When the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, they asked girls and young women not to go to school. With no resolution in sight, a member of the Afghan diaspora decided to act. Angela Ghayour’s online school now has nearly 1,000 students and over 400 volunteer teachers.
Angela was only eight years old when civil war broke out across Afghanistan in 1992. Her family fled their home in Herat, in the west of the country, to Iran, and for the next five years, Angela was unable to attend school – ineligible due to the family’s temporary visa status.
“It was quite common at the time that Afghan children who fled to Iran could not go to school because they did not have the correct papers,” Angela recalls, looking out the window towards the sea since. his Brighton home in the UK.
After five years, Angela’s father finally managed to get the right papers and she was able to go to school in Iran. And at only 13, she realized she had a calling.
Every day after school, Angela would go home and educate 14 other Afghan children, all of whom were unable to attend school. Angela’s father was a gardener in Iran, and she would gather the small class in her manicured garden and teach them everything she had learned that day – reading, writing, math.
Years later, after the removal of the Taliban, Angela returned to Afghanistan and graduated as a high school teacher, before moving to the Netherlands and then finally to the UK.
Like many members of the Afghan diaspora, Angela has felt paralyzed watching events unfold in her home country over the past few months. As the United States withdrew the last of its troops, after 20 years of war, the Taliban returned to power.
In what seems to be a moment, two decades of progress in women’s education have been jeopardized. The Taliban say their restrictions on working women and studying girls are “temporary” and only in place to ensure that all workplaces and learning environments are “safe” for them.
But the thought of girls being deprived of education again, as it was during her first five years in Iran, made Angela miserable. After three months with no indication from the Taliban that the restrictions would be relaxed, she felt compelled to act.
Angela therefore founded the Herat Online School, an educational resource for Afghan women and girls. She posted on Instagram asking for help from experienced teachers, and since that first post, nearly 400 volunteers have joined the program. Via Telegram or Skype, they offer over 170 different online courses in everything from math and music to cooking and painting. Most of the teachers are from Iran and work between two and eight hours a day.
“I feel this school is the result of all of my pain and anxieties and experiences,” Angela said.
“Our motto is, the pen instead of the gun.”
Together, the volunteers support nearly 1,000 students. One of them is Nasrin, a 13-year-old girl who lives in Kabul with her four sisters. Since the Taliban seized power and banned school for girls over the age of seven, the sisters have all had to give up school or university.
The girls did their best to continue studying at home, but it was especially difficult for her two older sisters, who were studying medicine and engineering at university.
“All my dreams have been ruined. Even if schools reopen, it won’t be the same,” Nasrin said in an interview. “I wanted to be a pilot, now that will never happen because the Taliban would never let girls be pilots.”
But the girls now have a silver lining, in the form of Angela’s online school.
Nasrin is now studying Turkish with one of the volunteer teachers. She would love to live in Istanbul one day, she said. The lessons allowed him to dream again.
In recent weeks, there has been positive news for female students in the north of the country, where girls have returned to secondary schools in five of the country’s 34 provinces.
Young women in private universities, but not in public institutions, were also allowed to return.
But for Nasrin and his sisters in Kabul, as well as the vast majority of female students across the country, there is still a blanket ban on going back to school.
Teachers, too, like Nasrin’s mother, have been ordered to stay home, and the Taliban have offered no plans as to when they will be allowed to return to work.
According to UN estimates, 70% of all qualified teachers in Kabul are women. So even for boys and young men whose schooling continues, there will likely be a significant shortage of teaching staff to support them.
Long before the Taliban’s resurgence as a political force, Afghanistan already struggled with a entrenched lack of access to education. According to the Ministry of Education in 2019, more than a third of those over 15 were illiterate.
With the vast majority of girls now stuck at home, this unfortunate statistic will only increase.
Photographs by Derrick Evans.