When inspectors arrive at the school gate, which is most weeks now, the older girls know the drill. They slip away from their classes, race to a musty room and huddle together for long minutes that sometimes stretch into hours, hoping they won’t be discovered by the men who want them shut up at home.
The Taliban have banned secondary education for girls, the only gender-based bar on studying in the world.
One year on from the withdrawal of US troops and the militant group’s takeover of the country, learning algebra is now an illegal act of resistance. Teenagers who should be worrying about complex equations, English grammar or Persian poetry, also have to weigh up what happens if they are found in a classroom.
Facebook Twitter Students leave a secret girls’ school in Afghanistan in July. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian
“I have noticed plenty of changes in our students,” said Arezoo* headteacher of one Kabul school that decided to keep its doors open to high school girls in defiance of the ban.
“Psychologically they are under stress all the time, I can see in their eyes and behaviour. They used to come with lots of energy and excitement. Now they are never sure if this will be their last day in class. You can see how they are broken.”
Some inspections last hours and the fear spills over. “Even the younger girls (who are allowed in school) are affected. When we say the Taliban are coming and the older girls have to hide, the girls in 3rd and 4th grade start crying.”
Taliban officials claim the ban is temporary, variously citing the need to change security, uniforms, teachers, buildings or the curriculum. But many Afghans remember last time the group controlled Afghanistan, when a “temporary” closure of girls’ schools endured for their entire six-year rule.
So as girls slid into depression, robbed of their dreams of becoming doctors, pilots, engineers, teachers orartists, women and men around Afghanistan began fighting back.
Facebook Twitter A student holds a sign she has prepared for the Guardian’s visit to a secret girls’ school. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian
“I told my mother I had this idea, to reopen classes for high school girls, and asked her what she thought,” said Jawad*, who manages one private school that decided to reopen secondary classes.
“She asked me, ‘will they kill you if they discover you?’ I told her no, they will probably just hit me. So she said ‘Do it, you’ll forget a slap in an hour or two.’”
“Secret schools” have sprung up all over the country, as varied as the educators running them. Some are online classes, though they can only reach the minority of Afghans with smartphones and data access.
Some are private schools, operating much as they did before, apart from the long shadow of fear. Others are much more improvised efforts, designed as much to keep up morale and girls studying something in the hopes schools will reopen, than as a substitute for formal education.
Facebook Twitter Two girls take refreshment after class. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian
“In the beginning everyone was crushed and disappointed, and they would even question what is the point of studying,” said Mahdia*, who set up a school teaching 7th grade classes in a mosque close to her semi-rural home near a provincial capital.
An engineer who recently graduated near the top of her class at one of Afghanistan’s best universities, the 23-year-old worked on infrastructure projects until last summer, and misses her job terribly. But she sees little chance of being allowed back.
“Some positions in some ministries are still open to women, but for engineering a lot of our work is in the field and the Taliban are strongly against it for women. All my [female] classmates are unemployed, there is nothing for them to do.”
Facebook Twitter A girl participates in a maths class. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian
So while she studies English and looks for scholarships to do a further engineering degree in another country, she decided to teach local girls.
She negotiated with a mosque to hold the classes there – she comes from a Shia community that has avidly supported girls’ education over the past two decades – and got practical support from an NGO, Shahmama, which provides text books and stationery, and is raising funds to pay the teachers a small stipend.
“I do this as a volunteer, to support the girls and create hope in their future, and the girls also give me hope,” Mahdia said.
On a recent afternoon, her students slipped across the fields in pairs in the afternoon heat, books in hand like girls going to school in any other country. When they noticed a stranger watching though, they gathered speed and ducked inside the mosque.
The group includes one girl who was within weeks of finishing 11th grade when the previous government collapsed, three who were in 9th grade, 11 who were in 8th grade and six who were in 7th grade.
“Of course, sometimes we feel bad to be back in 7th grade, but it’s better than sitting at home doing nothing,” said Zarifa*, who has gone back two years. “We get to meet classmates and revise our lessons.”
Mahdia teaches one subject, for an hour a day, but assigns homework to keep the girls busy in the long hours at home when it is easy to start thinking about everything that has been lost. She starts and ends each session with a motivational talk.
“Every day when we start and finish I talk to them a bit, and try to motivate them, with messages like ‘no knowledge is wasted’. I tell them I am here to teach and support you, you have to stay hopeful, take your opportunities.”
Facebook Twitter A class gets under way. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian
Defiance and compromise
Schools such as Mahdia’s are beacons of hope in a bleak time, and many of their students are filled with extraordinary defiance of the armed men who cut short their studies.
“I have my argument ready if a Taliban stops me. I will say ‘you didn’t study so you are like this, I have to study so I won’t be the same,’” said Hasinat*, a 7th grade student.
But the compromises so many girls and teachers have made to be there – repeating grades, hiding from inspectors, swallowing the loss of their own careers – underline how much has been stolen from the women of Afghanistan by its new rulers.
And many of the adults running these schools fear their work will not be able to continue indefinitely, because of financial and official pressure.
Illegal classes kept girls’ dreams alive last time the Taliban were in power. Those who defied the Taliban to study include the journalist Zahra Joya, named as one of Time magazine’s women of the year for 2022, and the educator and Washington Post columnist Shabana Basij-Rasikh.
They mostly went to primary school during Taliban rule, dressed as boys. Older female students are much harder to conceal, and Jawad is bracing for the day when the girls are discovered in class or their hiding place uncovered.
“Perhaps I can continue this risky job for a year or two but then I may get arrested, and when I do, what will happen to them?” he said. “The day they force me to really ban the girls, I will shut the school and leave the country.”
Even if authorities decide to turn a blind eye to some schools – and they have given at least one prestigious private chain tacit permission to keep some of its branches open outside the capital – a financial crunch looms.
Secret schools all need private funding, and while some comes from NGOs, most rely on fees. Afghanistan’s economy is collapsing, expected to shrink by about a third, and many families are struggling to find money for school even when it is a priority.
“The financial situation of the school is very bad since the Taliban. Students were paying 1,500 to 4,000 afghanis a month (£14 to £36), but most of those families left. We have new students now but they can’t afford more than 500 to 2,000 a month mostly,” said Gulbano*, s the financial manager of one Kabul school.
“We had to offer very low fees as no one has much money at home, and we are educating some orphans for free,” she added. The director of another school still offering girls’ high school classes said he was besieged by requests for cheaper fees, but was already operating at a loss.
Facebook Twitter A student leaves a secret girls’ school. Photograph: Nanna Muus Steffensen/The Guardian
Jawad decided to restart classes after mothers and fathers begged him to help. “All the families were coming to ask about their girls. They said, ‘our boys are coming but what about our girls?’”
“Education is everything,” said one father, whose 10-year-old daughter, something of a prodigy, is newly enrolled in 7th grade there. He found the school by doggedly asking about classes every time he saw girls coming out of a building carrying books.
“Of course I have concerns for her and me, but I want my daughters to achieve their dreams, I don’t want them to just become ‘aunties’, sitting at home all day just asking their husbands for money.
At Mahdia’s semi-rural school, less than a quarter of the girls have mothers who were able to go to school, and under half have fathers who are literate.
“They have a lot of difficulties in life, so they always motivate us, saying ‘don’t be like us,’” said Mursal*, who is married and supported by her husband. “Before they give any medicine to my younger siblings, I have to read the label and the dose for them.”
The Taliban have tacitly acknowledged parental pressure for education, allowing schools to stay open in a handful of provinces, including northern Balkh, and southern Zabul.
Hopes that the government might reverse course nationally have been repeatedly crushed, first in March when girls were called back to school then ordered home again as soon as they reached their classrooms.
More recently, a national gathering of clerics was expected to endorse girls’ education, but ended with only a vague nod to women’s rights. Sources with links to the Taliban leadership say hardliners who oppose girls’ education have the upper hand for now, so Afghan girls have to keep studying in secret, and Afghan men and women have to keep breaking the law to help them do it.
“I’m not old, but I’ve got lines on my forehead. The way the girls look makes me very sad sometimes, like I want to cry.” said Jawad, who is fundraising for a therapist for the students. “I think to myself ‘why do I have to hide you from our government.’”
* All names and some identifying details have been changed to protect the girls and their schools.