ZARGHOON SHAHR, Afghanistan – In the Arg Presidential Palace, Afghanistan’s academic-turned-politician President Ashraf Ghani advocates girls’ education and gender equality.
But an hour’s drive or some 70 kilometers away in the rural district of Mohammad Agha, his birthplace, the Taliban have now banned adolescent girls from getting an education after forcing some schools to close and imposing their own curriculum on others.
A sprawling high school in the agricultural village of Zarghoon Shahr is a good example of how the Taliban are expanding and strengthening control. While the government still pays teachers’ salaries, the insurgents have taken over management of the school.
The Taliban have changed the curriculum in the schools they control in the southeastern Logar province where Mohammad Agha is one of its five districts. More crucially, they allow boys to complete their high-school education by going through all 12 grades but restrict girls to only six.
Mullah Abdul Fatah Sadiq is the Taliban commander responsible for education in Mohammad Agha. He told Radio Free Afghanistan that the education of adolescent girls violates Islamic Shari’a law.
“We don’t have security. We are under occupation, and we have a lot of [pro-government] Arbaki [militia operating here],” he said. “The government-controlled regions are afflicted by anarchy; this is why Shari’a doesn’t allow girls who have reached puberty to leave their homes, particularly when such insecurity prevails.”
Armed Taliban guards circle the Zarhoon Shahr school as their comrades control the battle-scarred village. The insurgents took over the village a few years ago and have now imposed their rules and worldview.
“We have banned the subjects of art and culture,” Sadiq says. “We have introduced more Islamic subjects such as Siratul Nabi (biography of Prophet Muhammad) and the study of the Koran.”
In Kabul, the Education Ministry is monitoring the situation in Logar. “We already have Prophet Muhammad’s biography and the teaching of the Koran as part of our curriculum, so it is wrong to say we don’t have these,” spokesman Kabir Haqmal told Radio Free Afghanistan.
He says that even the subjects of arts and culture teach nothing that violates Islamic teachings or Afghan traditions. “We follow our laws and do not accord formal recognition to anyone who attempts to alter or influence our educational system,” Haqmal noted.
Aware of their armed Taliban minders, students are all praise. Rameen, who goes by one name only and appears to be 8 years old, wants to be a doctor.
“I am very happy because of the mujahedin [Taliban fighters],” he says. “Our teachers are working hard, and we come to school regularly.”
The Taliban’s stint in power in the 1990s attracted global attention for banning girls’ education in Afghanistan’s multicultural cities. Their emergence as an insurgent movement following the demise of their hard-line regime in 2001 was distinguished by an opposition to modern education. Insurgents are blamed for blowing up hundreds of schools over the past 16 years.
According to a new study by UNICEF, nearly half of Afghan children between 7 and 17 years old are out of school.
The report, released this month, identifies persistent discrimination against girls as a major factor in keeping them away from school.
“Girls account for 60 percent of the out-of-school population, putting them at a particular disadvantage and compounding gender-based discrimination,” the study said. “In the worse-affected provinces including Kandahar, Helmand, Wardak, Paktika, Zabul, and Uruzgan, up to 85 percent of girls are not going to school.”
Religious clerics also oppose the Taliban’s restrictions. Mufti Shamsur Rahman Farutan, a cleric in Kabul, says that in Islam education is even more important for women.
“The Islamic Shari’a law does not impose any restrictions on the education of women and girls; they can go to schools, seminaries, and universities without any discrimination,” he said.
But the bullet-riddled school in Zarghoon Shahr is unlikely to welcome adolescent girls anytime soon.