A visit to the Afghanistan the Taliban doesn’t want you to see

The Taliban forbids women from attending high school or university, publishers have shut down and only the study of Islam is encouraged.

9 min
Noies in a clandestine class in Kabul.

KabulAt Dubai airport a long line of men with suitcases and huge bundles are waiting at the check-in desk for Kam Air, the Afghan airline. They are all dressed in shalwar kameez, the traditional two-piece garment consisting of a long tunic and loose-fitting pants, topped by an Islamic cap. Some also wear their hair long, in a style typical of the Taliban. All eyes are on the ten or so women who are present.

Even though it’s a wide-bodied jet, the Kam Air flight to Kabul is nearly full. In spite of what one might think, many people travel to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The front rows of the plane are reserved for women and children. Surprisingly, two women number among the cabin crew. The remaining passengers, all men, are seated behind a curtain.

The plane touches down in Kabul. Some of the airport staff are female, as are the cleaners at the hotel. Kabul’s residents have undergone a major transformation in just over a year and a half, since the Taliban came to power in August 2021, one that is immediately apparent in the streets of the capital. Males no longer wear Western clothing, replaced with shalwar kameez, with some wearing their hair long. Women are dressed in floor-length black robes, headscarves and facemasks, though there has been no coronavirus outbreak in Afghanistan. It's the Taliban’s new edict in an attempt to force women to cover their faces, and seen as more acceptable to the West than the burqa.

One needs a press pass to work as a reporter in Afghanistan. When the Taliban came to power, they allowed foreign journalists easy access to the country at a time when they were keen to project a good image on the international stage in order to be recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Now, however, most international journalists are refused a credential. Those who stayed on after the US pulled out still have theirs but, nevertheless, they have to ask the authorities for permission every time they leave Kabul to visit another city.

The Taliban denied ARA a press pass. However, this newspaper still has a presence inside Afghanistan. This is the story of the Afghanistan the Taliban don't want you to see.

In a street in Kart-e-Char, a neighbourhood in the western part of Kabul, the Taliban have set up a roadblock and are not allowing vehicles to pass. They are armed with Kalashnikovs and have placed four police vans in the middle of the road. They are searching the houses one by one. According to Shakiba (not her real name), a 19-year-old girl who lives with her family on this street, "it's not the first time they've done it", she says with a degree of trepidation. She doesn't know what they're looking for exactly, but she hopes they won't find anything that puts her in danger.

Shakiba is in charge of the projects run by the Catalan organisation Ponts per la Pau [Bridges for Peace], founded by well-known Afghan activist Nadia Ghulam. They are committed to promoting education during this dire time for teaching in Afghanistan. The Taliban have banned secondary and higher education for women. Girls are only allowed to study up to sixth grade, making it the only country in the world to do so. Afghan activist Matiullah Wesa, who campaigns tirelessly in support of women's education, was arrested on March 28 this year. He was due to speak out against this untenable state of affairs at a conference in Geneva three days later. His chair sat empty.

Ponts per la Pau teaches primary school age boys and girls, which is within the law. However, it also runs classes for girls over the age of 12, in contravention of the ban, meaning they must be very careful. Lessons are taught in secrecy at private homes.

Clandestine lessons

From the outside it looks like a typical house, with nothing to draw one’s attention to it. In the inner courtyard, however, a pile of sandals is scattered outside the front door. In a carpeted room, a woman is teaching a group of two dozen girls. Most are over 12, though many look younger. They have been expelled from high school. They are forbidden to study, even if their dream is to become doctors, teachers, engineers... One girl told me she wants to "be an astronaut".

“Coming here is risky, but what’s the alternative?”, asks 18-year-old Nilofar. “It's really hard to study on your own at home", points out Benafsha, 15. They all miss their classmates, but feel lucky to have found this alternative as a means to continue their studies. They belong to the generation born after the fall of the first Taliban regime in 2001, one that —for the first time in many years— had unrestricted access to education. In contrast, their mothers are all illiterate.

Teenagers who are forbidden to study. From left to right and top to bottom: 15-year-old Yalda; Nilofar (18), Mariam (14), Nabila (19), Benafsha (15), Mariam (13), Khamia (16), Moqadasa (12), Mariam (16), Takhmi (18), Sana (18) and Omolvanin (15).

The supervisor told me how they organise the classes so that they don’t dissolve into chaos: "At home they study the subjects according to their age, and here the teacher clears up any doubts they may have. In addition, we run workshops on reading, art, health and so on". "We make the Taliban believe it’s a madrasa", she adds. This is due to the fact that, while the fundamentalists don’t allow girls to study in high school or university, they do allow them to attend Islamic schools.

One of the unequivocal consequences of the Taliban coming to power is that Afghan society is becoming even more Islamized, despite having already been decidedly conservative. Maybe it's just me, but I get the feeling that the loudspeakers in Kabul’s mosques that blare out the call to prayer are even louder now. On Fridays traffic is stopped on several streets so that men can pray in the middle of the road, something that never used to happen.

Hundreds of men praying on a street in downtown Kabul during Friday prayers.

This means that the girls who attend classes on the sly are incredibly lucky. Speaking in a hushed whisper, Madina, a shy 13-year-old, told me about the day when schools were shut down: "When I went to my high school and the teachers wouldn't let me into the classroom and told me to go home, I burst into tears". That was last year. She had to give up her studies while she was in the seventh grade, the equivalent of the first year of ESO in Catalonia. This year she had hoped the Taliban would allow girls to go to school, but it was not to be. She has already written off this year. "I don't do anything at home. I help my mum", she tells me. "I hope my father won’t let this carry on and that he’ll take me to a country where I can go to school", she adds.

Emotions are running high

When I enquire about her daughters' education, Breshna —Madina’s mother— starts to cry. She has a second, younger daughter who is ten. "I wasn’t able to study and my dream was for them to do so", she tells me between sobs. Emotions are running high in Kabul. As soon as the topic of banning girls' education comes up, someone sheds a tear. Even Khadija, an 8-year-old, breaks down in tears when asked what she wants to be when she grows up. “I’d like to be a judge, but I don't know if they'll let me," she says.

In Afghanistan boys and girls are supposed to start school at the age of 7 and finish their primary education at age 12. But this is not always the case. There are girls who are 10 and have already finished their primary education, as they started earlier, and now they find themselves unable to continue studying. Anything is possible in such a chaotic country.

In addition, there are scores of young women who have completed their education and now find themselves confined to their homes, with nothing to do. This is the case of Aseya Sediqi, a 22-year-old who’s uniquely qualified: she studied both journalism and law. She worked at a TV station until the Taliban took over Kabul. Now she is unemployed, desperate and at home. Her husband has also lost his job and the couple have a 9-month-old daughter. "I’ve lost all hope. I have no future in this country", she tells me with bitter regret. Like Madina, she also wants to emigrate to another country.

Young journalist and lawyer Aseya Sediqi at her home in Kabul.

It is holiday on March 21 in Afghanistan. It marks the beginning of spring and the Afghan New Year, since the country follows the Persian calendar. However, the Taliban have cancelled the festivities, instead announcing that the school year is to begin on that day. Walking through Kabul this March 21 was an eye opener. Government offices, schools and official buildings were open for business, while most shops had their shutters down. The Taliban want one thing, but it is clear that the general population wants another. At least in the capital city.

Speaking of the former holiday, Nilofar Ghaznawi, who teaches at a public school in Kabul said: "Of course I’ll go to work today. I don't want to get into trouble, but I expect my pupils won't show up". The outcome was bizarre: the teachers went to school, while their students stayed at home.

Married off at 14 or 15

Ghaznawi used to teach at a high school, but when the Taliban banned young girls from studying, she was left without any students. She continues to work and receive a salary —after taking a modest pay cut— though now she works as a teaching assistant in a primary school. According to Ghaznawi, the Taliban haven’t changed the school curriculum, but girls and boys attend separate classes from first grade. In the past they were schooled together until third grade.

"Now the sixth graders are trying to fail their exams so they won’t move up a year, meaning they can continue going to school", she says. Ghaznawi also tells me that many of the students who are unable to continue studying are married off at just 14 or 15 years of age.

It looks as if this is what the Taliban want: for women to marry, to produce lots of babies and to devote themselves exclusively to housework. Families in Afghanistan have traditionally been large: six, seven or eight children is the norm. Family planning has always been almost non-existent, but now it's even more challenging. "We only sell birth control pills with a doctor’s prescription. In the past you also needed a prescription, but we would turn a blind eye to the rule", admits the owner of a pharmacy in the centre of Kabul. They barely sell any condoms and some pharmacies don't even stock them.

No one breaks the rules

Now no one breaks the rules. It’s even noticeable in terms of Kabul’s traffic. A lot of the motorists obey the orders of the traffic police, when they never used to take any notice of them. Nevertheless, congestion is still a major issue in the centre of the Afghan capital. In the Deh Afghanan neighbourhood the Taliban have provided officers with long batons to hit the cars with, if drivers fail to stop when ordered to.

Around noon, some students at Kabul University pour out of their lecture halls, milling around the entrance to the campus. They are all men, of course. Akbar Khan, a 24-year-old fourth year biology student, tells me that "when the Taliban banned women from studying at university, we protested the first day; but not anymore, as we don't want to get into trouble". Fahim, who’s also 24 but studies journalism, adds that "it's because at university there are people who have very different views and it's difficult to organize anything".

Hamid, who is 16 and still in high school, shrugs and says that he has no reason to protest: "My life hasn't changed. I study, play soccer, hang out with friends and I go to the park and the zoo". Women, on the other hand, can do none of these things. They have also been forbidden from doing most skilled jobs and are prohibited from working for NGOs, although most continue to do so from home. This week the Taliban added a new limit to their freedom: from now on women will not be able to work for the UN, either.

As a consequence of these changes, the publishing sector has also taken a blow. Joy-e-Shir Market has a lot of stalls selling books. This time the Taliban have not taken the trouble to rip out the pages with photographs or paint over the images, as they did the first time they ruled the country. There are still books of all kinds, even ones containing drawings. However, booksellers complain that business is slow. Sales have plummeted since girls can no longer go to school and Afghanistan is in the grips of a severe economic crisis.

Publisher Spin Zahaar, whose company (Danish Publishing Association) has brought out more than 2,800 titles over the past two decades, is about to sell all his printing presses. He has ceased all publishing activity and claims that the other Afghan publishing houses have followed suit. It appears as if Afghanistan is undergoing a form of cultural extermination.

Publisher Spin Zahaar with the printing press he is about to sell.

The Kama Art and Culture Centre used to be a lovely place to visit in Kabul, with its small cinema, a café and a bookstore showcasing dozens of books, paintings and sculptures. Now nothing remains, aside from a few specimens covered in a layer of dust in an empty, depressing room. The man in charge, 30-year-old writer Ahmad Zia Dehatashi, says they tried to continue hosting cultural activities even after the Taliban's arrival in Kabul. "We would hold poetry recitals on Thursdays. At first, girls and boys came along, but the Taliban told us that women were forbidden from attending, so we carried on with only men", he explains. About four months ago the Taliban showed up at the cultural centre once again, arrested a sculptor colleague of his and struck Dehatashi on the head. He showed me several photographs of the injuries he sustained.

Dehatashi now simply wants to leave the country. He knows his life is in danger. "I wish the international community had never come to Afghanistan so we wouldn't know anything about culture, freedom or human rights. We would be ignorant, and we’d be better off that way. Now we know that another reality exists, but the foreigners have left us in the lurch".

Mònica Bernabé is a journalist