For the past year, Parisa, the principal of a girls’ high school in Afghanistan, has been telling her students that perhaps one day they will be able to continue their education. It’s an effort to boost morale among desperate girls who fear the unknown future that comes after sixth grade.
The Globe is only identifying Parisa and other Afghan girls and women who agreed to tell their stories by first name, because they fear for their safety. The 54-year-old, who also teaches at the school, said girls are anxious about their education and question the point of studying at all since the Taliban prevents them from advancing to Grade 7. She tries to stay positive, she said, and tells them maybe things will change. But she has considered that she’s promising something that may never come true. “I’m shameful about that. For one year I am telling them, ‘Oh, we hope that we will have classes,’ but we have nothing.”
It’s been one year since the Taliban swiftly seized control of the country, sending scores to seek refuge in other countries and forcing many into hiding. Women find themselves consistently at the other end of Taliban brutality – with their rights stripped away, including the possibility of a bright future.
Taliban officials had said that they would reopen schools for girls by the end of March, words which potential students clung to, but which meant nothing. And preventing girls from going to school only further alienates Western countries that have insisted they will not recognize the Taliban as government unless they restore rights for Afghan women and girls.
Parisa said that while trying to stay positive for her students, she has to hide her own disappointment. “Because there’s no future for me,” she said, saying she fears she will lose her job, be kidnapped or assaulted. “Because I’m a woman and we don’t have rights.”
“I’m trying not to show negative feelings … If I show them, maybe we will lose half of the students in a few days. No, we must have more girls in our school,” she said. “I also want to tell the international community to put pressure on the current government to let girls study.”
Fourteen-year-old Fatima, a student at the school, told The Globe that she has always dreamed of a career in economics. But she’s in sixth grade and, in a few months, her education will come to an end.
She is staring down an unknown future. She may spend her days now reading books, she said, but she is fearful of what will come as she gets older. “Maybe in three or four years I will also marry. I don’t know. This is a very awful thought for me. But it could be my future, like other women.”
Fatima said some students don’t want to talk about life after sixth grade because it makes them depressed. But when she talks with close friends “they all think like me. They also think they don’t have any future, so very disappointed and very hopeless,” she said in a phone interview. She said her principal tries to keep the girls motivated, telling them “don’t lose your hope,” but that it’s very hard.
Fatima said she wants the international community to show empathy for the people of Afghanistan, saying she knows it has the ability to help them.
Heather Barr, associate director of women’s rights with Human Rights Watch who researches Afghanistan said what stands out for her on the one-year anniversary of the Taliban takeover is the apathy of the international community. “I feel like nothing that the Taliban has done was surprising because the Taliban are the Taliban, we know who they were … but I expected more from the international community. We’re at about a dozen countries now that say they have a feminist foreign policy,” she said.
Ms. Barr said it’s been 20 years of the international community talking about standing by Afghan women forever, never abandoning them. “I didn’t imagine that we could be where we are now, which is the Taliban being the Taliban all over again and the world saying, ‘Gosh, that’s really sad.’”
Zohra, a 17-year-old who is supposed to be in Grade 11, told The Globe that without school she spends her days at home, often watching CNN International and other TV shows to practice English. “I’m sad because my future is unknown, I am really tired at home because girls cannot go to bazaar, cannot go to school,” she said.
Zohra said she wants to follow in her parents’ footsteps and become a doctor. “I haven’t lost my wishes because I’m a girl. I believe in myself that I can continue my future with my own wishes and with my own decisions.”
She said she hopes she can return to school as soon as possible, as she sees girls around her becoming increasingly depressed. She said she knows of some in her community who have killed themselves because they couldn’t go to school and their families were going to force them to get married.
Fawzia Koofi, former deputy speaker of the Afghan Parliament, told the United Nations Human Rights Council recently that “Every day there is at least one or two women who commit suicide for the lack of opportunity, for [poor] mental health, for the pressure they receive.”
Afghanistan, one year later: More from The Globe and Mail
Last year, two Afghans who worked with The Globe and Mail, Sharif Sharaf and Mukhtar Amiri, made bold last-minute escapes from the fall of Kabul with help from colleagues and the Ukrainian military. Globe correspondent Mark MacKinnon shared their story with The Decibel last September. Subscribe for more episodes.