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The ones who stayed
Afghanistan’s future economists, lawyers and doctors in Mazar-e-Sharif
Everywhere we went we needed permission from the Taliban and we wanted to see if women were back in education. This has been one of the biggest conversations around Taliban rule. What will happen to the women and education was where the conversation was strongest. Now, let’s put to one side the criticisms of the previous government so we can concentrate on this single issue. If you’re new to this, a few things. The last government showed itself to be corrupt, the US tried to remove the President and negotiated with the Taliban without the Afghan government, but that all said, there was women’s education—and many other good things, it’s like all truth, not simple. I’d met young women who had only known education for them to be a reality. Anyone in their twenties, largely in the cities, expected an education. Rural communities lived a conservative life where setting children to work was more a priority, a necessity, more than educating them. We can hope that as education went on it would have spread across the country, and that’s not fanciful. Afghans are proud of their country, they don’t all want to escape. Some wanted the education and then use it in the rural communities for good, to improve healthcare, to improve lives.
A young woman I met told me she watched the evacuation flights, and felt it was an opportunity to get out, but didn’t take it. Why? She said she was not like the others, and wouldn’t leave her family behind, also that she didn’t need to go elsewhere to find freedom, this was her country she would demand it here. Even from the Taliban, who over time may prove to be open to that (nobody knows the answer to this, we can look back to their previous rule, but we’re here now). Another complication she threw up was her brother was allowed to go to school, whereas she wasn’t, many women were told not to go to school. She was frustrated with her brother, who had the opportunity to go but hadn’t in two weeks, saying it was boring, this naturally angered her. She said she wished she was a boy so her family would see her as a priority. A common theme in communities which lack physical security. One day we saw a campus, and entered. It was closed. We met the Taliban commander and asked him to show us if women were in education. He took us to a private university.
There weren’t enough places in the state universities so private ones started. We went on a day when women were learning. The Taliban commander explained he didn’t want to stop women learning, but he said they needed to stop co-education. So boys went to school on three days and women went on alternate days. This created its own problems. Could men teach women? If not where were the women teachers if women could not work? The Taliban commander said he hoped some would come back to work but admitted people had been in shock at the takeover and that their reputation from years ago did mean women even if asked were not coming back to teach or learn. And in some areas, yes the Taliban were stopping girls going to school.
It wasn’t clear what the Taliban really believed about it as journalists quizzed the spokespeople at the press conferences who gave general answers and every so often pointed out western contradictions. The commander took us to see women learning medicine, law and economics. We’ll make sure people get an education he said, but also told me that we would not see western style freedoms here, that doesn’t work for us in Afghanistan. Some women left, some stayed in their homes, some simply worked around the problem. One I saw was working remotely, earning money, supporting herself and her family, around the threats from some (not all) Taliban, the broken banking system, the shock and disinvestment from the west, militarily and economically, past the misunderstandings of who Afghans were—not just women in blue burkhas but doctors, engineers, mathematicians, and in the male dominated society with its cultural pressures, inside the pocket of all of that, she had found a way.
The women I met at the university were fiercely smart and fashionable, with fake Louis Vuitton and Fendi scarves, labelled trainers, they smiled and laughed at the ridiculous, dangerous reality that had surrounded them and decided to just live. They were brave, some didn’t care for the Taliban’s reputation and simply told them off. Not all clearly. I thought about how they would see this time and themselves in twenty years, forty, sixty, how they would be part of those who simply stayed. In years, chatting to their friends about the day the Taliban came and they went to schools and still got an education. Can I take pictures, can I film I asked? The Taliban commander said he had no problem with it, but make sure you ask the girls for their permission. The news headlines were of the ones who got out, what about these ones here, the ones who stayed? I met lots of women that day and unless the Taliban had paid for hundreds of actors for a few hours what I saw was Afghanistan’s future doctors, economists and lawyers. No it’s not easy they told me, but we’ll keep going.
From the last post
“There was shock. The Americans were seeing their decision play out badly on the screens. There was shock. The Taliban rolled into the capital quicker than they imagined. There was shock. Afghans in Kabul put down their drinks and put on their local dress. Shock dissipates. And so it did. But while in the grip of it, things failed, the countries who were involved in Afghanistan, the developed sophisticated wealthy ones left, or wagged their fingers at the Taliban, it took aid agencies to remind them there were nearly 39 million people living in Afghanistan. The money that was coming in stopped, the country needed electricity from Uzbekistan and Iran, would that stop too? Panic set in and people emptied their houses into the streets to sell what they had, to run.” Read it here
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