On March 23, Afghan secondary school girls arrived in classrooms for the first time in eight months, loaded with books, supplies and hope for the new school year. Just hours into the morning, they were sent home after the Taliban abruptly backtracked on their promise to reopen schools for girls beyond sixth grade.
The move sparked outrage from governments and organizations, including the cancellation of planned talks between the United States and the Taliban over the country’s collapsing economy, which fueled high food prices and triggered a humanitarian crisis. According to the UN, 95% of Afghans do not receive enough food, with this figure rising to nearly 100% in female-headed households.
“Their decision was a deeply disappointing and inexplicable reversal of commitments to the Afghan people, first and foremost, and also to the international community,” a US State Department spokesman told Reuters, adding that the US government had “clarified” that it saw the decision as a “potential turning point” in its political commitment.
According to Afghanistan’s official news agency, the country’s education ministry spokesperson cited the need for an education plan ‘in accordance with Islamic law and Afghan culture and traditions’ as a driving force. of the decision to send the students home, but gave no date for when such a plan could be put in place.
Since the fall of Kabul last August, the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan has become dire, with new limits placed on travel outside the home, work opportunities and, above all, education.
Initially, all schools from primary to middle school level were closed. In the fall of 2021, boys in kindergarten through grade 12 and girls through grade six were allowed to return to school. Tertiary education eventually opened up, though it was plagued by teacher shortages, gender segregation, and strict guidelines regarding women’s dress code. In addition, many teachers in Afghanistan received only intermittent salaries, or none at all.
While boys and girls in primary school can continue their lessons, the Taliban’s recent U-turn has left Afghan girls above sixth grade in education limbo with little certainty about their future . But many Afghans refused to take the restrictions while sitting down.
Razia Jan is one of the activists who continue to advocate for girls’ education, even in the midst of such challenges.
Razia Jan, who founded the nonprofit Razia’s Ray of Hope in 2007, continues to advocate for girls’ education in Afghanistan.(Courtesy of Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation)
Originally from Afghanistan, Jan immigrated to the United States in 1970 to take postgraduate courses at Radcliffe College, an all-women’s institution now part of Harvard, before starting a tailoring business outside the city. city. In 2007, she founded the nonprofit Razia’s Ray of Hope to create safe, nurturing and inspiring educational environments for Afghan women and girls, promoting “degrees not dowry”.
A year later, the businesswoman-turned-humanitarian established the Zabuli Education Center, a school for girls from kindergarten to grade 12 in Deh’Subz, a district 48 km northeast of Kabul. It has further broadened its scope to vocational training and financial support for widows, whose rights are limited in Afghan society.
In March, the United Nations World Food Program in the United States announced that the foundation was one of three recipients of the Catherine Bertini Trust Fund for Girls’ Education. Razia’s Ray of Hope will use the funds to launch a teacher certification program to address women’s limited access to post-secondary education and recent requirements that girls only have female teachers.
US News spoke to Jan twice during her time in Afghanistan about her organization, the upcoming teacher certification program, and the future of education for women and girls under the Taliban regime. The first time was in mid-March, while the second conversation took place later in the month after the Taliban changed its mind about sending girls to school. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Due to the pandemic, schools were closed even before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Between COVID-19 and the Taliban closing schools, Afghan girls have experienced gaps in their education. What efforts has your organization made to address them?
When the Taliban said last August that girls couldn’t come to school, my oldest daughters in seventh through 12th grade, they came – but just to the library to pick up books, check in with old teachers and socialize a bit. They would go home, read them and come back. (Following the recent announcement of school closures), I told them to continue.
This recent decision to keep girls above grade six out of school must have a huge impact on students.
Yes, it affects children. It’s so sad. These girls are really frustrated and sad because they missed so many months of school. It really affects their (mental) health. I try to keep their hopes up. There’s no reason for them not to be in school.
Do you think the Taliban will stick to their decision?
We just have to wait and see what happens. (Taliban) can’t really stop girls (from their education), because no (country) will recognize them if they do. Everyone is pressuring them to open the schools saying, “We will work with you, or we will help you if you continue to educate girls”.
Can you tell us about your school’s teacher certification program?
After high school, girls are not allowed to leave the village. They are a tribal society and can (only) leave if they get married. So we bring them education – higher education. What I plan to do this year is teach English Literature, Computer Science and also Religion – and whatever else we think is necessary (to) open doors for them.
My organization is dedicated to making a difference in the lives of these girls and in the lives of our teachers as well, because all of my teachers are women. We’re really the only organization that’s paid them all that time, every month.
Has the Taliban’s reversal of girls’ education affected your grant or your plans for the curriculum?
I do not think so. We chose about twenty students. Hopefully next week (we) will start the program.
Photos: Afghanistan in crisis
Since the fall of Kabul, many Afghans have moved to surrounding villages and towns. How has this affected the educational landscape in places like Deh’Subz and your school, in particular?
We get so many people who have been displaced from different places – older and younger girls. Before, we had 60 girls in kindergarten, and this year we have 130. (So we are creating) four kindergarten classes instead of two classes of 30 girls. We have a plan and are working to accommodate as many children as possible and give them the best possible education.
In our last conversation, you expressed real confidence in the future of girls’ education despite setbacks. Do you still feel like this, even after the reversal?
I think so. It is difficult. I am in a very good position, but there are other people who are not. It’s really a struggle for girls to go to school – a lot of effort. They want to continue their studies, and when they are stopped, it gives them a terrible feeling. They don’t know what will happen and whether they will be allowed or not. Kids, you know, they can’t think that far ahead. They just see what is happening today, and it worries them.
Is it possible that people outside of Afghanistan can help?
We need so much. The economy is so dire. My daughters say there are times when they have nothing to eat and go to sleep hungry. Or in the morning they cannot have breakfast; they can’t afford it. So I think nutrition is so important. Giving them some kind of funding to have food at home makes a difference. When you are hungry, you think of nothing in the world but food. Life changes enormously. So I think donations would be great for them to have food or money at home to buy something, even shampoo or a new scarf. It changes so much.
Jan suggests that those interested in alleviating the hunger crisis donate to the Emergency Hunger Relief Program run by his organization, which provides food for the 100,000 people living in the Deh’Subz area.