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Fighting for Girls' Education No Matter What
"The Taliban have not changed, but our women have grown stronger. They stand up and fight for their rights. As a mother, sister, daughter, and wife, I work hard for our women. I believe in myself."
Neda, 34, is a graduate of Kabul University and currently runs a network of underground schools for women and girls in Afghanistan. Despite the Taliban banning women and girls from receiving an education, she continues to keep the doors to her centers open to those still willing to take the risk. Every day when she leaves for work in the morning, Neda knows she might not return home safely. That she might be imprisoned or killed. She believes the risk is worth ensuring that the next generation of Afghan women will be literate and empowered so that they may fight for their right to an education. In the last 14 months, over 1,400 girls have graduated from her centers. Her name has been changed for the purposes of this interview.
What is the current situation like in Afghanistan?
The situation is awful. Every day new regulations and rules are imposed by the Taliban on women. Most of my friends and those I care about are considering leaving the country and building their lives somewhere else. We won’t be made aware of any new changes until the start of the Persian New Year. Nothing will likely change regarding women’s involvement in society until then, but there may be a new resolution yet to come. The only hope that exists right now lies within educational centers such as ours, or others that are supported by outside donors and offer courses for young girls.
What compelled you to step in and help others when the Taliban took over? You mentioned that you had to stop working and studying to take on the title of “helper.” How did this make you feel?
In 2019 my daughter was still going to school. I was not convinced of the quality of the education she was receiving or of the substance of the books she was reading, so I tried to compile resources for her and ended up putting together a series of books. Once I completed the series I was convinced that these materials were better than the ones she was reading in school. I provide the series free of charge to children who are living on the streets or are doing hard labor instead of attending school. We collected money, about 600 USD, from donors living abroad to expand our efforts and were about to do so— that’s when the Taliban started to capture northern provinces and were gaining more and more territory by the day. This momentum displaced a lot of Afghans from the north who fled to Kabul city. They were living in terrible conditions just north of Kabul in tents on the streets… that’s when I decided to put the books aside temporarily and use the money I had raised to help those people. That’s when I became a helper. I went to those displaced people's camps and helped them survive. They had no place to live and were living on the street. Slowly, this became overwhelming because I was constantly working with these people, so I decided to quit my job. After 3-4 months, the Taliban took Kabul. I became really worried for the futures of Afghan women and girls. My own sister was in 10th grade at the time, and it was heartbreaking to see her worry about what will become of her and her classmate’s futures. I also have two daughters and I am worried about their future as well. I knew I had to take the initiative to help, which is what brought me to what I do now.
When you opened the first educational center in 2021, what challenges did you face? What challenges do you currently face to keep the centers open?
It was around October of 2021 when I decided to do one of the most frightening things I have ever done in my life. I have always been scared of the Taliban, so I still can’t believe that I did this. I contacted many people telling them that I wanted to open a center to teach girls and asked for advice. They told me that I had to go to the office of the Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesperson for the Taliban. He has a lot of control and authority, most of the media is controlled by him. I had to ask his permission to open the center, and I will never forget that day.
I went to his office and sat there, fully covered so that he could barely see my eyes. I did not take my husband with me for fear that he would be arrested and questioned. I knew they would call him a coward and question his decision to bring his wife here. So I went alone. I asked Mujahid to please give us permission to open the center, and eventually I convinced him. He agreed to sign my permit. He told me that I could open a madrassa, not an educational center, as they are not allowed for girls. At a madrassa, they can only study Islamic subjects. He also said that I needed to go to Sirajuddin Haqqani’s office— a deputy leader of the Taliban and acting interior minister. He has been the mastermind behind a huge percentage of the terrorist activities inside Afghanistan. Explosions, suicide attacks… Haqqani is the Osama Bin Laden of Afghanistan. They told me I must go to his office, so I did. Before I could get within 25 meters of the office, Taliban officials ordered me to stop where I was and not come any closer. They started yelling at me, “What do you want? Go and get your mahram. Why are you speaking to us without a male family member present?” They were not pleased that I was a woman there alone. I was shocked and terrified, but they agreed to talk with me.
I explained to them that Mujahid had signed my permit and that I needed Haqqani’s signature as well. They didn’t believe me at first and said that Mujahid “is no coward” and would never sign such a document. They told me to throw the paper to them, as they didn’t want to come close enough to me to take it from my hand. While they examined the paper, a room divider was brought in, which is porous enough to be able to speak through, thay way I would be separated from the men while we spoke. They began to interrogate me further: “Who is sponsoring this? The Western infidels? Do you want to teach young girls Western values? We cannot allow this.” Finally, there was one man who said they would allow me to open the center under a few conditions:
No men or boys were to be allowed in the center.
All of the girls must be required to wear hijab.
The center was to be heavily surveilled by the Taliban.
I did my best to convince these men that all I wanted to teach the girls was Persian language skills and nothing else, and it worked. Two days after this, I opened my center and got to work.
What was it like to meet two Taliban leaders?
The day that I went to meet with them I felt like I was standing in my own grave, being questioned by the devil himself. In Mujahid’s office, they actually brought me food and water, but I did not drink the water because I was afraid it was poisoned. I discretely poured it into a potted plant instead. After my permit was issued and I was done, I left and never looked back. I never want to face them again. Luckily, the permit that was issued did not list an address for the center, since it didn’t exist yet. So the permit I have is just a general permit, and the Taliban leader’s signatures are accepted everywhere. We can open a center anywhere we want with this permit.
At the beginning it was quite easy to get an appointment with the Taliban because they were trying to establish dominance, do photo ops, and pretend that they are accepting of people— even of women. I don’t think it would be as easy now to get an appointment.
Are you afraid?
I’m terrified. When the Taliban recently issued the bans barring women and girls from education it was a horrible moment for me and my family. The night after the ban was issued, we all gathered late in the night at my house; my husband, myself, and my family members. My loved ones advised me that I should close all of the centers. They said they were too afraid that the Taliban would come and arrest us and throw us in prison. The next morning, however, in our WhatsApp groupchat between the centers, I kept getting texts and voice messages from my students. They were crying and begged me not to close the centers. They said if I wanted to protest they would come with me and we could do it together. That day I decided to keep the centers open, no matter what might happen. I kissed my children goodbye the next morning knowing I might not come home. That I might be imprisoned or killed.
We opened the center and for 2-3 days we were so scared that the Taliban might show up. The children were scared. I thought to myself: If the Taliban can manipulate and trick women into staying inside their homes rather than risk getting an education, I might be able to trick them as well. I went and bought a huge Taliban flag and hung it on the wall just inside the center. It only took a few hours for them to show up. They came into the office and said, “Why are you open? Everywhere else is closed.” They were extremely rude and intimidating. I explained to them that we have a permit and that we only teach Islamic education. All of the girls knew to hide their English textbooks, put their Qurans on their desks, and make sure their hijabs were properly in place. The worst part was that one of the men claimed to be part of the Badri group. He boasted of his violent acts, and said that he is a suicide attacker. He was trying to show off how brutal he is to scare me. He insisted on checking for himself to make sure there were no men in the center. He said, “How many more of these centers do you have?” He said he planned to visit the other centers the next day.
The next day, we were ready. None of the kids brought their English or science textbooks— just the Quran. The inspection went well. After word of these inspections spread, other centers in the neighborhood started to slowly reopen. Every single day I, alongside teachers, students, and principals, come to the centers knowing that we might not return home safely at night.
What was it like growing up in Iran as an Afghan refugee? What similarities or differences do you see between then and now?
In Iran, I was a top performing student. Normally that would mean I would have the opportunity to study abroad in Europe, however, due to my refugee status I was not able to take advantage of this opportunity. That’s why my father and family decided to come back to Afghanistan. As soon as we crossed the border back into Afghanistan, I was shocked to see how different it was. Men with long beards, women in hijab… none of this I was used to. I began to normalize it and take it all in, and eventually it became normal for me. Still, some of these things never completely made sense to me.
What differences do you see between Afghan women now vs during the first Taliban regime?
Many women during the first Taliban regime were illiterate. They could not speak for themselves or stand up for their rights. Oppression was and is the Taliban’s weapon of choice. The Taliban have not changed, but our women have grown stronger. They stand up and fight for their rights. They use their voices to write, talk, and shout about what is happening to them. As a mother, sister, daughter, and wife I will work hard for our women. I believe in my abilities, and I will resist as long as I live.
Everything I am doing is for my daughters. If we don’t fight the Taliban now, we will see women in Afghanistan become illiterate once again. I will do everything I can to help ensure the upcoming generation of Afghan women are literate.
Do you see any similarities between the revolution going on in Iran right now and what is happening in Afghanistan?
The issues of Iran and Afghanistan are intertwined. During the first few protests in Iran, we saw that women and men came together to protest. When women were kicked out of universities here in Afghanistan, the male students also left universities in protest. The protestors and dissidents both in Iran and Afghanistan share our energy from afar as we fight back against extremism.
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