The Threat to ‘Girl Power’As the Taliban Besiege Kandahar
Aaquib Khan reports from the Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies where women students fear losing their gains in education as insurgents encircle Afghanistan’s second largest city
The broad green Mulberry tree inside the perimeter of Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies (KIMS) is loaded with a green, red colour fruit called Toot. Soon the tiny fruits will turn black when ripened, passing through all the shades Afghanistan’s tricolour national flag has. Perhaps that is why the Mulberry is the national tree of Afghanistan.
Under the same tree one sunny morning girls in their Hijab, some in black, blue scarves and some covering their face with surgical masks are standing and chattering against a wall with KIMS imprinted in bold letters in light green colour. The girls are discussing their test results. But the conversation is not in Pashto or Dari, official and widely spoken languages of the country. They are discussing their English language test results with each other — in a US English accent.
“Wherever we go, we can communicate with others in English, and for me getting higher education, the English language is important,” Fatima, an 11th-grade student told Byline Times from behind a black veil.
KIMS is a private higher education centre, with an emphasis on women’s education and employment. Teachers from the USA and Canada have been teaching English and Management courses to students via Skype, free of charge. High walls, a metal door and an old guard welcomes the buses, cars which ferry female students to the centre’s courtyard. Transport is arranged by the centre so that the female students can continue their education without having to face harassment on the streets in a deeply patriarchal society.
“Kandahar is the most dangerous province for girls. The boys tease the girls, and the girls don’t feel secure to get an education: we don’t have enough centres especially for girls to get an education,” Fatima explained. She had a hard time convincing her parents to allow her to continue her education, especially when the Taliban are warning schools and universities to shut down.
“We have the right to education, and if we want to improve our education we must come here, even if it’s so dangerous now in Kandahar, we must come,” says Fatima, with resilience in her voice indicating something has changed on the ground for the young generation of Afghans who live in an environment of terror since they were born — a resilience which scares the tyrants and militias.
There are 68 women lawmakers in the Afghan parliament. Over the past two decades, women also have held senior positions in the judiciary, in the army, in the police, or as regional governors.
KIMS is an oasis for around 1300 students, fifty per cent of them female, away from the chaos and conflict of the city. Here girls can move around freely, learn and can dream.
The classes run in two shifts, with female students studying in the morning and male students in the afternoon. With ages ranging from school-going children, through university students, to married women in their 20s and 30s, they all come here to study the English language, learn computers and business programs, in order to catch up with a changing country and avail themselves of better opportunities
“We come here to get an education, to change our personalities, to change ourselves from darkness to lightness” Fariha, a non-hijabi wearing student told Byline Times. She comes from a marginal middle-class household and asserts: “We have the girl power; we have women power. We can do everything. We will change the world.”
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After nine years of conflict, and the estimated death of one million civilians in a bloody civil war between the Soviet-supported communist government in Kabul and anti-communist Mujahedeen, the Soviet military withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988-89. The Mujahideen turned their guns on each other and this infighting led to the emergence of a group of religious students — Taliban — in Kandahar in 1994. During the civil war, the Taliban had made Kandahar their capital.
The group captured Kabul in a lightning offensive in 1996 until they were toppled by US-led NATO forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in late 2001. With the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban are making battlefield gains and are now standing at the doors of Kandahar city. The echoes of the Taliban’s harsh rules imposed on Afghan society during their rule in the 90s is worrying many Afghans – especially the young generation living in the urban centres who were born in the last two decades under the occupation of foreign forces and have seen a country with improved roads, better education and healthcare facilities, new opportunities.
We have the girl power; we have women power. We can do everything. We will change the world.Fariha
In a statement in June this year head of the Taliban’s political office, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar said that the Taliban would commit to “accommodating all rights of citizens” in Afghanistan “whether they are male or female”. The group’s spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, has said in an interview that the new government women will be allowed to work, go to school and can participate in politics but will have to wear Hijab.
But the trust deficit in Taliban promises is clearly visible among the female students in KIMS. And the fear is genuine. During their rule, women were confined in their homes and girls were not allowed to have education, employment, proper health care and, in many instances, women faced punishment by the Talibs.
“I hope they (Taliban) don’t rule over the Kandahar because if they return then we won’t have any chance to continue our education. I really don’t believe them. I don’t” Fatima told Byline Times. “Half of the students who are girls are staying at their home because their families are afraid of the Taliban.”
The Afghan traditional patriarchal system remains intact in rural areas where the life of women has not changed much from the previous era of Taliban rule. However, in Kabul and other urban centres, progress has been made. According to the Ministry of Education, over 9 million children are enrolled in schools, including over 3.5 million girls. Two decades ago there were only 3000 schools in Afghanistan but now 18,000 schools are active in the country. There are 68 women lawmakers in the Afghan parliament. Over the past two decades, women also have held senior positions in the judiciary, in the army, in the police, or as regional governors.
“As you know they (the Taliban) are so absent-minded people they don’t allow girls to get an education,” Aamira who is preparing for her Test of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) told Byline Times. “In my view, they are just pretending to sign the treaty (in the peace talks). They will do anything they want.”
The centre’s manager, Hamayoon Amiri, checks the test results of the students and encourages them to work hard in the next tests. In his mid-forties, Amiri thinks the Taliban may have changed in the last two decades and may now allow women to get an education.
“I heard that some of the Taliban on the way to Kandahar from Helmand province speak English. They know computers,” Amiri told Byline Times. “Maybe today’s Taliban are not the Taliban they were 10-20 years ago,” he added with a cryptic smile ran which was not difficult to decode: he is worried.
A longer version of this article appears in Newlines Magazine
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