Every morning, in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Kabul, Afghanistan, girls secretly gather in a house to study, something that millions of girls around the world do freely.
As the global community marks International Day of Education on Tuesday, Afghanistan is the only country where girls are forbidden to attend school. Calling the restriction on learning and teaching as an attack on human dignity, UNESCO has dedicated this year's observation to Afghan girls and women.
Shortly after regaining power in August 2021, the Taliban closed most of the country’s secondary schools for girls, barring millions from getting an education after sixth grade. Nearly 500 days later, the ban persists, despite international calls for reversal.
While most public and private schools for girls in Afghanistan remain empty, underground schools are spreading.
Ray of light
The secret school in Kabul is part of a network of eight across five cities. The school is supported by SRAK, an Afghan organization that, according to its website, works in areas highly affected by the school ban. Srak means "the first ray of morning light” in Pashto.
Parasto, who requested to use only her first name for security reasons, is among its founders.
She told VOA that soon after the Taliban took control of the country, she received calls from teachers asking for help in setting up underground schools. She had experience in the education sector in President Ashraf Ghani’s government and sprang into action.
Setting up the schools is not difficult, she said, as “women and the children themselves are coming to us and asking for help.”
Working her contacts, Parasto helped turn basements, living rooms and bedrooms into schools for teachers and students willing to risk everything for an education.
Rahila, a former math teacher who also requested to use only her first name for security reasons, is a volunteer at the school.
She said she went into a deep depression when the Taliban closed the girls’ schools, but then her neighbors started asking for help with math.
“I realized that the students and I are necessary for each other,” she said. “We both gave hope to each other.”
Soon, she was running out of space in her house because of the growing number of students.
That’s when she met Parasto, who helped her rent a large room in a Kabul house where Rahila and two other educators teach math, English, sciences and other subjects to nearly 100 girls for three hours a day.
Eighteen-year-old Kamila is one of Rahila’s students. She likes chemistry and English and dreams of becoming a defense attorney. Without the ban, she would be finishing high school soon. But now, she is rereading material from previous grades to avoid a break in learning.
“I am studying so that my future is bright and orderly. And [I will] not be illiterate like my mother,” she said.
Nearly 250 women who were affected by the Taliban’s ban on education in the 1990s are also learning to read and write in these underground schools.
Education is free in the underground schools, as most families cannot afford tuition. SRAK members and supporters pay for rent and supplies, such as notebooks and pens.
Afghanistan’s de facto Taliban rulers claim the educational material and environment are not in line with the country’s cultural values and Islamic laws. The regime has consistently ignored international calls to resume educating girls.
In December 2022, the Taliban extended their gender-based education ban to women in universities.
Rejecting the international pressure, Neda Mohammad Nadim, the Taliban’s minister of higher education, told a local gathering that religious laws will be implemented “even if they sanction us, use an atomic bomb on us or even if they come back for another war.”
In the 17 months since taking control, the regime has failed to gain global recognition, largely due to the educational restrictions on girls and women.
Defiance and despair
Despite the possibility of arrest and death, Rahila said the teachers and students attend the underground schools because “the biggest fear for us was the death of our soul and emotions.”
Owners of homes where the schools operate know to brush off curious Taliban guards who often question them about activities on their property.
To avoid attention, the girls are told to come and leave in pairs and not bring books.
“We leave our books at home and our booklets in the classroom. If we have homework, we write it on a piece of paper and put it in our pocket with our pen,” Kamila said.
As the network of underground schools expands, it is unclear how girls like Kamila will acquire a high school diploma, or how long they will be able to continue studying.
There was a time in Afghanistan when girls dreamed of becoming doctors, scientists or engineers, but now just getting a high school diploma is a struggle, SRAK’s Parasto said. “Look at the dreams that we have killed inside our hearts, inside our minds.”