Inside a secret school for teenage girls in Afghanistan

Masouda is shown teaching young women at an underground school in Kabul on October 8.  For the safety of the teacher and students, The Washington Post uses only their first names.  (Photo by Sandra Calligaro for The Washington Post)
Masouda is shown teaching young women at an underground school in Kabul on October 8. For the safety of the teacher and students, The Washington Post uses only their first names. (Sandra Calligaro for the Washington Post)


KABUL — On a quiet residential street, teenage girls with schoolbags quickly entered through a large green door. They were dressed in traditional clothing, their faces covered, and many held copies of the Koran, Islam’s holy book. It was for their own protection.

The house is a secret school for Afghan girls who are prevented by the Taliban from getting an education. If agents raid the house, the girls will pull out their Korans and pretend they are in a madrassa, or Islamic school, which the country’s new rulers still allow girls to attend.

“The Taliban are floating around in this area,” said Marina, 16, a 10th grader. “So I always carry a Quran out in the open. My other books are hidden in my bag.

More than a year after taking power in Afghanistan, the Taliban still refuses to allow girls to attend secondary school, grades 7 to 12. The ban, along with other hard line edicts restricting women’s lives, sparked global outrage and widespread protests by Afghan women.

But a more subtle form of defiance also occurs. Clandestine schools for girls have sprung up in the capital and other Afghan towns, hidden in houses and apartments, despite the immense threat to students and teachers. For the girls and their families, it is worth the risk.

“It doesn’t matter if the Taliban find out about this school,” said Angila, also 16 and in 10th grade. “Education is my fundamental right. No one can take it away. »

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Washington Post reporters made several visits last month to a secret school in Kabul where 25 girls learned various subjects for about two hours a day. Classes were kept short to reduce the chances of being discovered by the Taliban. The girls and their teacher spoke on the condition that they be identified only by first name, fearing reprisals from the authorities.

The Taliban have repeatedly said secondary schools for girls will reopen when there is a proper “Islamic environment”. But the group did not provide any criteria for what constitutes such an environment.

When the Taliban first took power in 1996, they closed schools for all girls — then also, clandestine schools were formed to fill the void – banned women from working and forced them to wear head-to-toe coverings called burqas whenever they ventured outside the home.

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The group has been less drastic this time around, and the issue of education has revealed divisions between Taliban leaders and religious scholars. In some areas, local Taliban officials have allowed girls past sixth grade to attend school, bowing to pressure from community leaders.

Last month, the Taliban’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, issued a rare public call for the reopening of all secondary schools for girls, adding that “the delay is widening the gap between [the government] and the nation.

“Education is compulsory for both men and women, without any discrimination,” Stanikzai said in a televised speech. “No one can offer a justification based on Shariah [Islamic law] to oppose it.

But the hardline conservative leaders who form the backbone of the movement remain opposed. And the Taliban have issued other restrictions, including requiring women to wear a face veil. Last month, a conservative cleric loyal to hardliners was named education minister.

Western governments have made it clear that improving women’s rights is essential for the Taliban to gain access to $7 billion in foreign exchange reserves frozen by the international community.

Abdulhaq Hammad, a senior Taliban official with the Ministry of Information and Culture, insisted that “ninety percent of Taliban members are against closing schools”. But convincing the remaining 10% is a delicate process.

“The Taliban do not want to create any fragmentation between them; they don’t want to be broken inside,” Hammad said. “There are struggles with the 10%. But their unity is the secret of their success against the American invasion. If it is broken, it will be very difficult to repair.

Five months ago, a woman named Ayesha launched a collective of 45 clandestine schools in the capital. She was partly motivated by her bad marriage, she said: “Women shouldn’t be dependent on men. Education is the only way out of our difficulties.

But within a month, his funds dwindled. Many schools have closed. Others were closed out of fear. Only 10 are active today, and Ayesha struggles to find donors to support them. The girls in his schools come from the poorest families; with the collapse of the Afghan economy, most cannot afford school fees or even buy textbooks.

Worse, she fears that the Taliban will come looking for her. The group’s intelligence agency summoned her three times, she said, forcing her into hiding.

“I don’t want to close these schools,” she said, looking determined. “They will continue.”

Recently, Ayesha took two Post reporters to one of her underground schools in Kabul.

Past the green gate was a compound with potted plants and flowers. There were rows of slippers at the entrance to the classroom, which was about the size of a one-car garage. Inside, the girls were seated on the pink carpet in front of a small whiteboard. Next to them stood their teacher, Masouda. At 22, she was not much older than some of her students.

The ivory-colored ruffled curtains were drawn closed.

The students looked nervously at the Post reporters.

“Girls, you shouldn’t be scared,” Ayesha assured them. “It’s your right, and no one can take it away from you.”

The girls recited a few verses from the Koran. Then the class started.

“Today’s lesson is on pages 37, 38 and 39,” Masouda said, opening a biology textbook. “It’s about the types of plants and vegetables.”

She looked around her. Only a few girls had the manual.

“If anyone doesn’t have a book, please take notes,” Masouda said, writing on the whiteboard.

“Who would want to come up and explain that?”

Angila raised her hand. She stood up and recited the lesson in a clear, authoritative voice.

Biology was her favorite subject, she explained after class was over.

“I want to be a doctor,” said Angila, who wore a head-to-toe black dress and a lime-green scarf. “It’s my dream. From childhood, I wanted to become a doctor.

She was on the right path, being part of a generation of girls and women who began attending school during the American occupation. When the Taliban took over and ordered teenage girls to stay home, Angila was devastated.

“I watched the boys go to school, but I couldn’t,” she recalls. “My heart was broken.”

More than 45% of Afghan girls are out of school, compared to 20% of boys, according a recent Save The Children report. The report also states that 26% of girls show signs of depression, compared to 16% of boys.

Masouda understands the psychological toll. After graduating from high school, she studied at a junior college. She was preparing for university entrance exams when the Taliban took over Kabul.

As the economy collapsed, her father and older brother lost their jobs. They agreed to host the school inside their home to earn money, and Masouda volunteered to teach.

“The school closures have had a big impact on me, as well as on other students,” Masouda said. “It created mental problems for some students. To bring a sense of humanity, we share our knowledge.

As she left the class, Ayesha reminded the girls to wear their hijab, or headscarf, so the Taliban “don’t make the hijab an excuse to arrest you. If someone stops you, tell them you are going to take a Quran class,” she told them.

Masouda’s younger brother has clear instructions not to open the green door if someone knocks unless he recognizes the person on the other side.

“The Taliban are a bit far from here, but they have spies,” Masouda said.

Three months ago, she stopped classes for 25 days after the Taliban arrested a teacher working at another underground school. If Taliban agents enter Masouda’s school, the girls know to open the cupboard and grab the Korans.

Then Masouda will ask Marina, who has memorized the Quran, to come forward.

“If they come, she will take charge of the class and I will pretend to be a student,” Masouda said.

Marina, dressed in a traditional purple dress and black headscarf, said she attended the class “to gain courage”.

She wants to become a pilot for Kam Air, an Afghan airline, because “there are very few women in the aviation sector”.

She raised her hand impatiently and answered a geography question, about the longest river in the country.

The next day, class started with chemistry and quickly moved on to history. Most of the girls knew the history of their country, especially how women were treated.

Their mothers grew up under the first Taliban government and never went to school.

“My mother doesn’t want me to be illiterate, like her,” said Manizha, 18, a high school student who dreams of being a television journalist.

The last subject of the day was English. And it gave Masouda a chance to learn from his students. She asked Marwa to come to the front of the class.

“I like the color red. What color do you like?” asked Marwa, 17, who says she wants to become a heart surgeon.

“Green,” Masouda said.

“What do you want to become in the future? asked Marwa.

“A teacher,” Masouda said.

A few minutes later, class was over. The girls quickly exited through the green door.

Masouda erased the evidence from the whiteboard.


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