EXCLUSIVE: High school students 'absent' in eastern Afghanistan after Taliban order

EXCLUSIVE: High school students 'absent' in eastern Afghanistan after Taliban order
A headteacher in eastern Afghanistan, whose identity The New Arab is protecting due to safety concerns, received a letter from the Taliban-run ministry of education last week ordering only junior students to return to school.
3 min read
13 September, 2021
Schools in some parts of the country are only accepting younger children [file photo-Getty]

The headteacher of a private school in eastern Afghanistan has said that students aged over-12 have not returned to class after the Taliban-run education ministry issued orders that only specified the return of junior students.

The New Arab, which is using an alias name to protect the identity of the teacher due to concerns for their safety, obtained a letter sent to him from the Taliban-run ministry of education, dated to Monday 6 September - the start of the new school year in Afghanistan.

It gives instructions relating to the start of the first term for students, teachers, and education officials in Afghanistan’s warmer regions.

These include provinces in eastern and southern Afghanistan which operate an alternative timetable than areas with milder weather, where the school year starts in late March.

The letter states that all children between years 1 to 6 - as well as teachers and school administrators - must return to school on 6 September. Local education officials are ordered to follow up on the matter and ensure attendance.

The New Arab has obtained a letter sent by the Taliban-run educational authorities to the headteacher of a private school.

Haseeb Atal (name changed), the founder of a private school in eastern Afghanistan, said it was the only communique he had received from the Taliban authorities and that no information was given regarding students above year 7  (aged 12 and above) who were now absent from school grounds.

"Parents are not sending their older children to school out of fear after this letter was issued. The children themselves - particularly girls - have no desire to come to school," Atal said.

As the Taliban's caretaker government entered its second week, the ruling militants had claimed progress and reform in the field of education and women's rights, with a widely reported U-turn on girls' education.

On Sunday, the Taliban's acting universities minister unveiled new restrictions immediately affecting women at universities, including enforcing gender segregation and a highly restrictive dress code.

Last week, acting Education Minister Molvi Noorullah Munir dismissed the value of higher education altogether, praising the religious schooling and "sacrifices" of the Taliban as the "source" of national pride.

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Reflecting on the signals from the Taliban leadership, Atal said that "despite what they [The Taliban] claim, they are stifling education".

Atal warned that any unified action by school unions would likely provoke the militants, which have meted out brutality against civil society actors.

He fears his private school and others could face closure by authorities soon.

"My school employs 120 staff, 50 of whom are women. In my school, roughly number of girls and boys is roughly equal. I don't think we can carry on," he said.

The New Arab spoke with 16-year-old Wafa, described by Atal as one of the best performing students in her year group.

Having endured months of disruption to her education due to a local coronavirus lockdown, Wafa said that her life had only become worse following the Taliban takeover.

"My friends and I are afraid to go to school. We know very well what the Taliban were like in the past and what they are capable of," said Wafa.

In the next couple of years, Wafa is supposed to sit Afghanistan's Concord exam - the country's final school exam whose outcomes determine a student's future.

Those who perform the highest go on to read medicine at university - a subject which Wafa says is her passion.

"Because I did so well at school, I would have started early preparation for my Concord exam this year. I can't do that now," she said.

"Even though I self-study and manage my mental health at home, I have lost nearly all hope that I will be able to study at a higher level."