Education: Ripped from the Hands of Afghan Women

A young Afghan girl messing with her scarf. Photo by Adam Rountree.

By Gabby Alfveby

It’s been more than a year since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan after the U.S. pulled the rest of its troops out, leaving many of the Afghan people and the country devastated by harsh conditions, war, and an authoritarian regime. But Afghan-Americans, Madiha Zahir and her mother Sheema Zahir, say Afghanistan and its people face too many false and negative stereotypes, and that women’s rights are under attack. In this series of stories, the Zahirs offer insights to help others understand their country, culture and the challenges everyday Afghans still face. 

Women’s rights are at risk all around the world: In the U.S. with abortion, Iran with hijabs and Turkey with femicide. 

Afghanistan is facing its own women’s rights issues. The Taliban had promised when they took over Afghanistan again, beginning in May 2021, that women would be able to keep their rights according to UN Women. 

The Taliban lied, and regularly exclude women from public life, human rights activists say. Women can’t work, are forced to cover their faces in public, are required to be accompanied by a male figure when traveling distances and can’t continue a secondary or higher-level education.

Madiha Zahir, an Afghan American in Florida said the lack of access to education is the most alarming problem for women in Afghanistan right now.

“The biggest issue right now is the education, the women’s education issues,” Zahir said. “That’s a huge issue right now because if you’re not educating half the population what the heck is going to happen with the future?” 

Afghan women are finding ways to continue their education despite the Taliban restrictions.

Some women take classes online. Others run school right out of their homes.

Although educating female students is a risk, Afghans are trying to prevent a future society of uneducated women.

Women can face consequences as serious as execution if caught educating or receiving education. According to the Nov. 2021 Human Rights Watch report the Taliban don’t have a fair trial system and usually punish people with torture or the loss of their lives.

“Increasing evidence suggests that summary executions and disappearances, among other abuses, are being carried out by senior Taliban leadership at the district or provincial level,”

“Increasing evidence suggests that summary executions and disappearances, among other abuses, are being carried out by senior Taliban leadership at the district or provincial level.”

Women have been fighting for their rights to be educated for decades

In 2011, the Taliban executed the headmaster at an Afghan girls’ school near the capital, Kabul, according to Reuters

He was killed after ignoring death threats to stop teaching girls. 

The Taliban government banned education for women from 1996 to 2001 so it isn’t uncommon for the Taliban to be ban higher education for female students. 

Today the Taliban still prohibit education even though when they began their takeover in 2021, they promised women would be able to keep many of the rights they have, including their right to education.

Afghanistan needs women to be educated in order to fill teaching and nursing jobs, Zahir said.

“People are trying to find resources or loopholes or something to still manage to educate girls, because there is no other choice,” she said.

Before the Taliban seized power, education was already at stake with more than four million children not being educated. Sixty percent of these children were girls, according to UNICEF.

UNICEF found in an August 2022 analysis that keeping girls out of high school costs Afghanistan 2.5% of its annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Children sit at home and watch their younger siblings attend school while all they are left to do is to dream about what it would be like to go to high school.

The United States Institute of Peace found that in mid-September 2021, boys were allowed to return to schools while girls were pushed to the side.

In Sept. 2021, Deputy Education Minister Abdul Hakim Hemat of Afghanistan told the BBC that girls wouldn’t be allowed to continue secondary school education until a new education policy was approved.

Hemat was appointed as minister of education in September and argued that education isn’t necessarily important, according to the United States Institute of Peace.

“No Ph.D. or master’s degree is valuable today. You see that the Mullahs and Taliban that are in power have no Ph.D., masters or even a high school degree, but they are the greatest of all,” Hemat said.

Sheema Zahir, Madiha’s mother, attended school in Afghanistan as a young girl and eventually became a lawyer.

“This is their right to go to school,” Zahir’s mother said. “Also, I’m thinking about if their wives get sick, if there is no doctor, woman doctor, female doctor, who will the Taliban take their wives to? Then the woman will die in their house because there’s no doctors and the Taliban doesn’t allow the girls to go to school or universities. I don’t know what will happen. This is a very major problem right now.”

Where education can mean losing your life

On Sept. 30, 2022, suicide bombers have been ordered to kill girls being educated at Kaaj Higher Educational Center in Kabul. PBS News reported that 19 people were killed and 27 were injured during this execution. 

These students were just trying to continue their right to education to help them succeed in the future.

“The people went to the classes at a college,” Zahir’s mother said. “A suicide bomber went and then killed 19 girls. This is a major problem right now in Afghanistan because I don’t know why they’re not thinking, half of the country are woman.”

Zahir’s mother said people are leaving the country in order to continue their right to education.

“They need woman to work, nurses, teachers,” Zahir’s mother said. “This makes us very upset and that’s why the people are leaving the country to go to another country to study, continue their education.”

Zahir is thankful that she was able to get a great education in the United States and attend law school but is still concerned about what is occurring in her families native country and what the future holds for young Afghans.

Afghanistan’s economic and political future is at risk if they continue to take higher education away from girls.

“If you’re thinking to build a future for this country off of your own backs. I mean that’s not going to work because you have no education to show for the future. What are you going to do? What are you going to do with no knowledge and the girls are half the population. So, you’re going to need to allow them to do that,” Zahir said. “I think it’s a human right they’re violating. It’s a constant thing, it’s a constant battle. So, access to education is one of the biggest issues.”

Read more from the series on Afghanistan:

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