The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the Taliban bars some girls from school, their mothers’ dreams are also shattered

Suraya sits at her desk in her home in Kabul. The Taliban has prohibited girls in grades seven to 12 from attending high schools across the country. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

KABUL — Inside her family's spacious third-floor apartment, Suraya has prepared for years to achieve her dream of becoming a NASA astronaut. The 11th-grader is first in her class, has a passion for physics and astronomy, and speaks proficient English.

Inside her cramped, crumbling home, Susan dreams of becoming a doctor. The seventh-grader wants to help support her impoverished family one day.

But last Friday, the path toward both of their dreams was blocked.

They learned they can no longer attend secondary school, like countless other Afghan girls. The Taliban decreed that only boys could return to grades seven to 12 this week. It was another indicator of a bleak new future for women and girls in Afghanistan, where educational and other freedoms they’ve embraced for the past two decades are being systematically dismantled.

“If I cannot continue my studies, I cannot be the person I want to be,” said Suraya, 15, a pained look in her almond-shaped eyes. “It makes me feel hopeless.”

The person who understands her dismay the most is her mother, Frozan.

She, too, was barred by the Taliban from going to school when the group first ruled in the mid-1990s.

As the Taliban imposes education restrictions, it’s not only suffocating this generation of Afghan girls but also triggering deja vu for the previous generation. Many of their mothers were children or teenagers during the Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001 and subjected to harsh Islamic codes that deprived women of virtually every basic right.

"I faced many problems under the Taliban," said Humaira, the mother of Susan. "I wanted my daughters to not become like me."

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After the Taliban was ousted following the 9/11 attacks, many Afghan women took advantage of the new freedoms ushered in by the Western presence and billions in aid, much focusing on enhancing women’s rights and participation in society. They graduated from schools and colleges, becoming doctors, lawyers and journalists. They worked alongside men in government and in businesses. Others received vocational training in empowerment programs set up by the United Nations and other aid organizations.

And the women gave birth to daughters, hoping they would have far more opportunities and achieve even greater heights. They never expected to see their children enter a similar downward spiral as they once did under the Taliban.

“Unfortunately, history is repeating itself,” said Frozan, pursing her lips.

Like others interviewed for this story, she and Humaira spoke on the condition that only their and their daughters’ first names be used to prevent reprisals by the Taliban. 

'The Taliban hasn't changed'

Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesman and acting deputy information minister, said this week that girls in grades seven to 12 would be allowed to return to classes once a system was in place to provide them transportation and other facilities to create a safe environment. Girls and boys in lower classes can currently attend school, with grades three to six segregated.

“The system has changed,” Mujahid told Tolo News, an Afghan media group. “An Islamic government has come. We are working on an approach so that all women and girls can continue their education and employment.”

But he didn’t specify when classes would resume. What also remains unclear is how stringent the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic religious law toward girls’ education will be.

The signs are portentous. The Taliban last week declared that women would be permitted to study in universities but no longer in the same classrooms as males because "coeducation is in opposition to sharia law."

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Men would also not be allowed to teach women or girls in grade three and above. A recent UNESCO report warned that a lack of female teachers, difficulties in paying teachers’ salaries and the pullback of international aid could lead to the exclusion of girls and women from education.

Outside the classrooms, women, except for those working in the public health sector, have been ordered to stay home until security improves. Taliban fighters have beaten women for demonstrating against the acting government, where not a single woman is among its 33 cabinet ministers. Women in Herat report being abused and deprived of basic freedoms by the Taliban, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Thursday.

The militants have also shuttered the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and replaced it with a ministry for “promotion of virtue and prevention of vice” — a throwback to the previous Taliban rule in which a similarly named entity oversaw religious “morality” police who whipped women in the streets if they disobeyed the Taliban’s dictates.

 “The Taliban hasn’t changed,” Frozan said. 

Regime's precedent

Frozan was 12 years old and living in the northern city of Shebergan when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996. The militants swiftly declared that girls above the age of 8 could not receive an education.

Like now, the Taliban initially said the move was temporary. Girls, the mullahs said, would return to classrooms once security improved and facilities were in place for an education according to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic religious laws. Not only did girls not return to school, but women were barred from working, including thousands of female teachers.

Women also were required to wear ankle-to-head coverings known as burqas and were allowed to walk on streets only with a male relative. The religious police enforced their laws with beatings, even public executions for any perceived moral transgressions.

“I cried a lot,” said Frozan, now 37, recalling the moment she was told her school was shuttered. “There wasn’t any hope for our future.”

Her mother, a teacher, refused to accept her daughter’s plight. She taught Frozan and her four sisters at an underground school for girls inside people’s houses, an act punishable by beatings.

A year later, they moved to their home district in Ghazni, where village elders negotiated with local Taliban commanders to permit girls to be educated, Frozan said. The militants agreed with certain conditions: The girls wore burqas, did not mix with boys and learned Islamic subjects, including Arabic, along with their regular courses.

“Our time wasn’t wasted during the Taliban,” said Frozan, soft-spoken and dressed in a black pantsuit and a lime-green headscarf.

Humaira had a vastly different experience. Raised in a conservative rural area, she never received an education. When the Taliban arrived, she was in her mid-20s. One day, a member of the Taliban religious police spotted her in the local market by herself. “He whipped me for coming without a male relative,” recalled Humaira, now 52, who wore traditional clothes and a white headscarf, her face covered with a surgical mask.

Then, her husband was arrested by Taliban fighters for reasons that he doesn’t know to this day. “They beat me nearly to death,” he recalled.

The family fled to neighboring Pakistan, where they remained until the Taliban was ousted from power. When they returned to Kabul, Humaira took part in a U.N. Women project where she trained to become a tailor. Her husband, his arm lame from the beatings by the Taliban, could not work. Humaira became the family’s only provider.

Frozan earned a university degree in literature and languages. She became a women’s rights activist and worked in several human-rights-related positions in the former Afghan government, the United Nations and other agencies. This year, she earned a master’s degree in international law. She’s proud that she’s more successful than her two brothers, she said.

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It was an opportune time for both women and their daughters. According to UNESCO, female literacy almost doubled from 17 percent to 30 percent over the past 20 years, even though millions of girls still struggled to get an education, especially in Taliban-controlled areas. The number of girls in primary school rose from nearly none in 2001 to 2.5 million in 2018, and those in higher education increased from roughly 5,000 to 90,000 over the same period.

“My daughters are the first women in our family to go to school,” said Humaira, glancing with pride at 12-year-old Susan and her 20-year-old sister, Sona, who is applying to universities.

'I cannot dream anymore'

Today, there is uncertainty, fear and plenty of questions.

Suraya has been studying for her Test of English as a Foreign Language exam in the hope of applying to colleges in the United States, Canada and Turkey. But will she able to attend 12th grade and graduate?

“Of course, it’s going to affect my college applications if we cannot continue our studies,” said Suraya, who wore a white shirt, black tights and braces on her teeth.

And if the Taliban allows her to attend classes again, to what extent will they censor the curriculum? Will she able to study the female writers she loves to read or the women’s rights activists she admires? Or Western writers, such as Charles Dickens? A day earlier she finished reading “A Tale of Two Cities,” she said. She’s now engrossed in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” And what about the sciences, essential to become an astronaut?

“Astronavigation is an interesting job,” Suraya said. “It will help human beings learn more about the universe and know more about their existence.”

Her 13-year-old brother listened from the sofa. She is teaching him English and other subjects, but he’s the one allowed to go to school. When he heard that she could no longer attend classes, he got angry, he said. “It’s discrimination.”

Regardless of whether Suraya returns to class, her parents are determined to educate her. Unlike in the 1990s, it’s easier to home-school through online courses. Suraya is already taking courses through the Khan Academy, a free online education company.

“I will never give up on my studies,” Suraya said. “Education is very important to our lives.”

Frozan also has more free time. After the Taliban took control last month, she was told not to return to her government job. It’s unlikely she’ll get her job back: She was a gender and diversity manager, making sure there was an ethnically diverse workplace and more opportunities for women.

Now she’s considering following in her mother’s footsteps. There are five other girls in their building prevented from getting an education. Frozan and her husband are planning to open an underground school in their apartment.

“We can’t trust the current system,” she said. “We will try to continue in the same way my mother did 25 years before.”

Susan lives in a different universe. She has no computer to access online courses nor the money to buy books or take private courses. Her parents can barely afford to pay for the faltering electricity and their rent.

Humaira, too, is a casualty of the Taliban again. She worked for years in a clothing factory providing for her husband and five children. When the Taliban entered Kabul, her employer fired her out of fear.

“He told me, ‘The Taliban won’t allow you to work,’ ” Humaira recalled.

Remembering her past beating, she refuses to leave the house without a burqa to find other work. But their prices have soared to nearly $50, a sum she can’t afford.

She’s worried about her daughters. Sona’s grades were not good enough for a public university, and they can’t afford a private one. She also wanted to become a doctor.

 “Every day they cry because they are at home,” Humaira said.

Both girls now do the cooking, make up the beds and clean the house. Susan also takes care of her two baby nieces.

Sometimes, Susan pulls out her sixth-grade textbooks, the only books she possesses, and rereads them.

“I miss everything about school, my classmates, my lessons, the dreams I had,” she said. “Now, I cannot dream anymore because the Taliban are back.”

Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.