Afghan Girls Grieve After School Ban Reinstated

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Afghan girls attend class at a high school in Herat, Afghanistan, November 25, 2021.
© 2021 AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File

“For Afghan girls, the earth is unbearable, and the sky is unreachable.”

Atefa, 16, used this Farsi proverb to express her despair after the Taliban blocked girls from attending secondary school this week, breaking a pledge to end the ban.

I asked Atefa, who would have entered Grade 10 this year, the proverb’s meaning. After a long pause, she said: “Living in Afghanistan as a young girl under the Taliban is already unbearable but watching our dreams and futures shatter with lies like this shows we can’t reach the sky.”

For Atefa and hundreds of thousands of Afghan girls banned from secondary schools since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, March 23, the day set for their return to the classroom, should have been an exciting new beginning. “I was both worried and excited,” another girl said. “I couldn’t close my eyes last night, and I couldn’t believe the darkness was going to end.”

But that morning, the Taliban announced — to the despair of schoolgirls, parents, and Afghans worldwide — that girls’ secondary schools would remain closed until policies and school uniforms followed “principles of Islamic law and Afghan culture.” Atefa and her friends were sent home after a short visit to their school. “Everyone at school had tears in their eyes,” she said. 

Another girl who had joined other women and girls to protest on Kabul’s streets several months ago questioned the international community’s lack of serious action. “When we protested, the United Nations and international community clapped. When the Taliban abused us, they just condemned. And when some of us were abducted, they remained silent,” she said. “The schoolgirls are crying for immediate help, not for words of condemnation by the UN and other agencies that can be easily forgotten.”

The Taliban’s restrictions on girls’ education are largely the same as when they ruled in 1996-2001. The excuses for closing girls’ schools are disingenuous: the goal is to block girls from studying indefinitely. It’s the same pattern as in the late 1990s — pretextual excuses, promises, betrayals, lies, new promises, more lies. In the face of so much deceit, donor countries need to speak pointedly to the Taliban about the harmfulness of their actions and reinforce that continuing to violate basic human rights will carry serious consequences.

The outside world should help Afghan girls make the earth bearable and the sky reachable.

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