When the Taliban returned to power in August, banning women and girls from receiving an education, I began receiving anxious messages from Afghan girls who had been awaiting the results of their important university entrance exams. They were so scared and hopeless, and I felt their pain: as an Afghan refugee and former teacher myself, I know the value of education – and what it feels like to have it taken away. I felt I had to do something, because a victim of violence must be able to prevent others from becoming victims themselves.
So the day after the Taliban’s takeover, on August 15, I used social media and Telegram, the encrypted messaging app, to set up an online school – the Online Herat School – for Afghan women and girls. In the first week, we had just 35 students and a few volunteer teachers from Iran. But each week we gained hundreds more – the school now has 1,300 students aged seven to 35 and more than 500 highly-qualified, Persian-speaking teachers who are predominantly based in Iran. We run hundreds of classes and daily lessons take place via Skype, Zoom, and Telegram.
Subjects include maths, science, politics, economics, and astronomy. We also teach music, art, sculpting and 17 different languages. As in a normal school, students take regular tests and classes are separated according to age. We have compulsory critical thinking lessons, which I believe is one of the most important subjects: when women learn to think, and to say no, they learn independence of mind.
Although attending the school could put the students in danger, they remain determined to learn. Unlike me, the girls in Afghanistan today were not born in war; they have experienced democracy, freedom and education and they don’t want to lose that.
My family left Afghanistan in 1992, when I was seven, and we became refugees in Iran. It wasn’t until I was 13 that we secured visas and I was able to attend an Iranian school. In the evenings, I would return home and teach what I had learnt to other Afghan children. I loved teaching, and in the years that followed I returned to Afghanistan, becoming a teacher of Persian literature.
I later moved to Holland and then, in 2018, I settled in the UK with my three children. I have a part-time job as an engineer assistant in Brighton, but I dedicate most of my time to running the online school. The thousands of students have become like my other children; I refer to them as my daughters – all I want to do is keep them safe.
But when I see the terrible situations that many of the girls are in, I feel so much pain. A few weeks ago I received a message from one of the school’s first students, who is 15. Her dream was to become a doctor but, because of money problems, her family is selling her as a bride. She is to be married to her cousin, a Talib, and she is so unhappy. All I can do is give her words of hope and encouragement.
She isn’t the only one of my students being sold as a child bride. Some girls have sent me messages like: “Goodbye teacher, we cannot study here any more because we are getting married.”
I try to help in any way I can – I’ve enlisted a team of volunteer therapists for the students, who provide virtual support – but it’s really hard. I have a maternal feeling about all of the girls in the school and I wish I could do more to protect them. When you see someone is in a terrible situation and you can’t do anything for them, it’s devastating.
My students tell me that life in Afghanistan has slightly improved since the summer, when the Taliban first took control, as they are happy to be learning again. They send me messages every day that make me so emotional, such as: “Thank you for being a candle in the darkness.” But when they tell me what’s happening in their day-to-day lives, I feel scared for them. Two days ago, one girl described how Taliban soldiers intimidate girls in the street and hit women who aren’t covered up enough.
Many of my students’ families are struggling to feed them. Some have had to drop out of the school, saying: “My family has no money for food, how can we afford the internet?” Others simply say “We can’t join any more” and we never see them again.
Limited internet access has been a key challenge. This means that it is often difficult for students to attend live lessons, so our teachers record the lessons and post them on our Telegram groups. Teachers often answer questions and give homework over these channels.
Some of the online classes happen in the morning, others at night. In some cities, groups of friends join their classes together, huddled around a single screen. But many of the students have no telephone of their own, so they have to wait until their father or brother is back from work, in order to use theirs.
Some of the women are around my age, 32, and their husbands and families won’t allow them to study – so they are risking their lives by sitting in the kitchen at night to join the classes.
Thankfully, in some Afghan provinces, girls have recently been allowed to return to secondary schools. However, they are still prohibited from studying in most areas and the level of education in Afghanistan is poor. Many of the best teachers have now left the country and the syllabus is substandard, especially now the Taliban is in control. For that reason, more and more boys are also joining our classes – we now have around 60 male students in Afghanistan and Afghan refugees living in Iran.
I wish I could do more for our students, but I only have two hands and I’m a single mother raising three children in a different country. I hope to grow the school to tens of thousands of students and I’d love to provide them with skills training courses and better technology.
I believe that proper education is the key solution to all of Afghanistan’s problems, from achieving peace to fixing the economy. That’s why our school’s motto is “the pen instead of the gun”. We empower our students with knowledge, but what does the Taliban know? Only how to use guns.
As told to Claudia Rowan