Banned from school, Afghan girls turn to madrasahs

Afghan girls learning the Quran at a madrasah, or Islamic school, on the outskirts of Kabul on Feb 13, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

KABUL – In a madrasah in the Afghan capital, rows of teenage girls rock back and forth, reciting verses of the Quran under the watchful eye of a religious scholar.

The number of Islamic schools has grown across Afghanistan since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, with teenage girls increasingly attending classes at these schools after they were banned from secondary schools.

“We were depressed because we were denied an education,” said 16-year-old Farah, a veil covering her face and hair.

“It was then that my family decided I should at least come here. The only open place for us now is a madrasah.”

Instead of maths and literature, the girls focus on rote-learning the Quran in Arabic – a language most of them do not understand.

Those who want to learn the meaning of the verses study separately, where a teacher translates and explains the text in their local language.

AFP visited three madrasahs in Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar, where scholars said the numbers of female students have doubled since 2022.

For Farah, her ambition of becoming a lawyer was dashed when Taliban authorities blocked girls from secondary school – and months later banned women from attending university.

“Everyone’s dreams are lost,” she said.

Still, Farah – whose real name has been changed to protect her identity like other students AFP interviewed for this story – counts herself lucky in that her parents allowed her to attend classes at all.

Education deadlock

The Taliban government adheres to an austere interpretation of Islam.

Rulings are passed down by the reclusive supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada and his inner circle of religious advisers, who are against education for girls and women, some officials say.

He has ordered hundreds of new madrasahs to be built as he establishes his Islamic emirate based on syariah law.

The authorities in Kabul have given several excuses for the closure of girls’ schools – including the need for segregated classrooms and Islamic uniforms, which were largely already in place.

The government insists schools will eventually reopen.

Education is the main sticking point behind a deadlock with the international community, which has condemned the stripping away of freedoms for women and girls.

No country has recognised the Taliban government, which is battling to keep afloat an economy where more than half the population face starvation, according to aid agencies.

Ms Hosna, a former university student studying medicine, now teaches at a madrasah in Kandahar, reading verses of the Quran to a class of more than 30 girls who repeat the words back to her.

“Studying in universities helps to build a future, makes us aware of our rights,” she said.

“But there is no future in madrasahs. They are studying here because they are helpless.”

The madrasah, located in an old building, has small classrooms with no electricity.

Despite the financial constraints faced by the management of the school, dozens of students attend classes free.

Friendship and distraction

The educational value of madrasahs is subject to fierce debate, with experts saying they do not provide the necessary skills for gainful employment as adults.

“Given the present conditions, the need for modern education is a priority,” said scholar Abdul Bari Madani, who frequently appears on local TV to discuss religious affairs.

“Efforts need to be taken so that the Islamic world is not left behind... letting go of modern education is like betraying the nation,” he said.

Around the world, some madrasahs have been associated with militancy.

Many of the Taliban’s leaders were educated at the Darul Uloom Haqqania madrasah in Pakistan.

Mr Niamatullah Ulfat, head of Islamic studies at Kandahar province’s education department, said the government is “thinking day and night on how to increase madrasahs”.

“The idea is that we can bring the new generation of this country into the world with good training, good teachings and good ethics,” he told AFP.

Yalda, whose father is an engineer and mother was a teacher under the ousted United States-backed regime, was top of her class at her old school, but still shines at the madrasah and memorised the Quran within 15 months.

“A madrasah cannot help me in becoming a doctor... But it’s still good. It’s good for expanding our religious knowledge,” the 16-year-old said.

The madrasah, on the outskirts of Kabul, is divided into two blocks – one for girls and the other for boys.

Still, classes are held at different times to ensure there is no interaction at all between the two sexes.

Several girls told AFP that attending a madrasah does provide some stimulation – and the chance to be with friends.

“I tell myself that someday the schools might open, and my education will resume,” said one girl, Sara.

If not, she is determined to learn one way or the other.

“Now that there are smartphones and the Internet... schools are not the only way to get an education,” she added. AFP

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