Fighting bullets with books
Getting an education in Afghanistan has never been easy for girls and with this year’s impending troop withdrawal, many fear the gains of recent years may be lost. One woman who has proved that schooling is the biggest weapon against war and oppression since opening clandestine classes under the noses of Taliban leaders in 1999, now openly runs 18 schools across nine provinces, providing quality education to more than 3,000 girls and 100 boys. Anthea Ayache speaks to her
The beige walls of the empty Afghan hallway turned murky yellow long ago, marked today by scars of war and poverty. Its brickwork lies bare in patches, the plaster in which it was once covered littering the corridor’s floor, a telltale sign of mortar fire and this country’s continuous conflict. At the end, adjacent to a barred open window, stands a lone, decaying door to a small dark room where only silence hangs between the bullet-riddled walls and paint-flake-covered carpet.
This single basement room off a pathway in a Kabul back street lies empty, derelict and unremarkable, no visible sign left to indicate its former glory. For once, before the 2001 US-backed invasion of the Talibanrun Afghanistan, this was a sanctuary for young girls deprived of an education by an oppressive regime. A space in which they could, at great risk of being caught, study and equip themselves with knowledge until the time when they could once again reintegrate into society.
This room was once one of five clandestine classrooms set up in 1999 by Afghan-born and raised Hassina Sherjan, a woman who to this day sees education as the best weapon with which to rid her country from a plague of terrorism and insurgency.
“If people are educated they can think for themselves and will know what they want,” says the 53-year-old founder of Aid for Afghanistan Education, an organisation that for more than a decade has been striving to restore girls’ education in the country. “Obviously the extremists don’t want independent thought; they want to keep people in the dark.”
Hassina’s vision to provide education for girls in a country
‘The Afghanistan I remember was safe, peaceful and green… there were trees all over’
reeling from civil war and a hard-line Taliban regime arose in 1995 after the death of her father. It had been 17 years since the Sherjan family had fled the impending Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the US, and Hassina remained troubled over her father Niamatullah’s last words. “I want you to live just like you want to,” he had told her on his deathbed.
Compelled to fulfil her father’s wish of returning to their homeland and seeking what it was exactly she desired from life, Hassina set out for the Afghanistan border. She was unable to enter the country due to the dangers posed by a fractious civil war still tearing the country apart and so she instead chose to visit Afghan refugee camps on the border in Pakistan’s Peshawar province. “I met someone there who was running literacy courses inside the camps and I accompanied her,” she says. “I was faced with some truly shocking scenes and stories because I didn’t know until then that really education was not available for all Afghans.”
Faced with disturbing scenes including a woman begging her to help choose which of her twin children to keep because she could not afford both, and impoverished women in their 50s unable to write even their own names, Hassina realised the Afghanistan of her memory and that of her father’s tales was but a distant dream.
The country where she had completed her high-school studies at a time when girls and boys had equal access to education and when women were encouraged to flourish simply didn’t exist any more.
“My mother [Amina] opened the country’s first florist in Kabul and she worked for several years at the American embassy,” she says. “The Afghanistan I remember was safe, peaceful, and green. Kabul was quiet with only a few cars, there were trees all over and it was clean and pollution free.”
A far cry from the tales of war told by some half of the population who had fled the civil war and who now filled these vast, forsaken camps.
With a consuming sense of moral obligation towards the women she left behind in the 150 desperate encampments littering the Afghan border, Hassina felt compelled upon returning to the US to help her homeland. Thinking that it was only luck that had separated her destiny from theirs, Hassina knew she could very easily have suffered the same fate. “I could have been any one of those women sat in that refugee camp,” she admits.
The 35-year-old set up meetings with fellow professional compatriots in order to share her experiences and devise a solution. “We realised that perhaps the lack of education was the real reason the country was where it was,” she says, explaining why they decided to establish educational programmes within the camps.
A state of gender apartheid
A year after Hassina’s trip to the border camps, in 1996 the Taliban seized control of Kabul and within a year had plunged two-thirds of the country into a state of gender apartheid in which females were stripped of basic human rights.
Women who had previously had the freedom to do as they wished, were abruptly banned from work or an education, had access to basic healthcare curtailed, were forbidden to leave their homes or wander the streets and unconditionally required to wear the niqab, a full-face covering burqa. Violation of any of these rules could result in a range of cruel punishments including flogging,
In this school in the Parwan
province, north of Kabul, independent
thought is encouraged
Hassina Sherjan loves her homeland and wants to see it
Many of Afghanistan’s children struggle to enrol in school