Girls chanting 'Women's Right to Education' in Kabul in September 2022.

Age of Darkness: Women Struggle for Education in Afghanistan

On October 07, 2022, Zahra Nawabzada (pseudonym) left her damp hotel room in the bazaar of Bamyan to participate in the nationwide university entrance exam (Kankor). She was excited as she had worked hard for the past twelve years dealing with hunger, poverty, family, and social pressure – to pursue her dream of studying architecture at the university. But her enthusiasm did not last as she received the exam sheets indicating that women could no longer study architecture (along with several other fields). Under the Taliban administration’s dictates, women are banned from studying applied sciences except for medical sciences.

Weeping and struggling to find words, Zahra says, “I feel like my dream has been shattered, and all my efforts and suffering have been in vain.”

The return of the Taliban to power on August 15, 2021, affected the women in Afghanistan more than any other social group. Women’s suppression started at the beginning of the Taliban’s rise to power and has only intensified with time and the consolidation of control. Women have lost the right to education, the right to work, and the right to practice their civic duties, including participation in the political and leadership arena of the country.

Two girls crying after the Taliban secondary education ban for girls in March 2022

On March 23, 2022, the Taliban banned girls from attending grades above elementary schools. As in Zahra’s case, this decision has upended the educational hopes of thousands of female students. Denying women’s right to education is a regressive step by the Taliban against women and the future of Afghanistan. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), banning female students from pursuing secondary education has cost the Afghan economy at least USD 500 million in the last year alone, excluding future economic losses.

Zahra Sharifi (pseudonym), a former university lecturer in Kabul, believes that the Taliban has limited women’s access to education in two ways. The first approach directly bars and restricts women’s access to educational institutions. The second approach is more indirect and more focused on the social environment where some communities support women’s rights to education.   

According to Ms. Sharifi, even in elementary schools, girls are suppressed and forced to act and wear hijab according to the Taliban interpretation of the Sharia Law. “The Taliban rule by fear and terror. The Taliban armed forces and the Taliban ‘Vice and Virtue’ police harass girls on their way to and from schools. These cases are more prevalent in provinces and remote areas. There have been abductions and forced marriages of teenage girls. Taliban forces and commanders have met these girls on their way to schools and educational centers,” Ms. Sharifi says.

On September 30, 2022, a suicide attack at Kaaj Educational Center in Dasht-e-Barchi, Kabul, killed over 59 and injured 126 more. Most victims were teenage girls who were there to practice for university entrance exams. No armed group has taken responsibility for the attack, but the Taliban has pressured the victims’ families not to speak with the media. 

The Taliban’s war against women’s access to education is not limited to banning secondary education for girls. They have expanded the scope of their restrictions to gradually exclude and discourage women from studying altogether.

Nahid Qambari (pseudonym), another female student who participated in the university entrance exam in Bamyan province, says that female students face many restrictions this year. She says, “This year, we had a severe time limit for administrative processes and during the exam, limiting the scope of higher participation. This year the exam was held over two days. While in previous years, the exam was organized to last three days and was coed — where male and female students took the exam in the same location and day. This year, male students sat for the exams in the morning and female students in the afternoon.”

According to Nahid, much like Zahra, she discovered on the day of the university entrance exam that she could no longer choose the applied sciences. “We could only select Bamyan University, Kabul University, and a few other provincial universities. While there were no such restrictions in the previous years,” she says.

Ruling with Fear and Dread 

A more dangerous move than the immediate ban on women’s access to education is making the social environment insecure for women.

Many believe that the Taliban has created a scary atmosphere where families are afraid to let their daughters go out to study. Because they are worried that if the Taliban arrest them, they may face rape, torture, and even death at their hands. 

There are many such reported incidents. Last year in Balkh province, dozens of women activists disappeared with their corpses found weeks later.  

Nader Aimaq (pseudonym), who works in one of the international organizations supporting education aid in the central provinces of Ghor, Bamyan, and Daikundi, says that the Taliban’s control over Afghanistan has destroyed the dreams of women seeking higher education. He says: “After the Taliban came to power, I saw girls getting married due to fear and despair at the lack of educational opportunities, or were forced to marry by their families.” He says that some of these girls were high school students who had not even reached the legal age to be married.

According to Mr. Aimaq, the women’s situation is dreadful under Taliban rule. The local Taliban commanders act with an open leeway without any supervision by the higher Taliban authorities – and there have been instances of the Taliban commanders forcefully marrying girls without asking for their or their family’s consent. Many families are encouraged to marry their daughters before the Taliban soldiers step in.

Mr. Aimaq says that the Taliban is not the only factor that has led to young girls being forcefully married off at a young age. “The Taliban’s rise to power has led many anti-women groups to become proactive in society and narrow the field of economic and societal opportunities. This is yet another aspect that causes much worry for families who have young daughters.

Zahra Sharifi says that in the last year, most of the young girls she knows have either left Afghanistan or gotten married.  She says, “They fell in despair with the sudden return of the Taliban and considered marriage as the only way to protect themselves and their families.”

She says she spoke to a family who said they married their daughter because they had no other viable option. On the one hand, they face severe poverty and struggle to make a living. On the other hand, the situation has become so tenuous that they can’t even trust their neighbors and relatives, and they are afraid that something terrible may happen to their daughters.

Ms. Sharifi believes that the Taliban’s return to power has made criminals and anti-women groups feel more empowered and protected. She says that if a woman is assaulted, harassed, or even raped, the victims and their families and relatives dare not complain to the Taliban; because the criminals have strong support among the Taliban and are protected by them.

“These are the darkest days of my life; there is no hope left for women,” she says. Women cannot fight the Taliban and society at the same time. If this situation continues, women will be practically removed from all social spheres and forced to remain in their homes. “I don’t have any faith in the international community. They would not have abandoned us to the Taliban if they supported women.”