonym due to fears over her safety. “I feel afraid of the Taliban and am always looking over my shoulder,” she told VICE World News. But, for now at least, they don’t seem to be aware that her school exists. She stopped classes during the Taliban takeover and threw away all her students’ artwork in fear, before reopening three months later around the time government schools welcomed primary school-aged students.
Hazaras are known for emphasizing higher education, as reflected in high enrollment rates, and their history of good performance in the country’s demanding university entrance exams. After the Taliban fell out of power in the early 2000s, Hazaras created burgeoning businesses and communities in Hazarajat and west Kabul. But they have long been singled out by the Taliban and the Islamic State for persecution and genocide because of their Shia faith and Eurasian ancestry.
They have faced countless attacks on their hospitals, mosques, and even schools. Last year, a girls’ school in Dasht-e-Barchi, a predominantly Hazara community in West Kabul, was subject to a triple bombing. In April, a boys’ school from that same community was targeted.
Husaini has been teaching displaced children for seven years. Most of her students are from rural districts across central Afghanistan. She herself is displaced, as her family fled fighting in Maidan Wardak province when she was a child.
Currently, her school is an option for older female students who cannot access classes. “The Taliban are not allowing girls to learn, so my older students are happy to come here.” She teaches about 50 students using donations and whatever supplies she can find from the local market.
“My mother passed away when I was two and my family had to run away from the war. I faced many struggles going forward, and I didn’t want to see other children face a similar life,” she said. I wanted to help my community’s children access opportunities that I didn’t necessarily have.”
Hussain Naveed shares the same sentiments. The 28-year-old Hazara teacher is trying to create a solution for older students who cannot access public schools, but are privately preparing for the demanding Kankor University entrance examinations.
“Hazaras have been dealing with violence against them for a long time. Education for us is a solution to fight against ignorance,” he told VICE World News.
His private education centre is only two years old but caters to over 300 students, many of whom are displaced and whose parents are unemployed. His classes are co-ed, and a majority of his students are women between 13 to 17.
Naveed himself grew up as an orphan, but with perseverance graduated from university in 2017. “I received an education despite my background, and I wanted to share this capability with others.”
Unlike the other schools, the local Taliban knows about Naveed’s educational centre, but it continues to operate. Some local Taliban members even attended classes for two weeks. “It was maybe recon, to study what we are teaching or what our classes looked like. They even attended classes with females,” explained Naveed. He added that the Taliban are divided in their tolerance for education. “Many of the local Taliban have sisters and brothers who study.”
It appears the sit-in was indeed reconnaissance. Naveed has since been approached by the local Taliban who asked him to segregate male and female students. He told them that there were not enough teachers to support the operation of separate classes, so they agreed to allow females to sit at the back of co-ed classes, and all girls must wear a hijab, a mask that covers their face up to their eyes, and gloves.
The local Taliban also posted signs, or what they called “ads,” in Naveed’s classrooms, explaining hijab obligations. According to Naveed, the signs included statements like “Chastity is the supreme good of all,” “Hijab is a woman’s adornment,” and “Hijab means: I do not need any gazes except the gaze of God.” The local Taliban agreed not to shut down the school so long as Naveed follows all of these rules.
His employees and students still worry that the school will be shut down any time though, and are worried about their safety as the Taliban continues to strengthen their rule across the country. According to one female teacher, “When I travel to teach here, I must cross many Taliban checkpoints. This can be frightening. Some of them enjoy scaring females by throwing around their guns.”
The centre’s teachers come from different districts, and for some, the salaries of 10,000 AFN ($110) per month are their families’ only source of income. However, even covering the cost of teacher salaries is a challenge, as the centre is dependent on donations.
“We can’t stop surviving just because of this government,” another female teacher said. “It’s risky to teach and learn in this country, but we will keep continuing to find a way.”
Similar to those teachers, Sabira, the secret school teacher in Kandahar, is supported by Matiullah Wesa, an education activist and founder of the non-profit Pen Path Civil Society. The 29-year-old has been publicly campaigning and gaining support from families and local tribal leaders to open schools in remote regions since 2016. Sabira’s home school is among 36 secret schools managed by Wesa, supporting over 5,000 girls.
Wesa admits that it is challenging to convince some families to send their daughters to school. Culturally, there has never been a strong push for education among the rural Pashtun, the country’s majority ethnic group. According to Wesa, parents tend to prefer that their children help with the family’s income.
“They’re uneducated themselves. They don’t understand the longer-term benefits of education or how it leads to a professional career,” he told VICE World news.
Public schools in Afghanistan require families to pay for uniforms and supplies, meaning there is an economic incentive, especially for poorer families, to send their children to madrassas, where food and cash assistance are sometimes offered on top of religious instruction.
Taliban officials have been stating publicly that girls’ schools would reopen, but have also admitted that female education is a “sensitive” or “security” issue for them, and they want to ensure a correct “Islamic environment.” Given that schools were already segregated by gender, it is unclear exactly what this means.
Wesa and his teachers focus on subjects that parents can identify with most, particularly Islamic studies and basic Pashto literacy, which are more relevant to everyday life. They then gradually introduce other subjects like math, geography, history, and English. When he faces opposition from conservative families and religious elders, he has this go-to argument: “If there were no educated women to become female doctors, who would give medicine to your wives, or help your wives give birth?”
Many girls have even convinced their mothers to attend school. One 43-year-old mother, Khadija, was persuaded to join the secret school after seeing her daughter read Pashto. “It was always my hope to go to school one day. Despite my old age, I’m so happy now that I can read and write,” she said.
But there are other challenges, specifically with a shortage of female teachers and money for their salaries. Wesa explained that teachers ask for higher wages in remote areas because of the distance they must travel and the fear of security issues with the Taliban, even if they travel with a male guardian. He is able to pay teachers a stipend between 3,000 to 7,000 AFN ($30 to $80) per month depending on how far they need to travel, but salaries are dependent on donations.
Wesa’s non-profit recently launched solar-powered mobile schools hooked up to motorbikes to address these issues. These motorbikes are designed to travel from village to village in isolated areas, to provide online lessons from female teachers located elsewhere in the country, using an internet connection and a projector screen.
“It’s the first Afghan-developed innovation of its kind, and [it’s] focussed on giving children from remote areas every opportunity to access schooling,” he explained.
Years of experience have taught Wesa that community approval goes a long way, even under Taliban rule. Due to the amount of local support he has received, the Taliban authorities tolerate some of his organization’s activities, at least for now.
But his path has not been easy. He and his brother Attaullah have been detained many times for having photos of their activism and education projects on their phones, and his car and house have been vandalized by unknown attackers. He describes being detained three times this past year alone, ranging from three hours to two days.
Nowadays, when he faces problems with local Taliban officials, he contacts influential tribal leaders and religious scholars to speak on his behalf. It usually works, and in all instances, tribal leaders negotiate his release.
Despite the odds against them, activists like Wesa and teachers on the ground have been working in partnership to change the course of education for vulnerable groups: girls above the sixth grade and children of all ages in the most isolated areas of Afghanistan. They have been achieving this with secret home schools.
“This is part of the struggle. If you see Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Bacha Khan, they accepted struggles for their mission,” said Wesa. “My family, volunteers and I will do the same.”
Follow Robyn Huang on Twitter.