Afghanistan’s Female Students Were Banned from Studying. Now Some Are Finding New Ways to Learn

On Sunday morning, August 15, there was a strange silence in Kabul University’s classroom. This was Sunday, Aug. 15, and it was the beginning of school. The financial-management professor had just started answering students’ questions. A young man appeared to be in frantic fear and burst through the front doors.

“He told us that the Taliban have captured Kabul. He said, ‘they are coming here. Run!’” says Farah, one of the students, 24, recalling the moment. “I could not feel my hands and my feet, they were shaking,” she says. Farah requested to be anonymous out of safety. “We just stood and started collecting all our notebooks,” she says.
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Farah was unable to see her university that day. In the two months since Afghanistan’s government collapsed, amid the chaotic U.S. withdrawal after 20 years of war, thousands of Afghan girls and women have been shut out of their high schools and universities, their studies over and their lives and futures in flux.

Before the Taliban seized the capital without a fight, about half the 20,000 or so students at Kabul University, the country’s oldest university, were female. Women’s education was perhaps the single strongest sign of change and hope for the new Afghanistan. Over two decades, the U.S. spent about $1 billion on education for Afghan women and girls—with some marked success.

Yet despite Taliban assurances during negotiations with the U.S. that all Afghans would have a right to education, the new government has barred women from stepping foot on university and high-school campuses—a situation that shows no signs of ending, despite pressure from Western governments. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently said they would be allowed to resume their studies when there is “an environment where female students are protected.” That has strong echoes of the Taliban banning girls from education during their rule over Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.

Roxana was 18 years old when she graduated from high school. She was scheduled to collect her transcript from high school at a government office on Aug. 15, which would be useful for applying for scholarship to U.S colleges. She saw panicked people screaming for her to return indoors. Roxana claims that her dream of Afghanistan is not being realized and she has been struggling with this realization. “Whatever I imagined when I was at school, it broke down in pieces,” she says.

Wearing hijab under their mortarboards and seated in separate rows from their male peers, the women pictured are members of Kabul University's class of 2010 and graduates of the department of language and literature. This graduation was held under tight security at a hotel in Kabul because of an upsurge in terrorist attacks.
Lynsey Addario—Getty ImagesWearing hijab under their mortarboards and seated in separate rows from their male peers, the women pictured are members of Kabul University’s class of 2010 and graduates of the department of language and literature. Because of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, this graduation was held in Kabul at tight security in a hotel.

Remote possibilities

However, online education has opened up a new avenue for these women as well as other women.

In Kabul, female students are banned from taking in-person classes. Hundreds of them have registered for remote education programs offered by an American nonprofit online university. They will be enrolled in a program which begins November 1 and is targeted at Taliban exiles.

In August’s chaos, President of University of the People Shai Reshef began to think about the problems facing Afghan women. “We are afraid they will not be allowed to study,” he told me. Around 100,000 people worldwide can receive U.S.-accredited degrees from the University of the People, which includes many students in the U.S.

As the U.S. was about to leave, there were many attempts to get Afghan women into universities around the world. One of the options for this is the United Nations Development Program, which offers scholarships that allow them to go to Central Asian countries. This program, funded entirely by the European Union, allows the U.S. to withdraw. Oxford University also announced in August that five scholarships would be offered to Afghan women. These were funded by a charity.

University of the People seems to be the only organization that offers large amounts of scholarships to Afghan women who want to study online. While the course is free for students, the fees are charged to graduate and sit the exams. The fees are minuscule compared to average tuition at a U.S. university—about $4,800 for a four-year B.A. MBA, which costs $3,000 and a degree. However, this is not possible for most Afghan women.

Reshef, which was founded one week after the Taliban tookover, advertised 1000 scholarships for Afghan women. These were supported by organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Clinton Foundation. Reshef raised money to support the request after nearly twice that many women applied. “With us, they can study at home,” he says, “and no one needs to know.”

Secret study

TIME interviewed five women accepted for admission, but all are hiding their identities or keeping the details of their studies private. 21-year-old Nasrin from Kabul University fled campus when the Taliban invaded the capital. She spent four hours walking back home amid all the chaos in the city. She discovered her old neighbors, who had threatened her father with death, when she returned home. The next day, her siblings and parents fled to the suburbs. They were joined by five other children.

Nasrin believes her scholarship that began in November has saved her from despair. She says that despite the difficulties of connecting to the Internet and high costs she faces, she will continue to study, partially as an avenue to emotional stability. “If they see women go outside without hijab, they [Taliban] hit them with sticks,” she says.

Ahead of her UoPeople course, Nasrin has also registered for online English classes offered by Kings College London, as well as a six-week psychology course entitled “What is a Mind?” offered by the University of Cape Town in South Africa. “I can understand why it would be a lifeline to her,” says Mark Solms, head of Cape Town university’s neuropsychology department, which runs the course, when TIME informed him that Nasrin was one of his students. “The course gravitates around the role of feelings in mental life,” he says. “I can see how in a personal way it would resonate in her current predicament.”

Although some students will be required to remain secret in order to protect their learning, the Taliban may try to block remote education for women. There are however less political hurdles like frequent blackouts or slow Internet speeds.

“For sure it will be difficult and hard for me,” says Farah, who fled her financial-management class the morning the Taliban seized Kabul; she now plans to get a business degree from University of the People. “The connection is so hard, and the cost is high,” she says, during a long conversation in which we recorded audio messages back and forth, rather than talking directly over an unstable Internet connection.

Her husband being out of work means that the couple will have to struggle to pay higher Internet fees. She claims she is going to be studying at night after her daughter goes to bed. “I have to go through with my dream,” she says. “I was planning for my future. I want to achieve that.”


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