By Noorjahan Akbar
The story of education in my family begins with my paternal grandmother, Bibi Jan, whom I did not know very well. She died when I was five, before the Taliban took control and my family left Afghanistan for Pakistan. What I remember of her is the image of small wrinkled hands nervously folding clothing while murmuring incoherent sentences, memories, stories and songs. Restricted by the gender roles in her society, my grandma’s schooling was limited to small gatherings of little girls in the local mosque where the religious leaders taught the reading of the Holy Quran and, in some cases, the writing of the alphabet.
My grandmother’s educational life was cut short due to economic factors as well as cultural influences. My grandmother was required to work in the fields as soon as she gained some physical ability. Women such as my grandmother, who worked in family farms, were not paid because their work was considered part of their house chores.
Unlike her, some women from middle and upper class families had the chance to continue their religious education and become spiritual healers or midwives in their villages, which led them to have an income. In addition to that, after hitting puberty, women were not allowed to enter most common spaces, especially religious spaces, such as mosques. Influenced by the social construct of gender and economic restraints, my grandmother’s education, which could guarantee her formal employment and an independent source of income, stopped when she was twelve.
Mandatory Schooling for Boys
A generation later, in 1929, while little girls still crowded under almond trees in the yard of the local mosque, little boys found their way to the mud building of the elementary school in our village. By then, the government of King Amanullah Khan had made it mandatory for all boys to attend schools. The heads of all the boys who appeared to be around seven were shaved as a sign of discipline in schooling. The clean shaved heads also made it easier for government officials to identify and punish the children who did not attend the school.
Several boys were restricted from going to school as many of the village men, influenced by cultural, political and economic factors, and believed that public schooling “corrupted” the minds of the young boys. One of the main reasons for skepticism against schooling was the teaching of science in schools, which villagers found contradictory to Islam. The villagers feared that by going to schools, their boys would turn away from Islam, the traditions, and the lifestyle they had so far succeeded in preserving.
In addition to these cultural beliefs which prevented many villagers from allowing their boys to attain schooling, there was an economic aspect to the conflict. Before the establishment of schools, religious leaders provided education, and received payment for doing so. Schools would effectively stop the business of education that mullahs had for centuries monopolized, limiting their job to preaching – which would lead to decreasing salaries collected from the villagers – who now had to provide their children with stationary and other necessary items.
Public education became the economic battlefield between the middle-upper class of religious leaders and the newly emerging class of governmental workers, teachers and administrators.
Due to the lack of teachers in the country, many of the mullahs who could read and write became teachers and acted as the force that attempted to reconcile the public schools and local mosques. My grandfather was one of these mullahs. Later, he also encouraged his sons, including my father, to go to school – despite the social sensitivities and backlash towards his approach. After completing elementary school, some of the boys who had the resources, such as transportation – most commonly in the form of a donkey – and a lunch to bring with them, continued their formal education at the middle school that was located in the city. This daily journey required one to two hours of commuting in the cold, snowy winters and burning dry summers.
Educational Challenges Faced
My father, who lacked transportation to and from Aqcha City’s Boys Middle School, started attending it regardless. Some lucky days a generous friend would share the back of a tired and old donkey, but most days he would wear large shoes and wrap cloth around his little feet, enabling him to walk on the winter snow or mud and on thorns and dry soil in summer. After middle school, my father went to Kabul, the capital city, on a governmental military programme to complete high school. He did this despite his disinterest in military work and his father’s disapproval because of the lack of high schools in the village and the city.
During this period, my father was supported by his mother, who had taken upon herself to break a social convention and speak on behalf of the education of her son. From the silent resistance of stealing food for her son to take to school, to the verbal resistance in support of my father, my grandmother started a tradition of education in her family.
While the clash between local mosques and public schools for boys and the related moral and cultural dilemmas of the villagers were hot topics of discussion in village meetings, mosque sermons, after-dinner discussions, informal political debates and even in schools – no attention was paid to the lack of any public schools for women. The main reason for this was that historically, women’s education had not been a part of society, and there were no economic gain from women’s attainment of education, since their contribution to the community was limited to working in the fields, embroidering, tailoring, and house chores.
No Employment for Educated Women
There were no employment opportunities for educated women since there were no girls’ schools or hospitals for women. The employment of women was limited to traditionally trained midwives and other jobs traditionally assigned to women. This meant men monopolized the workplace outside the home, including at the market and in professional skilled jobs, and successfully eliminated competition for labor. The patriarchal domination of the public arena of economics in my father’s village allowed men not only to keep the women uneducated and hence of a lower social status, but also to produce, promote and sustain the cycle of injustice that would guarantee men’s economic and social power. This cycle was broken by brave women and men who broke social habits and participated in involving women in education and formal labour.
It was ten years later that a girls’ high school was built in Aqcha city. Encouraged initially by my grandfather and later my grandmother and great aunt, my mother, Azima Nabi, and her three sisters were among the increasing numbers of women to attend schools. Moved by the difficulties that women faced in her society, my mother wanted to become a midwife. This drastic change in people’s attitude was greatly influenced by the improvement of employment opportunities and increasing income of families who had attained high school and college degrees.
After they were able to be employed outside their homes and bring income to their families, women received a new level of respect and roles in leadership. In addition, the value of education and the public view towards education began to change.
Rise of the Mujahidin
There was a growing cultural tolerance towards women’s education from the late 1970s until the mid-1980s, when the uprising of mujahidin forces began in the rural areas and later reached the capital city. Many cultural and economic factors gave birth to this uprising. Nationalist ideals of freedom and independence, promoted by a culture that took pride in having defeated the empire of Alexander the Great and fighting the British Empire, made the resistance of the mujahidin possible.
The mujahidin were also highly motivated by religious extremes and the religious hierarchy that they found threatened, as women were relatively liberated. A combination of these factors, religious and nationalistic pride, the clash between different ethnicities and economic classes, and the resistance against the freedoms of women led to the conflict with the socialist government in Afghanistan, and the civil war that followed.
During the war, schools were burned and closed, and teachers were killed on the premise of being communists and spies for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a government which was already on the verge of a political and economic breakdown. Meanwhile, my mother walked to school, wrapped in a blue burqa which flapped against the wind. She and her sisters hid their books and school bags from everyone, including family guests, because anyone could be planning to burn a school or kill a student or teacher.
One night, when my mother was in twelfth grade, her school was burnt by several mujahidin fighters while she watched from the roof of her house, hugging her older sister for comfort. Soon after, my mother graduated high school and married my father.
While under the mujahidin, a small minority of women, who had resources such as safe transportation, money and security, continued attending schools. An even smaller number attended universities. At that time, the Taliban had closed the doors of schools and universities to women, and prohibited them from leaving their homes without a male chaperone.
By this time, my parents had given birth to four daughters, including me, who were to be deprived of education. My parents, being social activists and teachers, could not tolerate the imposition of this fate on their daughters, and decided to leave the country for Pakistan where we would be able to attend school.
Return to Afghanistan
After six years of refuge, we returned to Kabul in the winter of 2001. The city still smelled of bullets and bombs. My mother immediately began teaching in a high school, and restarted her BA degree in teaching literature and we, my father, sisters and I, formed a learning centre to teach other Afghan women English and computer skills, which we had learned in Pakistan. Motivated by the struggle of our parents, the next ten years of our lives were dedicated to finding better educational opportunities.
The UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child on November 20, 1989. The 28th article of the widely recognized convention reads: “Parties recognize the right of the child to education and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity.” Afghanistan signed this convention in March 1994. Today, according to UNICEF, only ten per cent of girls and twenty one percent of boys have the opportunity to attend secondary schools, and the majority of Afghan girls are married before they have the chance to finish high school. The few youth who are educated after years of struggle for survival are considered privileged, even though education is a human right.
While the education of women in Afghanistan is to some extent restricted by cultural beliefs and misinterpretations of Islam, the lack of educational opportunities, including schools, female teachers, school buildings, security for female teachers and students – and extreme poverty – all contribute to the lack of education. Influenced by economic inequalities, many families cannot afford to pay for the educational needs of their sons and daughters. Because of the need for labor in agricultural fields and the large number of children in families, paying for stationary, lunch money or food, and transportation for all children is impossible for many in farming communities. This is complicated even more by the lack of safety and secure transport in most rural areas of the country.
All these factors continue to contribute to the restriction of school education to a small percentage of Afghan women. Like my grandmother, the majority of Afghan women remain within the walls of their homes and imprisoned in the fate decided for them by economic restrictions, cultural definitions of gender, and the role of women in society – limited to serving the family, giving birth and taking care of chores.