top of page
Schule 5.jpg

Afghan schools on a divided social basis

Afghanistan has been an independent state since 1747. The country was never a colony, but in the 19th century it was caught between the Russian and British colonial empires, both of which jealously guarded that neither the other great power nor a third country gained a foothold there. This kept Afghanistan backward. A railroad, for example, could not be built.

Even before the First World War, more and more Afghans traveled abroad, including to Europe and America. There they saw factories, hospitals, universities and a dashingly dressed-up military. The travelers were deeply impressed. They were ashamed because their homeland seemed very backward to them. Back home, they urged that Afghanistan should also be reformed into a modern country. Many Afghans, especially influential ones, were infected. They all wanted a modern Afghanistan. In 1919, a new ruler, Amanullah, came to power. He no longer called himself Emir, like his father, but King.

He introduced many things that existed in modern countries: a cabinet with specialized ministries and armies of civil servants, compulsory military service and compulsory education, a new penal code and a civil code based on the European model. The small but influential group of those who wanted modernity were delighted.

The population had to send their sons, who were needed for work in the house and in the fields, to schools and the army. Girls had to go to school every day and parents had no control over how they got to school.

The mullahs liked the reforms the least. Until then, they had had a monopoly on teaching children to read and write. More precisely: if a mullah could read and write himself, he also taught this to children in his community who came to the mosque for religious instruction anyway. Now young people were supposed to go to state schools. The mullah was no longer needed to teach literacy. The law was previously in the hands of kadis, i.e. religiously trained judges. They judged according to Sharia law. Now they had to share jurisdiction with state judges, state lawyers and lawyers who interpreted the law according to foreign books.

People had previously tried to live according to the instructions of their mullahs in a way that was pleasing to God. Now many things were to be changed so that Afghanistan would become like the countries of the infidels. "Does King Amanullah want to abolish Islam?" they feared. Amanullah explained nothing. He gave orders. The people had to obey. The people became restless. The mullahs fueled the unrest. They preached that it was a sin to send children to state schools. An uprising broke out in 1929. King Amanullah abdicated the throne and went abroad to prevent more bloodshed. 

Very similar developments took place in Turkey. Turkey became a republic. In Afghanistan, the royal family stood its ground and did not abandon the reforms. The advocates of reform were fiercely opposed by the conservatives - the majority of the population led by the Islamic clergy. Those who embodied progress soon included communist movements. They polemicized against the mullahs and Islam. The mullahs remembered the glorious past of their religion and saw the future of Islam in a return to the times of the Prophet Mohammed. In the early 1970s, there were weekly demonstrations by high school and university students in Kabul, which often degenerated into mass brawls between Islamists, Maoists and communists loyal to Moscow. Many people were killed.

In 1978, communists loyal to Moscow seized power and tried to impose their ideas. The population fought back with armed force and was supported by the West and Islamic countries. The Soviet Union collapsed. Afghanistan sank into civil war. The West tried to introduce democracy with human rights and equal rights for women in Afghanistan. This overwhelmed Afghan society. In 2021, the radical Islamic Taliban movement prevailed – also thanks to Pakistani arms aid.

Tradition and the mullahs had prevailed over the various modern trends. But are the Taliban of 2021 still the mullahs of 1929 or 1978? In part they are. Many men had fought for the Taliban because the mullahs had told them that "school is a sin". They had fought against this sin. They wanted to protect their sisters from this.

The Taliban had already ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Back then, they forced me to run a school program with them in mosques, which girls also attended. I got to know many Taliban, including mullahs, who had very sensible ideas for the future of their country. However, they were patriots in so far as they did not want to leave the future of Afghanistan to foreign countries. Large parts of the current Taliban leadership have reached high positions because they cooperated militarily with Pakistan. Now they are ministers and want to bring Afghanistan forward. They know that this is only possible through an efficient education system that covers the entire population and through constructive cooperation with other countries.

But there is also another part of the Taliban movement that still maintains the old enmity against schools. While there used to be the opposition "for and against schools" in society, the Taliban movement has now internalized this opposition itself. The population is thinking more actively about schools and education. Afghan colleagues think this is because many of their compatriots work in the oil countries. There they have to experience that Afghans are among the least educated of all the migrant workers. They have to do the hardest physical work and are paid the least. Every Afghan prefers to have his wife or mother treated by a female doctor rather than a male doctor, especially as the strict rules of gender segregation imposed by the Taliban require this anyway. But everyone has understood that Afghanistan will run out of female doctors if girls only go to school for six years and are not allowed to study. Even those who want the power of Islam back in its heyday don't want to give up airplanes, cars and cell phones. They know that these beautiful things are not available without technical knowledge. Schools will prevail in Afghanistan.

But currently the Taliban have chosen an emir as head of state who has spoken out against schooling for older girls and the education of women. The Taliban must respect this order from their leader to a certain extent if their movement is not to end in chaos. The current situation is unpleasant. The battle for schools and education is naturally raging in the Ministry of Education in particular. There, you will find teams from both sides – very sensible civil servants who are happy when good teaching takes place somewhere and can give benevolent advice on what kind of teaching is currently possible for women and girls – but also others.

When we came to Kabul in spring 2023, we wanted to know how things were going. We asked colleagues to go to the Ministry of Education to find out from sympathetic officials. But they came across a representative from the other direction. He told them that our organization had to give up its status as a foreign organization and become an Afghan organization or close down. The colleagues asked if the official could give them this in writing. The official said no. He showed the colleagues a "very important letter from the very top in which this had been decreed. "However, he showed the letter from a distance so that nobody could read it and said: "If I give you this in writing, it will be in the newspapers tomorrow. Then we'll be in the most trouble. We want to spare ourselves that." What a ministry!

Afghan organizations are much more exposed to the arbitrariness of Afghan bureaucrats than foreign ones. Afghan authorities can, for example, intervene in the personnel decisions of Afghan organizations. The official didn't threaten to close our office if we didn't become Afghan. We would have to do that ourselves. Presumably, they were afraid that the foreign organizations would withdraw their considerable funds if they were threatened directly. OFARIN is not thinking of becoming Afghan. But even if we were forced to do so, we have long had relationships with suitable partners.

Our classes, which we reported to the Ministry of Education when we signed the partnership agreement, are still working. These classes were even visited by Ministry officials, examined in detail and judged to be good. Only the classes in the province of Panjir are not working. The inhabitants of this province had resisted the Taliban for some time and were subdued with the use of Pakistani drones and the mistreatment of residents. Our partners there have not yet dared to restart classes. However, the teachers and trainers are being paid. In some districts of Kabul and in the provinces of Logar and Khost, lessons had not yet been registered with the Ministry of Education. The Ministry keeps postponing this registration. However, this has no impact on teaching. The teaching takes place. Teachers and trainers are paid. Under the current circumstances, OFARIN has no ambition to expand the teaching program. The existing capacities are capable of expanding the program if the conditions are right.

bottom of page