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Girls return to high school in some regions of Afghanistan

Girls below grade 6 attend school in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Most classrooms remained close to girls above grade six, however, in some regions across the country, they have been allowed to return. (Credit: Keystone/ EPA/Stringer)

Since the Taliban took control of  Afghanistan on 15 August, secondary schools for girls have remained closed in most provinces across the country, including the capital Kabul. But in some northern provinces like Balkh, Kunduz, and Sar-e-Pul local authorities have taken a different approach, and managed to keep girls in the classroom without attracting the ire of the Taliban.

“Girls' schools in Mazar-e-Sharif and other areas of the Balkh province had never been closed,” Zabihullah Noorani, head of the culture and information directorate and the government spokesman in the northern Balkh province, told Geneva Solutions by telephone. “All girls have been going to school as before, without any restrictions.”

While secondary and high school girls in Kabul and most other cities around the country have been forced to remain at home, Noorani said there has been no such announcement by the local government in Mazar that girls’ schools must be closed.

The reason? “The mechanism which the Taliban considers appropriate for girl’s schools already existed here,” he explained.

Jalil Saied Khalili, director of education in Balkh, said that because girl’s and boy’s classes were already separated in the province, the Ministry for Education allowed them to stay open.  “Shaikh Noorullah [Taliban-appointed minister of education] told us that when you have this system in the schools, the girl’s classes can be continued up to final exams,” Khalili told local television station TOLO.

Habiba Safi is headteacher at Sultan Razia, the biggest girl’s high school in Mazar, in the center of Balkh province. Her school has more than 4000 students and around 280 teachers and staff.

Safi told Geneva Solutions the school had never been closed. “At the beginning, when the Taliban captured Mazar city, girl students and female teachers did not go to school for about one week because they are afraid of the Taliban, but since then all the girls have been going to school without any barriers,” she said.

“In Mazar, most of the schools have already been all-female,” she explained “For example, in our school, we have just one male staff member who is an accountant and works out of the school. All other school staff and teachers are women, so it was easy to manage the girls’ and boys’ schools here”

Asked about the other conditions set for female students and teachers by the Taliban Safi said the Taliban have not made any other specific rules regarding girls’ schools, although they have outlined some regulations about uniforms: “They said that the uniforms of the female teachers and adult girl students should not be so tight to expose their body, but there is no obligation  to cover the face.”

In Afghanistan's public schools, the boys’ and girls’ classes have always been separated from fifth grade, but the teachers were mixed. Now, the teachers must also be separated under Taliban rules.

Diwa Sherzad is head of a private school in Mazar. According to her, some private schools still have mixed classes, but in public schools the system is changed. “My father is a teacher in Sediq Afghan high school in Mazar,” she said. “Before he was teaching to girls’ classes in the morning but now he is teaching to boys’ classes in the afternoon. The mornings are reserved for girls and afternoons for boys.”

Kunduz is another province in the north of the country where girls are still allowed to attend school. When the Taliban entered Kunduz in August there were fierce clashes between government forces and Taliban fighters, with many civilians killed or displaced. But despite the bloodshed, local authorities have been able to to keep the schools open and continue girls' classes.

Hafiza is in her second year of high school in the Imam Sahib district of Kunduz province. “I'm happy to go to school as before,” she said. “There has not been much change in our school system, apart from that we used to have two male teachers but now all our teachers are women.”

“My cousin is living in Kabul. I used to think that she is lucky to study in the capital with better facilities, but now I feel myself the luckiest girl in Afghanistan,” she added.

Arzoo Rahmani,  principal of Bibi Mahro high school in Kabul, explained to Geneva Solutions that the percentage of female teachers in the city is much higher than male teachers.” So it can take more time to integrate them in the schools based on need,” she said.

That means both boys and girls are missing out on their education while schools struggle to adhere to the Taliban’s rules.

Samim, a first-year high school student living in Kabul, told Geneva Solutions he now only goes to school once or twice a week.“I don’t go to school every day because we don’t have enough teachers to teach us,” he said “Our women teachers do not come to school and we don’t have enough male teachers to cover all the classes at the same time. So I prefer to stay at home than go to a classroom that does not have a teacher.”

Dispatches from women in Afghanistan