An Afghan school teacher says the closure of girls' secondary schools has changed her perspective on life.
"The Taliban closed the schools again, disappointed us, and sent us back home."
On March 23 girls’ high schools in Afghanistan were set to re-open after remaining closed for more than six months.
But smiling faces soon crumpled in tears; girls were barred from entering their classrooms after the Taliban U-turned on their decision, drawing international condemnation.
Girls’ schools remain closed for grades 7-12 in most parts of the country. In Samangan - a province in the North of Afghanistan - girls beyond sixth grade (aged around 12) have been told to stay home.
Afghan Witness (AW) spoke with Qamar, not her real name, a girls' high school teacher in Aybak, the capital of Samangan province.
Since the beginning of the academic year in March, Qamar has returned just once to the school she taught in - and this was the day when students were turned away after the Taliban backtracked on their decision.
“I went to school, and so did all our students, but the Taliban closed the schools again, disappointed us, and sent us back home,” Qamar says.
The Taliban have since stated that girls’ schools would only reopen after a decision over uniforms for female students had been made in accordance with "Sharia law and Afghan tradition".
In their previous stint in power between 1996-2001, the Taliban banned girls from education and women from most areas of work. Upon their return, the group had promised opportunities for girls’ and women's education and employment, though the recent move, and the spate of restrictions issued since August, have raised questions around the place of women and girls in Afghanistan’s future.
As an educated woman who was previously active in society, Qamar has found losing her job and being stuck at home difficult.
“I now feel like I am illiterate, incarcerated inside my house,” Qamar tells AW. “Whenever I go out, I take extra care of my clothing and fear being beaten and humiliated by a Talib. As a former public school teacher, I fear Taliban’s reprisal.”
Alongside teaching, Qamar previously made another source of income from tailoring, and her creations had been showcased at women’s exhibitions in Samangan. Since the Taliban takeover, these exhibitions have also closed down.
With no additional source of income and basic necessities skyrocketing due to the broader economic crisis in the country, Qamar struggles to make ends meet: “I am paid only 7,000 Afghanis (78 USD) which is nothing given that I need to pay rent and feed my children.”
Low morale, poor mental health
For Qamar, the grief of not being able to teach is two-fold: her daughter, a tenth grade pupil, is also restricted from attending school.
“Before the Taliban, though life was not always easy, my children and I were full of hope and positivity,” she says. “My daughters went to school and attended extra-curricular courses. Now my eldest daughter stays at home, and my perspective on life has changed.”
Remaining at home has had a huge impact on girls’ and women’s mental health. One Kabul pharmacist recently told the Guardian that he’s noticed a ‘sharp rise’ in women requesting antidepressants, stress relievers or sleeping pills - some without a specific prescription - while medical professionals in the country have also warned they are seeing increasing cases of depression among teenage girls. Qamar says her pupils talk about their suffering whenever they get in touch.
Although schools remain open for boys, education standards are poor, and the system faces a shortage of teachers. “There have not been any capacity-building programs, national festivals or science tours,” Qamar notes. She adds that those employed in the province’s education department face strict rules: "men are obliged to grow beards and women are not even allowed to enter”.
“There are also rumours among people that primary schools will also close down,” she adds. Qamar says that people have lost their trust in the idea that by educating their children “they can change their lives for the better.”
Like many who saw education as a source of hope and opportunity in Afghanistan, Qamar now feels that her prospects - and those of her daughters - have been crushed. "I used to be self-sufficient and free-spirited,” she says. “Now I'm limited to confining my life to the walls of the house.”
Interview with Afghan Witness