Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls are banned from going to school. The Taliban’s abrupt takeover of the country in August 2021 created immense panic across the country. For girls and women, whose freedoms were regained through effortless struggle during two decades of the Taliban’s absence, panic skyrocketed.
In spite of this returning climate of fear, people like Hossein and his wife in Kabul, continue to challenge the Taliban’s brutal repression of women’s rights.
Flashbacks to the last period of Taliban rule are haunting, a period in which women were made invisible in Afghan society through a long list of restrictions enforced through barbaric punishments. During the last dark Taliban period, women were not permitted to be present in public spaces without a mahram or a burqa. Women’s voices were silenced in public, and every remnant of their existence was erased from the urban fabric of the city.
In the Taliban’s gender apartheid from 1996 to 2001, women were prohibited from working and girls above the age of 8 were barred from education. Only one month after their return to power and the Taliban’s inaugural vow to respect women’s rights, the right to education for girls and women was, yet again, stripped away.
Despite the Taliban’s claims of a temporary interruption in girls’ education until “new Sharia based curriculums” are prepared, thus far, the terrorist group has demonstrated nothing more than a reenactment of the past’s broken promises.
Worry for an uncertain future
A week after the Taliban’s domination of Afghanistan, Hossein wrote to a few Iranian friends asking for advice on what to do. At the time, Hossein was a professor at a private university in Kabul, and like many others, began looking for ways to help alleviate the wave of angst that came crashing down with the Taliban’s comeback.
After discussing the situation, he decided to start providing psychological counselling and coaching and began with an evaluation of his female students, asking them questions like, “Where were you on the day of the collapse of the old government and what memories do you have?” After speaking to about 100 students, it quickly became clear that everyone was worried about the uncertain future ahead of them.
Together with a group of Iranian consultants and coaches, Hossein spent the first months post Taliban invasion providing psychological support and counselling to female students struggling with suicide, family violence and rape. Unfortunately, his work came to an end after a defeat by the country’s economic challenges, slow internet and cultural connotations associated with such work.
The start of the secret school
It began in two rooms, originally guesthouses, provided to Hossein by families who begged him, “Come and teach these girls. They have become depressed.” At the time, private education was open, but many girls in this neighborhood could not attend due to poverty.
That’s when Hossein, together with his wife, started a school for girls living on the margins of Kabul with all but 40 American dollars and a donation of 200 Canadian dollars.
“With this money, I bought a rug, a whiteboard and some markers. One of our university colleagues brought us winter fuel and a heater. We enrolled about 100 girls from grade 6 and up. We wanted to start at the beginning of winter. Unfortunately, the Taliban banned education for girls.”
Despite the Taliban’s newly imposed ban and risk of punishment, Hossein and his wife continued with their plans, guided by the poignant plead of the girls, “Don’t turn our hope into disappointment.”
In the recent months, the Taliban has been buckling down on education activists throughout the country. Just last week, on March 27th, Matiullah Wesa, a prominent Afghan education activist and founder of Pen Path, was arrested at gunpoint outside a mosque in Kabul. No further information about his condition and whereabouts has been provided, despite the United Nations call for his release.
For Hossein and his wife, who have now been teaching school girls for 6 months, a lot is at stake in an Afghanistan under the shadow of the Taliban. But like Matiullah Wesa, Hossein and his wife have locked education on the horizon.
“I have a long-term plan which I myself believe in reaching, but others might laugh at. I want to buy land and build a building in the same place where I am currently teaching, a training centre for all of them to work on language training, life skills, and careers.”
The Taliban’s hand in power is not Hossein’s biggest concern. With the country’s deteriorating economic situation and difficulties in obtaining and securing financial support, continuing the program means being able to pay the expenses involved.
“For the new year, the minimum cost I need is two hundred US dollars per month. This is the estimated amount if my wife and I do not use a single dollar. We pay all our expenses ourselves.”
“The distance between the place we live and the place we teach is one hour by car. This is because we take a car for half an hour and walk the other half so that we spend less, even in the cold winter.”
Hossein plans to receive hundreds of more students in the language program, literacy classes, and children’s literature programs, and to continue providing online classes on life lessons as well as psychological counselling and psychotherapy. In addition to these classes, he organizes professional sewing classes for women, as an initiative to help facilitate safe sources of income.
With 200 dollars per month, donated by a few supporters, Hossein supplies the girls with internet and pays the salary of the sewing teacher. In addition, he works together with a voluntary network of coaches, psychologists and trained teachers online.
Mindset for a better future
In addition to a curriculum focused on literacy and language, Hossein prioritizes psychological counselling and coaching and also integrates lessons on mindset and individual development of knowledge.
The majority of the girls attending the school face complex psychological challenges as a result of their life experience as girls in Afghanistan and other tragic events such as the May 2021 school bombing at Sayed al-Shuhada in Kabul.
Hossein finds mindset pivotal in moving forward, “I believe that individual changes precede social changes. I mean individual changes, changes in beliefs, feelings and desires.”
Comparing his experiences teaching in east Kabul vs west Kabul, he explains how differing mindsets impact the way people think about girls and women. Communication between a male teacher like Hossein and female students is normalized in the west of Kabul, but on the contrary, frowned upon in the east of Kabul.
“In the west of Kabul, people know their daughters as they know their sons. They say that when boys go to school, our girls should go too.”
He recalls a seminar held for private university professors in early 2022 where a group of malawis, sheikhs and elders discussed the difference between ‘worldly knowledge’, which they equated with ‘Western knowledge’ such as law, journalism and economics versus ‘religious knowledge’ covering medicine, hadiths and teaching training. In this meeting, the speakers present, which included a number of Taliban members, expressed that women should not learn worldly knowledge.
When asked why educated girls pose such a threat to the Taliban, Hossein explained that, in the Taliban’s eyes, women are a source of evil perceived as men’s property.
Prohibiting girls and women from basic human rights like the right to an education inflicts certain damages to the mindset of girls and women, something that Hossein aims to restore and prevent.
Through the films and books he shares with his students, he encourages girls to think clearly and critically about the world they are living in. In many ways, he sees himself in his students, as he recounts his childhood experiences of poverty and struggle in a deprived Afghan province. He thanks his mindset for coming this far.
“I read psychology studies, art of living books, philosophy and novels, but of course very little. I have attended many workshops online. I’m into film. But the books that were very inspiring to me were Viktor Frankl’s, “Man in Search of Meaning”, Eckhart Tolle’s “Power of the Present”, Václav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless”, Mohammad Bahmanbeigi’s “Bokharay-e man, Ile man” Mostafa Malekian’s works.”
When speaking about his motivation for doing this precarious work, his first response is “to reduce human suffering” and his second response is “writing.”
“I want to record what is happening to us and show what the world has done to us, how they delivered us to terrorists, what kind of psychological, economic and cultural effects the Taliban terrorists have had on the people. I want to write and leave a document in memory so that in the future, the Taliban cannot say everything was good and peaceful.”
Hossein runs the secret school for girls together with wife, a hairdresser before the Taliban takeover, and the main supporter of his dream. Many of his friends and family oppose his work, which they regard as “acting against the wishes of the Taliban.”
Giving girls a chance at an education is at the top of Hossein and his wife’s priorities, “This gives our lives meaning and brings love into our lives.”