| | Portrait

An Afghan headteacher mourns girls’ empty classrooms

A view of a deserted class room of a girls school on 21 August following the Taliban takeover. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/Stringer)

“Every day, students call me. Some of them come to school to see me and I see despair on their woeful faces. They have only one question: ‘When can we come back to school?’ But I still have no answer."

Arzoo Rahmani has been the principal of a high school in Kabul for just over one year. At 40 years old, Arzoo had been working as a mathematics teacher for around fifteen years before taking the role.

“Generally, the students do not like mathematics, but it depends on the teachers and their teaching methods,” says Arzoo. “I think a good teacher can make even a difficult subject like maths interesting to students. My students have always loved me as well as the mathematics,” she adds with a laugh.

Since the Taliban took control of the country in mid-August, secondary and high school girls have had to remain at home even while their brothers returned to school. Arzoo recounts the story of the day when Taliban captured Kabul.

“It was the last day of the school exams. Around eleven o'clock, I got the news that the Taliban had entered Kabul,” she says. “I was terrified but to avoid the fear and chaos between the students, I did not tell them until the exam was finished. Then, I told them to go directly home and to wait for the government to announce they can return to school.”

Arzoo feels especially sorry for the girls who can no longer come to school because she experienced the same situation herself in the 1990s, when the Taliban was last  in power.

“Every morning when I enter the school, the empty classrooms for girls make me depressed,” she says sorrowfully. “It is sad to think about the girls who had big objectives, aspirations, and they had been working hard to achieve their goals, but now they have no choice but to  stay at home. I know how difficult this situation is.”

This is not just a crisis for the students, but also a tense time for all the teachers who had been teaching secondary and high school students. They too now have no choice but to stay at home.

“The teachers are also worried about the situation. They regularly contact me and ask me if there is any progress from the ministry of education. They are scared of being in this situation forever,” explains Arzoo.

Like thousands of other employees in Afghanistan, teachers are suffering from the bad economic situation, which is worsening by the day. Teachers have some of the lowest salaries in the country at between $100 and $130 per month, and they have been living without it for three months.

“All the teachers and other school staff are in a poor financial condition,” says Arzoo. “Many of us are in charge of a family. In addition to providing food for our children, we must pay rent as well. How can we afford all these expenses when we haven’t had a salary for months now?”

Asked if the Taliban have given any signs that give hope that secondary and high schools might be reopened for  girls soon, Arzoo says:

“I am optimistic, because recently the ministry of education asked all the girl schools to send them the list of their male teachers, and asked the boys’ schools for a list of their female teachers,” she says.

“It seems like they have a plan to send all-male teachers from the girl schools to the boy schools and vice versa. Then, they might allow the secondary and high school girl students to go back to school. But I hope it happens sooner.”

The change in the governmental system of the country was sudden, unexpected and shocking for most Afghans. Arzoo believes people will be worried about the fate of Afghan girls’ education and the country’s school system as a whole until the situation returns to normal.

“I hear some parents say that their daughters have become depressed,” she says. “I understand them because I also have a daughter in fourth grade. I can imagine if one day her brother can go to school but she is forced to be at home how difficult it would be for her.”

The series is authored by Tooba Neda Safi, an Afghan journalist, poet and women’s rights activist now living in Switzerland after being forced to leave her country in 2014. Every week she will share stories from other women in her home country whose lives have been upturned since the Taliban took control.

Geneva Solutions reports on the activities of organisations in Geneva, many of which bring aid to conflict-hit countries like Afghanistan.  It’s also important to hear from the people living in the affected countries, which this series aims to do by telling stories like Arzoo’s.

Dispatches from women in Afghanistan