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News / Northwest

Seattle group launches secret schools for Afghan girls under Taliban rule

By Nina Shapiro, The Seattle Times
Published: December 25, 2023, 12:48pm

When the Taliban reclaimed Afghanistan in 2021, Seattle-based Sahar found its mission completely undermined.

For almost 20 years, the nonprofit had worked to educate Afghan girls, denied education under the first Taliban regime in the 1990s. Sahar repaired schools and built new ones, which it turned over to Afghanistan’s education ministry to run.

The organization’s showcase was a school for 3,000 girls in northern Afghanistan, designed by the prestigious Seattle firm Miller Hull in collaboration with the University of Washington’s architecture department. The nonprofit had also broken ground on what was to be the country’s first public boarding school, also designed by Miller Hull and intended for rural girls who had to walk miles to school — risking kidnapping and attacks as Taliban traditionalists waged their insurgency.

Then, the insurgents took power.

The new Taliban government banned girls from attending school past the sixth grade until further notice. “It was devastating,” said Dr. Shinkai Hakimi, Sahar’s board president.

Sahar could do almost nothing legally, at least for older girls. So, in time, it set a new course — an illegal one.

Through partners on the ground, the nonprofit now runs several secret schools. Drawing upon curricula Sahar previously offered through after-school programs, the schools teach English, computer skills and “women’s empowerment” — oxymoronic as that seems in present-day Afghanistan.

Not only has the Taliban outlawed girls secondary education, it has forbidden women from working in many professions, traveling significant distances without a male family member, and visiting parks, among other public spaces.

“At the end of the day, this is not a fix,” said Hakimi of Sahar’s underground schools. Each cohort takes classes for only six months, although expansion plans are in the works.

Still, Hakimi said, the programs give the girls purpose and something to do with their day — “as opposed to staying at home and feeling like they’re locked up in a cage like a bird.”

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Sahar’s schools are part of a patchwork of efforts to mitigate the Taliban’s restriction on girls education. Some, like Sahar’s, are secretive, following a model that harkens back to the first Taliban regime. Others exist openly, if under the radar.

PARSA, a Kabul-based organization with deep Washington roots, falls into the latter camp, largely by enabling girls and women to start schools in their own homes for family members, as Crosscut reported last spring.

The schools match the Taliban’s emphasis on family values, and so have avoided pushback and even gotten support from some officials, said PARSA Executive Director Marine Gustavson during a visit to Seattle this month. Living in Kabul, she has family here and maintains a home in Port Orchard.

PARSA now supports 300 family schools across Afghanistan, providing them textbooks, whiteboards, notebooks and other supplies.

Avoiding suspicion

Sahar, in contrast, has moved more cautiously — knowing, its leaders say, that participants may be risking their lives.

Starting their first underground program in summer 2022, the organization’s leaders “really weren’t sure they could get away with it,” said operations and finance manager Allie Renar during an interview at a Ballard bakery near her home. Sahar’s small staff gave up its Pioneer Square office space during the height of the pandemic.

Aptly called “Stealth Sisters,” the program in northern Afghanistan seems unusual in that it takes place in an actual school building, one officially limited to holding classes for girls in first through sixth grades. Surreptitiously, the school works with Sahar to hold classes for 20 girls at a time who would normally be in grades seven through 12.

Hoping to avoid suspicion, educators pick them up in buses, just like the younger girls, and the students board wearing hijabs and masks.

They and their families have proven more than willing to take the risk. One teacher, in a video call from Afghanistan, said classes fill up in no time, and some parents have come to her crying as they plead to have their daughters admitted.

As for the teacher, she explained her willingness to break the law by quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”

“I cannot change my country,” she said, asking her name not be used for fear of her safety. “But I can do small things like teaching the girls.”

The teacher leads the women’s empowerment component of the program. That includes telling girls they have the right to education.

If the government doesn’t allow them to go to school, they can watch YouTube videos, read online books and take virtual classes when the Stealth Sisters program ends, she tells her students. They also can apply to schools outside of the country.

For all that, they need basic computer skills, and often some proficiency in English. The Stealth Sisters program offers classes in those subjects as well.

The teacher herself is studying website design online so she can start her own business from home, a fact she shares with her students. “There are lots of opportunities,” she tells the girls, many of them dealing with depression. “Don’t lose hope.”

Program graduates have themselves gone on to teach, either in their home or online, sometimes earning money by offering online Dari language or Quran studies classes to international students.

Stealth Sisters is now teaching its third cohort and has not, as yet, run into trouble.

Building on the program’s success, Sahar started another course this year that teaches coding and other intensive computer skills, with an eye toward training girls for some of the few job options open to them. Women can, for instance, work as receptionists for female doctors and dentists.

These classes take place in three homes-turned-schools, enrolling 120 girls at a time.

The students walk to these schools carrying Qurans. If stopped, they can say they’re on the way to Quran lessons, a permitted activity. The schools switch up the days and times of classes — and don’t have all students come at the same time, so as not to attract attention.

Even so, a report of girls coming and going to one school reached the Taliban, said Sahar Executive Director Meetra Alokozay. When an official stopped by, the manager said students were studying the Quran, which passed muster. To be safe, the school paused classes for a week.

Sahar also runs a program that enables women to start sewing businesses, and another encouraging young men to be allies to the girls and women in their lives.

Finding funding for the programs is a challenge. Many donors assumed Sahar couldn’t continue its work after the Taliban takeover and stopped giving.

The organization is running a deficit of about $125,000 a year, said Renar, the operations and finance manager. At its current funding level, it can continue its schools for about two years.

Meanwhile, Sahar’s leaders are hoping the Taliban will resume secondary education for girls and that the nonprofit can get back to building schools.

The regime has said it will reopen schools when it can be assured they follow Islamic and Afghan traditions. Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai this month stressed the importance of girls education, saying a country without knowledge is “dark.” Other Taliban officials seem less enthusiastic.

Alokozay, who works remotely from Virginia, said she’s not optimistic. Born in Afghanistan, she was 3 years old when the Taliban took over the first time and enacted a total ban on girls education. Her older sister, then in first or second grade, had to stay home.

The family moved to Pakistan so the girls could get an education, returning to Afghanistan in 2003 after the U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban government. Alokozay came to the U.S. in 2018 as a Fulbright scholar to pursue a master’s degree from Loyola University Chicago in women and gender studies.

Now, she sees history repeating itself, even if this Taliban regime is not quite as extreme as the last. And if it does reopen girls schools, she wonders, what will they teach?

Sahar may have to rethink its programs yet again.