High school girls are sitting at home almost everywhere in Afghanistan, forbidden to attend class by the Taliban rulers. But there’s one major exception.
For weeks, girls in the western province of Herat have been back in high school classrooms — the fruit of a unique, concerted effort by teachers and parents to persuade local Taliban administrators to allow them to reopen.
Taliban officials never formally approved the reopening after the lobbying campaign, but they also didn’t prevent it either when teachers and parents started classes on their own in early October.
“Parents, students and teachers joined hand in hand to do this,” said Mohammed Saber Meshaal, the head of the Herat teachers’ union who helped organize the campaign. “This is the only place where community activists and teachers took the risk of staying and talking to the Taliban.”
The success in Herat highlights a significant difference in the Taliban’s current rule over Afghanistan from their previous one in the late 1990s. Back then, the militants were uncompromising in their hard-line ideology, banning women from public life and work and barring all girls from education. They used force and brutal punishments to enforce the rules.
This time, they appear to recognize they cannot be as ruthless in an Afghanistan that has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. They have imposed some old rules but have been ambiguous about what is allowed and what is not. The ambiguity might aim to avoid alienating the public as the Taliban wrestle with a near-total economic collapse, a shutdown in international funding, an alarming rise in hunger and a dangerous insurgency by Islamic State group militants.
That has left small margins where Afghans can try to push back.
When the Taliban seized power in August, most schools were closed because of COVID-19. Under heavy international pressure, the Taliban soon reopened schools for girls in grades 1-6, along with boys’ schools at all levels.
But they have not allowed girls in grades 7-12 to return, saying they must first ensure classes are held in an “Islamic manner.” The Taliban also barred most women from government jobs, their largest place of employment.
In Herat province, however, teachers quickly began to organize.
“When the Taliban came, we were very worried, because of everything before,” said Basira Basiratkhah, principal of the Tajrobawai Girls School in Herat, the provincial capital.
Teachers union officials met with the Taliban governor and head of the education department. They didn’t raise the issue of girls’ schools at first, focusing on building a relationship until “the Taliban came to see that we represent the community,” Meshaal said.
When teachers did ask for a reopening, Taliban officials balked, saying they could not allow it without an order from the government in Kabul.
The teachers kept pressing. About 40 female principals, including Basiratkhah, met with senior Taliban education officials in September to address their main concerns.
“We assured them that the classes are segregated, with only women teachers, and the girls wear proper hijab,” Basiratkhah said. “We don’t need to change anything. We are Muslims and we already observe everything Islam requires.”
By October, the teachers felt they had the Taliban’s tacit agreement not to stand in the way. Teachers began spreading the word on Facebook pages and messaging app channels that girls’ high schools would reopen Oct. 3. Parents created a telephone chain to pass along the news, and students told classmates.