RT report on ‘secret schools’ for girls in Afghanistan — Analysis
“There is an underground project in Kabul called ‘Course in memoir writing for wounded girls.’ Would you be interested to see it?” I was asked last week.
These days, education for girls is probably the most ambiguous topic of Afghanistan’s new era. The Taliban is to some extent demonstrating its commitment to a medieval approach to women’s rights but is nevertheless inclined to compromise. While primary schools are still open as universities, both male and female students continue to attend lectures in separate rooms. However, the number of lecturers from women has decreased dramatically since August.
Secondary schools are still not accessible for girls as they were before the Taliban came to power. Students above the sixth grade were expelled on the first day in the spring term. “until further notice,” whatever that could imply. Higher authorities had issued a directive to the Ministry of Education, without any accompanying explanation. Some private schools still teach senior girls – but only if the owners of these schools are well-connected and do not need to fear retribution from the Taliban. Although there were a few areas in Afghanistan that girls didn’t stop learning, Kabul was not one of them.
So-called “secret schools” became an alternative for those who sought to continue their studies. Teachers can run these informal learning spaces at their own risk from their home or in rooms they rent in education centers. Although the Talibs are currently allowing this to continue, they don’t know what might happen if it becomes more disciplined.
This course was designed for girls at the Sayed Al-Shuhada, a poor school. The school is located in Dashte Barchi, west Kabul. It was attacked by terrorists last May. While the Taliban had been blamed for the attack by the previous government, they were denied involvement. Nobody was able to claim responsibility.
Two IED bombs followed by a car bomb explosion left 85 people dead. More than 160 were injured, regardless of who the attacker might have been. The majority of the victims were girls from 12 to 20 years old – the car bomb went off in front of the school gate at the time of the second shift scheduled for females.
Who might be willing and brave enough to teach the survivors to record their memories in writing – and why?
Creative writing versus PTSD
One such person is Mr. Adib*. An elegant, clean-shaven young man who wears stylish Western clothes, he is the type that one could easily imagine tucked in a café in Tehran with a cup of coffee and a novel by Dostoevsky, but hardly in Taliban-ruled Kabul. Adib, who is taking an Online Literature Course at University of Tehran, is actually a fan of both the Russian novelist and Persian classics. Adib is the instructor for the memoir course that is offered to traumatized teenage girls. During the lesson, Mr. Adib , who possesses a somewhat theatrical delivery, tosses out references to Ferdowsi’s ‘Shahnameh’, Jack London and Sophocles. His female student colleague is busy studying so Mr. Adib has to teach alone.
Mr. Adib is clean-shaven and wearing a stylish Western outfit – a character you could imagine somewhere in a book café in Tehran with a cup of coffee and a novel by Dostoevsky, but not in Taliban-ruled Kabul. Adib, who is taking an online course in literature at the University of Tehran, is a huge fan of both the Persian and Russian classics. This elegant young man with a somewhat theatrical stance who refers to Ferdowsi’s ‘Shahname’, Jack London and Sophocles during the lesson is at the helm of the memoir course for the traumatized girls. He is teaching the course alone because his female friend, a student at university, has been busy with her exams.
“I was in Iran on the day of the attack. The news of the bombings shocked me. Four of my brother’s children were students at that school, and the thought that they might have been hurt was unbearable,” says Mr. Adib.
He returned to Kabul and was offered the opportunity to manage a program that would help students from Sayed Al Shuhada overcome their PTSD. Although preparations took some time and the channel eventually closed, the idea didn’t die. After the fall of Kabul in September, Adib was unsure about his future and held his first lesson twenty days later at an educational centre on the outskirts the capital.
“Nobody knew how the Taliban would react, so we decided to keep this course a secret,” he explains. His primary goal was for the girls and their families to be able to speak about their experiences. He also wanted to publish their memoirs one day.
“The Afghan culture perceives pain as something shameful, something one must conceal. But I’m telling the girls there is nothing shameful in having dark days or talking about the dark days you had,” Mr. Adib elaborates.
Although his family admires him and is slightly nervous, they are proud. Evidently, for semi-literate village mullahs, it is sinful to teach creative writing and lecture girls on philosophy. But the Talibs are not interfering with Mr. Adib’s classes and he hopes they never do. His students are his primary concern. Some of the girls were unable to handle the stress, and they ran away from the class crying. Some girls can’t bear to see armed men or hear loud sounds. They might even faint or panic attack if Mr. Adib isn’t found and shows up for a lesson.
However, this Afghan John Keating is determined to continue, similar to his colleague from the ‘Dead Poets Society’. His goal was to teach and raise his students using unconventional methods. They do not have to pay any fees. The course is funded by donations from Mr. Adib’s friends. This allows him to rent the space and purchase the books. Because he cannot afford to pay for two lessons per week now, Adib volunteers for the art of art.
Methods of teaching and search for meaning
“A good reader makes a good writer,” says Mr. Adib, as he writes another quote on the blackboard.
‘Khateraat-e yek Motarjem’ (Memoirs of a Translator) is his latest choice for the students. Mohammad Ghazi is a well-known Iranian translator and writer. The book will help expand vocabulary and improve critical thinking skills, Adib says. Previously read and discussed was ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl, who survived several concentration camps in Nazi Germany and carried on his career as a psychiatrist and philosopher, thus making him a motivating example for the girls from Sayed Al-Shuhada, who are also no strangers to ordeals.
Mister Adib asks that girls retell what they’ve read and then probes to ensure they comprehend everything. Sometimes, he corrects their pronunciation.“Do not say “motarajem,” Tamana, it is “motarjem.” Please repeat after me.”) He also explains some basic terms of literary criticism and philology and gets back to writing (“You must always find a good title for your story; this is the first step. Without a name, what is a story? Nothing!”).
Every lesson Mr. Adib assigns a topic to his students for writing. It was today. “Life.” Girls came forward to the blackboard and read their home tasks aloud.
“There are two essential things in our lives: one is hope, and the other is a goal. Without hope, a person is like a horse who doesn’t have a path; without hope, a person becomes like a tree that has no roots. It is sometimes difficult to live, and other times it feels impossible. I remember the worst day of my life, the day of fear when I forgot how to breathe…”
The tall, blonde girl is wearing a black gown and a light-grey headscarf. She doesn’t raise her eyes as she recites the text. Her face is hidden under a mask – a handy accessory that protects from both dust and unwanted attention. Although her voice is initially weak and timid, she becomes more confident as each sentence goes.
His eyes are closed and Mr. Adib looks up with the same awe-inspiring smile as someone who loves music.
“Very good, Parwana. Wonderful. You may sit. Who is going to be the next brave one?”
The House of the Living
The class consists of thirteen teenage girls aged between 16-20 years. Some wear full hijabs while others only have their head scarves. Some of the girls are in dark greys, some in floral prints, some in pinks and darker blues. Others keep their distance and raise their hands when they have questions. The girls, who are all slim and chubby but also thoughtful and curious, were there on May 8, 2021. The course was designed to help them overcome fears and get away from stressful situations. The positive improvements Mr. Adib observed in the girls’ mental states, writing skills, self-esteem and writing abilities over the past seven month are not the only ones that have been noticed. There is much more healing to come.
“I was scared to go out after that day. And our teachers were scared; after the blast, we only had three of them for twelve classes,” says Farah, 17.
“And now we are scared, too. If the Talibs find us here, I am sure they will punish us,” joins Mariam, 16. “But we have the right to study and do not want to give up so easily.”
“Once a Talib stopped me on my way here,” recalls 18-year-old Parwana angrily. “He was rude. “He was rude. This is ridiculous! The boys who come here to learn English are young kids, not older than 10 or 11 years old!”
Five Adib students have expressed interest in a career of journalism. The rest agreed that writing skills were vital. There must be truthful people who are able to tell the world about Afghanistan.
“Every day is precious, be it sad or happy, and we must remember them all,” remarks Mr. Adib philosophically. “And it is easier to remember if we take notes. Remember that novel by Dostoevsky, ‘The House of the Dead’? Here is the house of the alive, though.”
Following the lesson, the group of chatting girls leaves the education center in small groups. They are escorted by Mr. Adib to the front door. He then parks his scooter outside. In the chaos of Kabul’s streets, Adib cuts a clean and graceful figure, riding off leaving behind only a Taliban checkpoint.
*All names changed to conceal the characters’ identity.