Girls in Afghanistan learn, code ‘clandestinely’ amid Taliban restrictions

Locked up in her home in the Afghan city of Herat, Zainab Muhammadi remembers hanging out with her friends in the cafeteria after coding class. Now he connects to secret lessons online every day.

His school closed after the Taliban took control of the country in August. But that did not stop Muhammadi from learning.

“There are threats and dangers for girls like me. If the Taliban find out … they could punish me severely. They could even stone me to death, ”said Muhammadi, who requested to use a pseudonym to protect his identity.

“But I have not lost hope or my aspirations. I am determined to continue studying, ”the 25-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video call.

She is one of an estimated hundreds of Afghan girls and women who continue to learn, some online and others in hidden makeshift classrooms, despite the closure of schools by the Taliban.

Fereshteh Forough, CEO and founder of Code to Inspire (CTI), Afghanistan’s first all-female coding academy, created encrypted virtual classrooms, uploaded online course content, and delivered laptops and Internet packages to approximately 100 of her students. , including Muhammadi.

“You can be locked up at home (and) explore the virtual world without hesitation, without worrying about geographical limits. That’s the beauty of technology, ”he said.

In September, the government said older children could resume school, along with all primary-age children, but told older girls between the ages of 12 and 18 to stay home until conditions allowed for their return. .

The Taliban, who banned girls’ education during their last rule some 20 years ago, have vowed to allow them to go to school as they seek to show the world that it has changed.

A senior United Nations official who met with the Taliban earlier this month said the government was working on a framework, which would be published by the end of the year.

“The advances in education of the last two decades must be strengthened, not reversed,” said Omar Abdi, deputy executive director of the UN agency for children, UNICEF.

Missed opportunities

After the removal of the Taliban in 2001, school attendance increased rapidly, with more than 3.6 million girls enrolled in 2018, according to UNICEF.

The number of people going to college, now tens of thousands, also increased. Almost six percent of women had access to tertiary education in 2020, up from 1.8 percent in 2011.

Still, the country has one of the world’s largest gender gaps in education, and UNICEF says that girls make up 60 percent of the 3.7 million Afghan boys out of school.

Not letting girls finish their education comes at a huge cost, including poverty, child marriage, early motherhood and a lack of understanding of their rights and ability to access basic services, activists say.

“Education allows them to take care of their health, have a stronger voice in their family, prevent domestic violence and become the breadwinner,” said Forough, whose school teaches everything from English to graphic design to app development. mobiles.

“We didn’t want to wait. We wanted to continue with our mission ”.

The Taliban have also suggested that it could turn to technology to help some women continue studying.

Education Minister Abdul Baqi Haqqani told a press conference last month that women would be allowed to study at universities, but that gender-segregated classrooms would be mandatory and female students should be taught by women.

When this was not possible, he indicated that teaching can be done through broadcast or closed-circuit television.

While some private universities have reopened, public universities remain closed.

Psychology student Aisa hoped to use her degree to help the mental health of young Afghans, which she says is a major but little understood problem in the country.

But her dreams evaporated when the Taliban came to power and she is now hiding behind threats to her family.

Aisa is about to begin a bachelor’s degree in health sciences with the University of the People, a US-based organization that offers online courses to students around the world facing barriers to higher education.

The university offers 1,000 scholarships to Afghan women who can no longer study.

“Without this scholarship I have no opportunities and my future is broken. This is my last chance to get a degree, ”said Aisa, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

“It is safer for women like me to study underground.”

All of his friends in Afghanistan were forced to drop out of school, he added. Even if the Taliban eventually allow women to go back to college, he said many would be too scared to do so.

Afghan girls attend classes at an orphanage in the capital Kabul [Jorge Silva/Reuters]

People’s University said students only needed a smartphone or tablet to take one of its four degree courses: business, education, computer science or health science.

“These women have no alternative but online education. Most cannot leave the country. We are trying to give them some hope, ”said university president Shai Reshef.


Digital experts fear that the cash-strapped Taliban will not be able to maintain energy supplies, communication networks and technological infrastructure.

Not only could satellite companies and fiber providers from neighboring countries like Iran disrupt services, but the Taliban may start spying and censoring communications, said Mustafa Soltany, a Kabul-based IT consultant.

“The Taliban are very likely to impose strict restrictions, monitor and even spy on the digital arena, where they can hunt down dissidents, critics,” said Soltany, who has seen Taliban soldiers steal and search people’s mobile phones at the posts. of control.

But this does not worry Pashtana Zalmai Khan Durrani, founder of the nonprofit LEARN who has enrolled about 100 girls in an underground school where they are learning science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) on tablets.

She is working with US financial and technology firms to launch satellite internet to bypass any restrictions from the Taliban.

“I have my bases covered. They can’t do anything even if they try to cut off internet access. We will do our thing, ”said the 23-year-old, who is hiding in an undisclosed location from the Taliban.

Like some of the LEARN students, Muhammadi and his fellow CTI students have been working remotely with global technology companies on application development and graphic design.

This allows them to earn up to $ 500 a month, most paid in cash or money transfers, and provide for their families, a feat unthinkable during the previous Taliban rule.

But Muhammadi doesn’t want to stay there.

“It is always said that Afghan women are weak and cannot do anything … but I want to show that we are strong,” she said.

“I want to continue studying and inspiring more students … and be known as one of the best coders in the world.”

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