Under the oppressive eye of the authoritarian Taliban regime in Afghanistan, some women are risking their lives to educate girls and other young women, a task that could get them executed.
They work in secret, their classes only known throughout the country by families informing others by word of mouth, an attempt to keep the education of girls under the radar.
Currently, the Taliban forbid the teaching of girls past sixth grade.
Some hold in-person classes, while others set up schools on virtual platforms like Zoom and Google Meet, fighting against both the regime and the country’s dismal internet access.
In a series of interviews via WhatsApp, one teacher in Afghanistan spoke to the Daily Dot about her work and fears for the future, as the risk of being discovered by the Taliban remains ever-present.
She requested that her name be changed and location withheld so she could continue her work without being discovered.
On August 30, 2021, the Biden administration withdrew its troops from Afghanistan after spending twenty years in the country, where it waged the longest war in U.S. history. Just days after the final U.S. soldiers left, the country was entirely under the Taliban’s control.
21-year-old “Fatima” said to the Daily Dot she had just finished her university entrance exams when the Taliban retook Afghanistan.
“Before the occupation of Afghanistan by the Taliban, women had progressed more and more, and we were self-sufficient and were engaged in different jobs,” wrote Fatima over WhatsApp.
“But currently, most of the women, including myself, have suffered psychological and economic problems. I think that the Taliban have this idea that women are a useless member of society who should not even be taken out of their homes,” she added.
Fatima described the moment the U.S. occupation ended, saying “We all thought we had reached the end of our lives … We did not believe the situation we were in. We thought it was a bad dream that would end after waking up.”
The shift to Taliban control was stark and brutal. Given the length of the U.S. occupation, many young women lived in a country where they could finish grade school, go to university, and enter the workforce.
However, under Taliban’s harsh interpretations of Islamic Law, they immediately lost what they had enjoyed for two decades. As the Taliban tightened its grasp, cracking down on the education of young women and girls, parents and teachers were desperate to find a way to help students.
Underground schools began to emerge. Fatima told the Daily Dot that some were taught in secret locations around Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and elsewhere, while others were held virtually to widen the access to classes.
Fatima first considered starting a virtual classroom in August 2022. Two months later, she taught her first on Google Meet.
“I started to create online classes. But this teaching through programs required more internet, which made most of the students, and sometimes myself, face economic challenges,” she said.
The challenges surrounding online teaching in Afghanistan are plenty. Internet for Fatima’s home costs 2,000 Afghanis, the equivalent of $26 each month, a cost the teacher’s family cannot always afford.
“Our teaching day depends on whether the internet is good or not. Sometimes, the weakening of the internet makes the teacher and the learner very tired,” said Fatima. “The internet is much weaker during the day than at night. And the electricity shortage is a big challenge for us.”
A lack of funds and electricity has led to Fatima’s internet access being cut off entirely for stretches.
The less time Fatima spends online, the harder it is for her to hold classes and stay on top of student’s homework.
“But the next day, I will try my best to make up for the day I canceled,” she said.
Relying on the internet in Afghanistan can make it difficult, but the alternative—a generation of girls losing access to education—keeps her steadfast in her efforts.
The news about Fatima’s classes stretched throughout Afghanistan. Her virtual classes made it possible for girls in even the farthest-reaching parts of the country to have access to an education.
Over the next few months, the 21-year-old taught classes six days a week for almost twelve hours. The topics ranged from English language to basic math for students aged 14-26.
“In the beginning, it was very difficult for me to teach older women because it was a new experience, and I even had a tremor in my voice. Even in the beginning, I tried not to let them know that I am younger than them because I was afraid they would consider the lessons worthless,” said Fatima. “But after a month, they welcomed my teaching so much that even I did not expect such a welcome. This is the best memory of online teaching for me.”
Fatima has told few people about her work, only divulging her illegal education system to her family and closest friends. The students who found her classes did so by word of mouth, as news of Fatima’s teachings stretched throughout Afghanistan.
Speaking about the emotional toll the Taliban’s control has taken on her students, Fatima said, “At the beginning, all the students seemed disappointed, but I really tried from the bottom of my heart and made everyone hopeful. The girls welcomed the classes very well, even more (attended) than I expected.”
Words of encouragement also began to come in from the parents of Fatima’s students, who she said, “Were very happy. They thought that such classes could prevent their daughters from becoming more depressed.”
For eight consecutive months, Fatima was able to hold a steady class schedule.
An estimated 50 students dialed in. Few were fortunate enough to have working laptops, most students and Fatima used their smartphones.
The classes came to an abrupt halt in April when her smartphone broke. Although she tried to work from her brother’s phone, it proved nearly impossible. By the end of May, the 21-year-old had to stop.
“When I had to stop the online classes, it was a very difficult situation for the students because they demanded the flow of classes,” said Fatima. “They called me many times, but it was very difficult to repeat my problems to them every time, which caused the lessons to stop. It was a shame because I couldn’t help them. It was very difficult for me to disappoint someone with a negative answer.”
And outside, the danger of teaching grew.
Over the last two years, the Taliban have issued 80 edicts, 54 of them directly targeting women and girls, according to a report by UN Women. Those include banning women from going to parks, gyms, and public bathing houses and forcing them to stay at home.
The Taliban has also violently cracked down on women who protested against the organization publicly or on social media, including beatings, arrests, and unlawful detention and arrest of family members.
Right now, the government does not know her work, but if she were to be discovered, she and her entire family could be put at risk.
“For now, I am trying hard to keep this work hidden from the Taliban. I work secretly. I am always concerned with the question of how long this situation [in Afghanistan] will continue,” said Fatima.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan has plunged deeper into poverty. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs, 97% of Afghans are living in poverty. The result has led some desperate families to desperate measures such as selling their daughters in child marriages and selling their organs on the black market.
Fatima himself has no funding from any non-governmental organizations or help. But in July, a relative helped Fatima pay for a new laptop so that she could continue her classes.
Now, she has plans to resume her classes in the coming weeks, offering hope to the thousands of girls and women who have been stripped of their rights in Afghanistan.
Still, without any help from Western countries, the teacher does not know how long she can continue her work.
“The whole world knows that education for women [in Afghanistan] is very limited. Everyone is in a state of distress with an uncertain future,” she said. “Although distance education is more difficult, this kind of education is like a golden chance for us.”