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Afghan schools restart, with girls still barred

Schools in Afghanistan opened for the new academic year, the education ministry said, with girls banned from joining secondary-level classes for the third year in a row.

Taliban authorities barred girls from secondary school in March 2022, after surging back to power in mid-2021 and ousting the Western-backed government.

The education ministry announced the new school year yesterday, a day before the start of the Afghan calendar’s new year.

“The new school year… will start in all provinces with the ringing of the school bell at a ceremony” in Kabul, the announcement said.

Women journalists were expressly forbidden from covering the ceremony in an invite issued to media outlets.

The Taliban government has imposed an austere interpretation of Islam, with women bearing the brunt of curbs the United Nations has labelled “gender apartheid”.

Government universities also recently started the new academic year, but women have been blocked from attending since December 2022.

Sequestered at home in a remote Afghan town, 18-year-old Shekiba often roams the house hunting for the patchy internet signal that is her last link to an education.

Shekiba has turned to online learning since the Taliban shut her out of classrooms, signing up for live economics lectures she squints at on a pocket-sized phone screen.

She hopes to save for a laptop but is forced to buy expensive mobile data packages that still do not guarantee a signal in the town of Ishkashim perched high in mountainous Badakhshan province.

“If there were no internet issues, it would be much easier,” she told AFP by phone. “But it’s better to carry on, instead of sitting and doing nothing.”

“I just hope to study, to succeed, to progress. If one person progresses in a family, the whole family progresses, as well as the whole society.”

Primary aged girls attend a class at a madrassa or an Islamic school in Kandahar

It is unclear exactly how many girls and women are involved in online learning, but two higher education platforms report Afghans registering or applying in the tens of thousands since the Taliban takeover.

Begum Academy, an online platform with some 8,500 free videos in Dari and Pashto covering the Afghan secondary school curriculum, launched in December 2023 and quickly had more than 3,000 users.

Director Hamida Aman said parents are grateful but it is hard for girls to stay driven.

“It’s difficult to get motivated when everything is closed to you and there’s no perspective of future,” she told AFP from France, where she is based.

“These girls cannot have certificates, or they cannot have the ambition to go to the university or to have any job later.”

Education for girls and women was a key aim of the US-backed government but gains were largely limited to cities, with only 23% of girls aged 13 to 18 in school nationwide in Afghanistan, according to the International Crisis Group.

The think tank said that figure dropped to 13% after the Taliban government issued its edicts barring female education in 2022.

Zainab was soon to start high school when it came into effect and was twice rebuffed by an online school that was at capacity before she finally secured a place.

“Before taking online classes, we were idle at home. We were worried. We used to sleep most of the time, which made us depressed,” said Zainab, who asked not to use her full name for fear of reprisal.

Online classes “keep us busy”, she told AFP, but they “cannot replace schools”.

Ruhila, 22, teaches English classes online while trying to continue her university education, also virtually, and says the teaching helps her spirits.

“The only thing that gives me energy in the current situation is teaching these girls,” she said.

“But when you accept that it’s going to be online forever then you lose enthusiasm and you don’t put in the same effort,” she said. “Mentally, online classes are very tough. They are stressful, and boring.”

Taliban authorities have insisted since girls were barred from secondary school that they are working on establishing a system that aligns with their interpretation of Islamic law.

Widespread virtual schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated it was “at best, a rather partial substitute for in-person instruction”, a UNESCO report found.

Afghan students face the burden of trying to log on in a country where the internet is often down – or painfully slow – and where electricity outages are common.

Less than a quarter of the population uses the internet, according to online insights company DataReportal. With stark poverty rates in Afghanistan, computers are also a luxury many cannot afford.

Some 90% of Begum Academy students use their phones to learn, according to Aman.

But even more than those frustrations, 18-year-old Aisha misses the social aspect of school.

“Online classes cannot be as effective as physical classes where we meet our peers and our teachers and exchange our ideas,” she said.

“Online courses can only give us a hope,” she added. “But we can never say, ‘I have studied online so I have graduated from school.'”

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