As school resumes in Afghanistan, will all girls be allowed to go?
On the first day back to school in September 2021, one month after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Maryam, a 15-year-old girl from Mazar-i Sharif, remembers the fear and uncertainty she felt on her way to school.
NPR is not using her last name so she can speak freely. She and other students were greeted by Taliban soldiers at the entrance. Later that day, they also came in to the classrooms
"The Taliban entered our class and most of the girls ran to the back of the classroom and turned around. They didn't want to see their faces. They don't want to see the Taliban," Maryam said.
The Taliban came in to classrooms every day to check that all girls were wearing headscarves and gloves to cover their hands. Maryam's assigned seat was in the very front in the first row, and she recalls the anger and defiance she felt each time they barged in. But she refused to leave her seat like her classmates.
"I didn't want them to know I was afraid of them. I just sat there and refused to look at them," she said.
Maryam is one of the few lucky older girls in Afghanistan who have been able to go to school since the Taliban takeover.
Mazar-i Sharif, where she lives, is in Balkh, the only province that has kept schools open for older girls. Several other provinces have had some schools open for girls at different times, but for the vast majority of the country, girls above the 6th grade have not been allowed to go to school.
The inconsistency is due to disagreements about girls' education among the Taliban ranks, and without a cohesive policy on schools, the government in Kabul has left decisions to provincial Taliban officials.
Now, schools in Afghanistan are expected to open for the new semester on Wednesday, after a long winter break.
But despite Taliban assurances that all girls will be allowed back in schools, students and teachers are still unclear about what will happen. Afghanistan's Taliban-run Education Ministry did not respond to NPR's repeated requests for comment.
This 17-year-old is among those anxious to return to the classroom
In Kabul, 17-year old Fatima Sadat, who dreams of being a successful psychologist, hasn't been to school in seven painful months, she said. She's been worried about her future, and is constantly asking her teachers for updates on whether she'll be allowed to go.
"Every teacher that we ask, they say we do not know and let's wait and see what happens," she said.
"We're still not going to know until the morning of the 23rd, whether the schools are actually open or not," said Heather Barr, the Associate Women's Rights Director at Human Rights Watch, who is based in Pakistan and focuses on Afghan women and girls.
And there's a risk that the Taliban might only open schools in visible areas, like big cities.
"There's the potential for some kind of photo ops at the same time that schools in rural areas may not get the same treatment," Barr said.
When it comes to girls' access to education in Afghanistan, the issue is broader than just schools being open. Class attendance for girls in provinces where schools were open dropped significantly.
Maryam from Mazar-i Sharif noted that of the 40 girls in her class, only 15 showed up at school for the rest of the term after the Taliban takeover. Barr says it's because the daily tensions with the Taliban have had a psychological effect on girls and their families.
"Everybody knows that the Taliban don't really want you to go and that's going to make people feel unsafe and it's going to undermine the efforts of girls who are trying to advocate for themselves and convince their families that they should be allowed to go," she said.
With few job opportunities, families wonder whether girls' education is worth it
Another aspect is employment. Under the Taliban there are few sectors where women are allowed to work, mainly as teachers and health care providers to other women. And opportunities are few. Barr said that lowers the appeal for families to educate their daughters.
"Why would you study? Why would you and your family make enormous sacrifices for you to be able to complete high school, go on to university? You're not going to have the career that you dreamed of and you're not going to be able to provide the support to your family," she said.
After seven months of Taliban rule, most observers say not much has changed when it comes to their policies on women and girls. Barr notes the Taliban seem to be much more responsive to international pressure. But global attention on Afghanistan has waned.
"It's really frustrating in this moment where, this is the most serious women's rights crisis that's happened in the world since the last time the Taliban took power. And the response from the international community seems to largely be a bit of a shrug," Barr said.
Despite that, Fatima Sadat refuses to lose hope for her future and the future of Afghanistan.
"We will all be so happy if, God willing, schools reopen again for girls so that we can continue our education for the future of our country, to become successful servants and be able to stand our country back on its feet," she said.