Inside Afghanistan’s secret schools, where girls defy the Taliban

In this combination of pictures, Afghan women persist on pursuing education despite the harsh restrictions imposed by the Taliban rulers. (AFP photos)
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Updated 13 August 2022

Inside Afghanistan’s secret schools, where girls defy the Taliban

  • Since seizing power a year ago, the Taliban have imposed harsh restrictions on girls and women to comply with their austere vision of Islam
  • To circumvent the restrictions, Afghan women and girls attend secret schools that have sprung up in rooms of ordinary houses across the country

KABUL: Nafeesa has discovered a great place to hide her schoolbooks from the prying eyes of her disapproving Taliban brother — the kitchen, where Afghan men rarely venture.
Hundreds of thousands of girls and young women like Nafeesa have been deprived of the chance of education since the Taliban returned to power a year ago, but their thirst for learning has not lessened.
“Boys have nothing to do in the kitchen, so I keep my books there,” said Nafeesa, who attends a secret school in a village in rural eastern Afghanistan.
“If my brother comes to know about this, he will beat me.”
Since seizing power a year ago, the Taliban have imposed harsh restrictions on girls and women to comply with their austere vision of Islam — effectively squeezing them out of public life.
Women can no longer travel on long trips without a male relative to escort them.
They have also been told to cover up with the hijab or preferably with an all-encompassing burqa — although the Taliban’s stated preference is for them to only leave home if absolutely necessary.
And, in the cruellest deprivation, secondary schools for girls in many parts of Afghanistan have not been allowed to reopen.
But secret schools have sprung up in rooms of ordinary houses across the country.
A team of AFP journalists visited three of these schools, interviewing students and teachers whose real names have been withheld for their safety.
This is their story.

Clandestine classroom
Decades of turmoil have played havoc with Afghanistan’s education system, so Nafeesa is still studying secondary school subjects even though she is already 20.
Only her mother and older sister know about it.
Her brother fought for years with the Taliban against the former government and US-led forces in the mountains, returning home after their victory imbued with the hard-line doctrine that says a woman’s place is the home.
He allows her to attend a madrassa to study the Qur'an in the morning, but in the afternoon she sneaks out to a clandestine classroom organized by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA).
“We have accepted this risk, otherwise we will remain uneducated,” Nafeesa said.
“I want to be a doctor... We want to do something for ourselves, we want to have freedom, serve society and build our future.”

 

When AFP visited her school, Nafeesa and nine other girls were discussing freedom of speech with their female teacher, sitting side-by-side on a carpet and taking turns reading out loud from a textbook.
To get to class, they frequently leave home hours earlier, taking different routes to avoid being noticed in an area made up mostly of members of the Pashtun ethnic group, who form the bulk of the Taliban and are known for their conservative ways.
If a Taliban fighter asks, the girls say they are enrolled in a tailoring workshop, and hide their schoolbooks in shopping bags or under their abaya and burqa overgarments.
They not only take risks, but also make sacrifices — Nafeesa’s sister dropped out of school to limit any suspicions her brother might have.

No justification in Islam

Religious scholars say there is no justification in Islam for the ban on girls’ secondary school education and, a year since taking power, the Taliban still insist classes will be allowed to resume.
But the issue has split the movement, with several sources telling AFP a hard-line faction that advises supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada opposed any girls’ schooling — or at best, wanted it limited to religious studies and practical classes such as cooking and needlework.
The official line, however, remains that it is just a “technical issue” and classes will resume once a curriculum based on Islamic rules is defined.
Primary girls still go to school and, for now at least, young women can attend university — although lectures are segregated and some subjects cut because of a shortage of female teachers.
Without a secondary school certificate, however, teenage girls will not be able to sit university entrance exams, so this current crop of tertiary female students could be the country’s last for the foreseeable future.
“Education is an inalienable right in Islam for both men and women,” scholar Abdul Bari Madani told AFP.
“If this ban continues, Afghanistan will return to the medieval age... an entire generation of girls will be buried.”

Lost generation

It is this fear of a lost generation that spurred teacher Tamkin to convert her home in Kabul into a school.
The 40-year-old was almost lost herself, having been forced to stop studying during the Taliban’s first stint in power, from 1996 to 2001, when all girls’ schooling was banned.
It took years of self-study for Tamkin to qualify as a teacher, only for her to lose her job at the education ministry when the Taliban returned last year.
“I didn’t want these girls to be like me,” she told AFP, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“They should have a better future.”
With the support of her husband, Tamkin first turned a storeroom into a class.
Then she sold a family cow to raise funds for textbooks, as most of her girls came from poor families and couldn’t afford their own.
Today, she teaches English and science to about 25 eager students.
On a rainy day recently, the girls trickled into her classroom for a biology lesson.
“I just want to study. It doesn’t matter what the place is like,” said Narwan, who should be in grade 12, sitting in a room packed with girls of all ages.
Behind her, a poster on a wall urges students to be considerate: “Tongue has no bones, but it is so strong that it can break the heart, so be careful of your words.”
Such consideration by her neighbors has helped Tamkin keep the school’s real purpose hidden.
“The Taliban have asked several times ‘what’s going on here?’ I have told the neighbors to say it’s a madrassa,” Tamkin said.
Seventeen-year-old Maliha believes firmly the day will come when the Taliban will no longer be in power.
“Then we will put our knowledge to good use,” she said.

'We are not afraid'

On the outskirts of Kabul, in a maze of mud houses, Laila is another teacher running underground classes.
Looking at her daughter’s face after the planned reopening of secondary schools was canceled, she knew she had to do something.
“If my daughter was crying, then the daughters of other parents must also be crying,” the 38-year-old said.
About a dozen girls gather two days a week at Laila’s house, which has a courtyard and a garden where she grows vegetables and fruit.
The classroom has a wide window opening to the garden, and girls with textbooks kept in blue plastic folders sit on a carpet — happy and cheerful, studying together.
As the class begins, one by one they read out the answers to their homework.
“We are not afraid of the Taliban,” said student Kawsar, 18.
“If they say anything, we will fight it out but continue to study.”
But the right to study is not the only aim for some Afghan girls and women — who are all too frequently married off into abusive or restrictive relationships.
Zahra, who attends a secret school in eastern Afghanistan, was married at 14 and now lives with in-laws who oppose the idea of her attending classes.
She takes sleeping pills to fight her anxiety — worried her husband’s family will force him to make her stay home.
“I tell them I’m going to the local bazaar and come here,” said Zahra of her secret school.
For her, she says, it is the only way to make friends.


Putin makes Chechnya’s Kadyrov an army general

Updated 16 sec ago

Putin makes Chechnya’s Kadyrov an army general

MOSCOW: Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, said Wednesday he was granted a top rank in Russia’s army, just as Moscow’s forces suffer a series of defeats in Ukraine.
The 46-year-old Chechen leader — one of the most outspoken voices in Russia backing Putin’s Ukraine offensive — said it was a “huge honor” for him.
Kadyrov, a former warlord who rules Chechnya with widespread violations of human rights, said Putin had “personally” informed him of the decision.
“The President of Russia awarded me the rank of colonel general,” Kadyrov said on Telegram. “This is a promotion for me.”
The rank of colonel general is the third highest command rank in the Russian military hierarchy.
Kadyrov’s appointment to the rank came as the Ukrainian army pushed back Moscow’s forces in areas that the Kremlin proclaimed to be “Russian forever.”
The Chechen leader said he would do “everything to end the special military operation quickly” — using the Kremlin’s term for its Ukraine campaign.
Chechen units — including Kadyrov’s own militia with a sinister reputation, the “Kadyrovtsi” — are fighting alongside regular Russian forces in Ukraine.
Kadyrov has thrown his full backing behind Putin’s campaign, regularly calling for the most drastic tactics to be used in Ukraine.
This week he called on Moscow to use low-yield nuclear weapons in Ukraine after Russian troops were forced to retreat from the town of Lyman.
He then said he was sending three of his teenage sons — aged 14,15 and 16 — to the front.

Bus plunges into gorge in northern India, killing at least 25

Updated 05 October 2022

Bus plunges into gorge in northern India, killing at least 25

  • Over 45 to 50 people, all part of a wedding party, were on bus— police 
  • Police say over 110,000 are killed each year in road accidents across India 

NEW DELHI: A bus in northern India plunged into a gorge, leaving at least 25 dead and over a dozen others injured, officials said. Police told the Press Trust of India news agency there were 45 to 50 people on board the bus, all of whom were part of a wedding party, when it fell Tuesday evening into a gorge in Pauri district in Uttarakhand state. State police and the disaster response force worked alongside locals to rescue 21 people Tuesday night at the site of the crash, police chief Ashok Kumar tweeted. Vijay Kumar Jogdande, a senior government officer, said they would be carrying out an investigation into the incident and will conduct postmortem examinations after retrieving the bodies from the site. Officials were seen clearing the area of bushes and trees to help with the rescue operation as they pulled up an injured person. Rescuers also retrieved a dead body using ropes before they were taken away on a stretcher. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said all possible assistance will be given to those affected. “In this tragic hour my thoughts are with the bereaved families. I hope those who have been injured recover at the earliest,” he tweeted Wednesday. Deadly road accidents are common in India due to reckless driving, poorly maintained roads and aging vehicles. More than 110,000 people are killed every year in road accidents across India, according to police.


Ten dead after Indian Himalayas avalanche hits climbers

Updated 05 October 2022

Ten dead after Indian Himalayas avalanche hits climbers

  • Several dozen climbing trainees caught in Tuesday's snowslide near summit of Mount Draupadi ka Danda-II
  • Indian air force and local disaster agency were assisting with rescue efforts before heavy snow and rainfall

New Delhi: Ten people are confirmed dead after an avalanche struck climbers in the Indian Himalayas, police said Wednesday, with 18 other members of the expedition still missing.

Several dozen climbing trainees were caught in Tuesday morning's snowslide near the summit of Mount Draupadi ka Danda-II in the northern state of Uttarakhand.

The Indian air force and local disaster agency were assisting with rescue efforts before heavy snow and rainfall forced them to abandon the search overnight.

"Rescue teams have recovered 10 bodies," the Uttarakhand state police force said on Twitter after operations resumed in the morning.

Fourteen people have so far been rescued from the site of the avalanche, around 4,900 metres (16,000 feet) above sea level, and police said five were being treated at a district hospital in Uttarkashi.

Police footage showed several rescued climbers arriving in the town and walking unassisted while escorted by officers.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami confirmed on Twitter that accomplished climber Savita Kanswal, who had summited Everest earlier this year, was among the dead.

Kanswal was an instructor with the expedition and had been feted by the climbing community for summiting the world's highest peak and nearby Makalu in just 16 days -- a women's record.

Dhami said the government would provide immediate financial assistance to those injured in the avalanche along with the families of victims.

State disaster agency spokesperson Ridhim Aggarwal told AFP that the climbers had been stuck in a crevasse after the avalanche hit.

The Nehru Institute of Mountaineering said the expedition included 34 of its trainees, seven instructors and a nursing assistant.

Two air force helicopters had been sent to the region to assist with the search, senior disaster management official Devendra Singh Patwal told AFP.

Fatal climbing accidents are common on the treacherous terrain of the Himalayas, home to Everest and several of the world's highest peaks.

In August, the body of a mountaineer was recovered two months after he fell into a crevasse while crossing a glacier in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh.

And last week, renowned US ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson's body was found on the slopes of Nepal's Manaslu peak after she went missing skiing down the world's eighth-highest mountain.

On the day of Nelson's accident, an avalanche hit on the 8,163-metre (26,781-foot) mountain, killing Nepali climber Anup Rai and injuring a dozen others who were later rescued.

Although no substantial research has been done on the impacts of climate change on mountaineering risks in the Himalayas, climbers have reported crevasses widening, running water on previously snowy slopes, and the increasing formation of glacial lakes.


Taliban report mosque blast at government ministry in Kabul

Updated 05 October 2022

Taliban report mosque blast at government ministry in Kabul

  • Explosion takes place inside Interior Ministry’s mosque, no immediate casualties reported
  • Blast follows last week’s attack on education center in Kabul where 52 people were killed 

KABUL, Afghanistan: A blast struck a mosque at a government ministry building in Kabul Wednesday as workers and visitors were praying, a Taliban official said.
The afternoon explosion went off inside the mosque of the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for security and law enforcement in the country.
A Taliban-appointed spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Abdul Nafi Takor, said in a tweet: “Unfortunately there was an explosion inside a(n) ancillary mosque where some Interior Ministry workers and visitors were praying. Will share the details later.”
He did not say if the mosque was inside the ministry or near it. There was no immediate information about casualties and no immediate claim of responsibility.
The mosque blast follows last week’s suicide bombing at an education center in Kabul that killed as many as 52 people, according to a tally compiled by The Associated Press, more than twice the death toll acknowledged by Taliban officials.
The reason for the lower death toll provided by the Taliban was not immediately clear. In the past, they have at times been slow to confirm casualty figures in the aftermath of attacks.
Taliban security officials initially said 19 people had been killed at the Kaaj Higher Educational Center, then revised the death toll to 25 over the weekend.
However, The Associated Press spoke directly to relatives of 39 of those killed and obtained the names and other information about the remaining 13.


Philippines’ Marcos Jr. open to buying Russian fuel, proposes new Myanmar approach

Updated 05 October 2022

Philippines’ Marcos Jr. open to buying Russian fuel, proposes new Myanmar approach

  • The Philippines, a US defense ally, has not imposed any sanctions on Russia
  • Myanmar’s ruling junta has been barred from regional summits

MANILA: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Wednesday said his nation may need to turn to Russia to fulfil its fuel needs amid rising global energy prices, bucking pressure from Western allies for countries to shun Moscow.
Speaking to the Manila Overseas Press Club, Marcos, who is also agriculture minister, said the Philippines may also deal with Russia for supply of fertilizer.
“We take we take a very balanced view because the truth of the matter is, we may have to deal with Russia for fuel, for fertilizer,” said Marcos.
The Philippines like many countries is grappling with soaring inflation, due to supply woes fanned by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Philippines, a US defense ally, has not imposed any sanctions on Russia.
Marcos, the son and namesake of the ousted late strongman who ruled the Philippines for two decades, also said he wanted his country to play a key role in promoting regional peace, amid challenges posed by North Korea and China-Taiwan tensions.
“We hope to be part of leading, the ones that are leading the effort for peace,” he said.
He said he would propose a new approach to the crisis in Myanmar at an upcoming meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in November, which could involved engaging the military government directly.
Myanmar’s ruling junta has been barred from regional summits over its failure to implement a five-point peace plan it agreed with ASEAN in April last year, after violent turmoil erupted in the country following a military coup.
The generals have been outraged by ASEAN’s unusually tough stand and have said they intend to comply with its plan, but will not agree to its call to hold dialogue with a pro-democracy resistance movement they call “terrorists.” “It’s time to put together, to put forward some concrete proposals on what we can do to at the very least to bring at least representatives of the military government to the table so we can begin to talk about these things,” Marcos said.
On Wednesday, Cambodia, the current ASEAN chair, confirmed that a request had been sent to the State Administrative Council, as the junta is known, that it nominate a non-political figure to represent Myanmar at the upcoming leaders’ summits. “Again, the SAC has refused to send anyone to the summits,” Cambodia Foreign spokesperson Chum Sounry said.