Afghanistan’s teenage girls and the online teacher determined to help them
In Afghanistan, girls’ secondary schools have been closed for 300 days and counting, but the country’s teenage girls - assisted by an international army of volunteers led by Angela Ghayour - are finding other ways to learn.
*Afghan Witness has changed the names of the girls interviewed for this report.
The night before girls’ secondary schools were set to re-open in Afghanistan, Parwana*, a 10th grade student from Herat, set her alarm clock and tried to sleep.
“I couldn't sleep well due to the excitement,” she says, adding that she woke up several times during the night, thinking she’d overslept.
“We were all very happy,” Parwana replies when asked about that morning. “Then one of our teachers entered the class and she seemed upset.”
The teacher told Parwana and her classmates that from now on, they would have to come to school wearing “proper hijab” - something the pupils were surprised at, Parwana explains, as they had always observed Islamic hijab.
That day, March 23, the Taliban backtracked on their decision to reopen schools for girls above grade six, which have been closed since their return last August. The next morning, Parwana and her friends went to their school anyway, only to find the gates firmly locked.
“It was the most bitter experience of my life when I was turned away from the gates of my school,” Parwana says. “I could not eat or sleep properly the following weeks. I cried and shed tears watching the girls crying on national TV - and the journalists that cried for us.”
A Taliban notice announced girls’ secondary schools would reopen after a decision over the uniform of female students was made in accordance with "Sharia law and Afghan tradition".
But after 300 days and counting of girls’ secondary schools being closed, a decision has yet to be made.
“The Taliban’s ban on our education has no logic,” says Rafat*, an 11th grade student also from Herat. “The pretext they hold onto around adhering to hijab is baseless. Afghanistan has [always] been an Islamic country and despite having different personalities and choices, we have always observed hijab.”
Neda*, a first year university student, graduated from high school only one month before the Taliban takeover. While she narrowly escaped the closure of girls’ secondary schools, she says many members of her family and friends have been affected.
“I think the Taliban's decision has become a good excuse for conservative families who never like the idea of sending their daughters to schools - I think they were looking for an excuse,” she says. “Bright and open-minded families on the other hand, send their daughters to private schools, other educational courses or centres, and many are studying at home.”
Organisations such as Pen Path have campaigned continually for girls’ secondary schools to reopen, and claim to have enabled 5,300 girls to access online and secret schools. As well as house-to-house campaigns, they have also held frequent online protests - a work-around the Taliban's restrictions on protests.
Rafat tells Afghan Witness (AW) that the closure of the schools has impacted girls differently, having a disproportionate impact on those from poorer backgrounds.
“I personally attend English language courses - but not everybody has had this privilege,” she explains. “Afghanistan’s economy has collapsed and many families are struggling to make the ends meet.”
An outlet for online learning
Angela Ghayour knows how it feels to be unable to go to school. Born in Herat, she and her family left for Iran in the early 1990s, when she was around eight years old. For the following five years, Angela was ineligible to attend school in Iran due to the family's temporary visa status.
Angela says that as a young girl in Iran, she experienced what it was like to not have the right to education. She adds that putting conditions on education places stress on children due to “the constant possibility of losing your right”, and that “no child should experience tensions of this type.”
After returning to Herat some years later, Angela studied Persian Literature and became a teacher. She moved to the Netherlands, where she taught refugees and migrants, and later to the UK, where she has been teaching Persian online. But when the Taliban took over, she realised her skills as a teacher could be used to help girls back home in Afghanistan. Angela established Herat Online School, and had over 800 people express interest in volunteering.
According to Angela, Herat Online School runs 300 classes and has more than 3,000 students. Students are mainly in different provinces of Afghanistan, but around a quarter attend online classes from Iran or refugee camps in other countries. The teachers - a mixture of Persian and English speakers - are based in Iran and Afghanistan, as well as countries such as Canada and Brazil, and are matched with students based on their time zones. Angela says nearly 100 subjects are taught at the school, including arts, humanities, literacy, knitting and tailoring, as well as 17 languages.
Students do not have to pay for classes, and Angela says the school has no source of financial assistance or funding, relying entirely on volunteers. While Herat Online School prides itself on its accessibility, Angela is aware that not everyone is privileged enough to have access.
“Access to the internet is one of our main challenges,” she says. “Even if there is access to the internet, the prices have risen and people cannot afford that.”
Neda makes a similar point: “Reaching out and talking to female pupils is not always easy as many of them do not have access to smartphones and the internet,” she says.
Since the internet was introduced to Afghanistan two decades ago, the World Bank estimates that 13.5% of Afghans - most of whom are in urban areas - currently have access. But as Angela says, even if the internet is available, it doesn’t mean people can afford it. The United Nations (UN) has estimated that 500,000 jobs have been lost since the Taliban takeover.
Angela explains that she has even written a letter to Elon Musk and talked to several communications companies in an attempt to convince them to lower their data prices - however, neither attempt was successful. She says she is still working on a solution, and is now calling for donations for students so they can afford access to the internet.
“We have committed to do whatever we can with whatever we have in hand,” Angela says with determination. “We cannot wait for a day when people can have better access to the internet at affordable prices.”
The strain on girls’ mental health
Angela stresses that schools being closed not only impacts educational progress, but mental health. In recent months, medical professionals in the country have warned they are seeing a rise in depression, particularly among teenage girls. At the time of writing, Voice of America Dari (VOA) has also published an article on girls suffering from a range of mental conditions due to being out of school.
“Girls are hopeless and they have written to me about their experiences and feelings,” Angela says. Due to concerns over students’ mental wellbeing, Angela says the online school has “80 psychotherapists who work with us voluntarily” to offer “psychotherapy sessions” to pupils.
Parwana describes feeling a sense of “grief” and “loss” since her school closed. Rafat on the other hand says she has lost her sense of purpose: “I have halted my university entrance exam preparations,” she tells AW. “My father’s dream was that I would become a doctor one day. I have lost all my motivation and I no longer want to pursue that.”
First year university student Neda says girls who were in their final years of school have been most impacted. “Once I was at an educational centre, a girl stood up and cried, saying that she was taking preparations to enter university but faced an uncertain future,” she recalls. “There are hearsays that girls will not be allowed to join university entrance exams.”
Since boys’ schools have remained open, the Herat Online School was originally intended for girls only. However, the school has since expanded to accommodate boys too, who now account for 35% of the total students, according to the school’s statistics.
“Boys are vulnerable as well,” Angela says. “Given that they are being taught under a Taliban regime that encourages women’s subordination, it will increase domestic violence in families.”
Afghanistan currently ranks bottom of the most recent Global Gender Gap Index 2022, published by the World Economic Forum. Since the Taliban’s return, restrictions have impacted women’s ability to work, learn, and travel freely. In May, women were told to cover their faces in public.
“Being a girl and a woman in Afghanistan under the Taliban is a disaster,” says Rafat, who describes the group’s rule as “stifling”.
Angela says her inbox is inundated with messages from university students who fear attending their classes, as well as younger girls who are scared of the “Talibanisation of the schools” if they do reopen. “A number of parents with whom I am in touch voice their concern whenever we talk and don’t want to send their children to the schools run under the Taliban.”
Learning to cope
Afghanistan remained analogue during the Taliban’s first stint in power, but this time around, the group were quick to mobilise social media in an attempt to adapt to the modern world. But the internet has played a crucial role for girls, too. It has allowed some of them to access other modes of learning, and has provided a platform for campaigners in the country and around the world.
Parwana says she is lucky to study at Herat Online School. “The school has been a platform for us to continue learning,” she says gratefully.
In her free time, she tries to keep busy by writing and studying. “I write articles but fear getting them shared or published,” Parwana adds. “I study women’s rights comparatively across different countries and I realise how we have been stripped of our fundamental rights in Afghanistan.”
Rafat says that while she tries to study at home, “it cannot replace school”. To her, education represents freedom: “I am more focused on studying English as I believe learning this language will somehow save me and my family. It may open a way for us,” she says hopefully.
Like Parwana, she has tried to keep her mind occupied. “Since the ban has been imposed, I have been trying to calm myself and stay strong. My family has been very supportive.”
She says some of her friends who had already left school are not taking the university entrance exam. “When I ask them why, they say they can't because their sisters cannot go to school and they feel devastated,” Rafat explains.
Like many girls who are able to access the internet, she has turned to the digital world to provide some source of normality. “I am in touch with my classmates and have created educational channels on social media where we share books and our thoughts - we have been talking about gathering somewhere and exchanging our books,” she adds. However, she says overall, she and her friends “have lost hope”.
Angela is proud of what she and the volunteers at Herat Online School has achieved:
“I established a school where there are no socio-political preconditions,” she says. “I believe that school is not just about education, but also about meeting the needs of students in crisis.”
Since the Taliban’s return, campaigners within Afghanistan and outside of the country have campaigned for women’s and girls’ rights, and in recent days, as the 300-day anniversary of the secondary school closures neared, the campaign to ‘let Afghan girls learn’ has been ramped up on social media.
Parwana says she follows the news “constantly” and waits for a Taliban announcement that teenage girls can return to school. In the meantime, she continues in the same vein as she has for the last 300 days: with a determination to keep learning.
“I think no one can stop us from studying - we will continue to learn wherever we are,” says Parwana. “We, Afghan girls, hope that one day we’ll take our rights back.”
14 Jul 2022