“We no longer have any hope from the Taliban,” says Sakina, 16. “If they wanted us to study, they would not have deprived us from studying for a year and allowed us to go to school.”
Sakina had been more hopeful about returning to school when I spoke with her last December outside Sayed Ul-Shuhada school in West Kabul.
The girls’ secondary school was the site of a devastating attack in May 2021, when more than 80 students were killed in a bombing attack widely believed to have been orchestrated by ISIS-K.
Despite the violence, Sakina and her friends returned to school just days after the bombing.
When I met them in December, the three girls were picking up certificates from their schools to pass the last academic year.
The certificates were being issued as a formality as none of them had been allowed to undertake their annual exams.
In December, Sakina still talked about wanting to be an engineer even though her parents didn’t believe that she’d be able to return to school.
Along with her two school friends, Sakina had been attending a private educational centre while the ban was in place last year. Now, the centre has closed.
Afghanistan is now the only country in the world where girls are banned from attending secondary school.
Apart from in several provinces where the Taliban succumbed to local pressure, girls’ secondary schools have been closed since August 2021.
The Taliban had promised to re-open secondary schools on March 23 for an estimated 850,000 Afghan girls.
Instead, the students were quickly sent home from school because of so-called technical issues regarding the uniform that girls would wear.
“The uniforms are already very conservative, and the schools are already segregated by gender,” said Heather Barr, associate director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch in March.
“They had seven months to decide what type of scarves girls should wear on their heads and even those seven months weren’t enough. This isn’t a credible excuse.”
The invasion in Ukraine has been a helpful distraction for the Taliban, as they dismantle safeguards for women and renege on their promises to rule with a degree of moderation.
Even if the school ban is lifted, Sakina and her friends have little faith in the type of education that would be on offer to them: “Iif the Taliban reopen the schools, they will teach us the subjects and education that they want,” she says.
Zahra, 22, used to run a library and study space for students in her neighbourhood in Kabul. She redecorated a disused mechanic’s garage and turned it into a pleasant light-filled space with desks and books.
On the shelf was a Persian translation of Michelle Obama’s memoir, an inspiring story of female progress that seems like a bad joke in a country where women can no longer walk alone or with their faces uncovered.
The economic crisis means that few can afford the library’s modest fees. Many of the students have lost their motivation anyway.
“They didn’t think there was any point in studying because they wouldn’t be able to go to university,” says Zahra.
The Taliban has allowed women to return to university, but their continuous harassment of female students has created an unsafe environment for them, forcing many to stop attending.
“Taliban women stand in front of the doors and check our bags and hijab,” says one female student at Kabul Polytechnic University.
Permission to attend university will also soon become meaningless anyway, if there are no girls graduating from high school who are eligible for university courses.
Research by Amnesty International has found that the lack of educational and professional prospects for women and girls is pushing many into early and forced marriages.
Stephanie Sinclair, director of Too Young to Wed, an NGO which focused on early and forced marriage told Amnesty: “In Afghanistan, it’s a perfect storm for child marriage.
"You have a patriarchal government, war, poverty, drought, girls out of school — with all of these factors combined … we knew child marriage was going to go through the roof.”
In November in Kabul, I spoke with Atika Abulmalik Mingally, who was married at 19 and now has seven children. She said life for her was tough.
Atika wished that she had gone to school like her sister, who works as a midwife at a hospital in Kabul.
“She has a good life,” said Atika. “The majority of women in the country are illiterate and cannot do anything useful for their children's future.”
Atika wanted her 15-year-old daughter, Obedieh, to get an education and have the opportunities she didn’t have before getting married.
Instead, Obedieh has been out of school for a year, doing housework and sewing with her mother instead of learning maths and Dari.
After her husband lost his job in a hotel that closed down after US troops withdrew in August 2021, Atika’s family has been without a steady income.
“There are no jobs for women,” she says. “I try to find any job for myself and my daughters, but I couldn't."
With no money for food, the family were forced to leave Kabul and return to family in Kunduz.
“As a mother,” says Atika, “I ask the Taliban to please allow our daughters to study so that their future and their children will not be like us. "
- Some names have been changed for security reasons.