An Afghan town gets its first female high-school graduates

The government and donors tout girls’ school enrollment, but the reality behind the numbers is less impressive

The first female graduates in the history of Old Aqcha pose with the school’s founder, Mohamed Ishaq, back row, third from right, and the school’s current principal, Mohamed Ibrahim, back row, fourth from right.
Mujib Mashal

OLD AQCHA, Afghanistan — Twelve years ago, Mohamed Ishaq — “Ishaq, the teacher,” as he is known — gave two rooms in his house to start a girls’ school in this small village in northern Jawzjan province. He moved his family to the remaining two rooms.

By 2008, the number of students had grown to more than 150, and the girls’ school was relocated to the campus of the local boys’ high school. Now the school operates in two shifts: The boys are taught in the morning, and the 620 female students are taught in the afternoon by eight teachers, six of them male and two female.

On a cold morning this December, the female school graduated its first class of 16 girls; for the first time in its history, the village had female high school graduates. But the historic occasion was overshadowed by the boy’s graduation that day.

As the joint ceremony got under way in a makeshift tent, local government officials gave lengthy speeches despite the unbearable cold: One quoted Winston Churchill, another Socrates, and a third talked about Iran’s sending a monkey to space. Students read poetry and essays prepared for the occasion. The turbaned Ishaq, tightly wrapped in his shawl, quietly looked on from a distance. He twice pulled out his phone to call female graduates who were absent from the ceremony but managed to persuade only 13 to attend. The remaining three girls missed the occasion because their families objected to their attendance at the co-ed ceremony.

After young boys, who wore the traditional warm chapans on top of their sky blue uniforms, sang an Uzbek song about education, the male graduates in suits and ties lined up in front of the audience. One by one, they were handed their certificates as a crowd of young men in the aisle snapped photographs. Family members made their way through the crowd to present the graduates with flowers. At the conclusion of the boys’ ceremony, 13 girls were presented with their certificates in haste. There were no flowers or photos until they moved to a corner of the tent and formed a private clique. The girls quickly took their certificates and went back to their seats.

The Afghan government and its international allies have touted female school enrollment as one of the biggest achievements of their efforts to strengthen women’s rights after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. But beneath the rising enrollment numbers — the Afghan government says there are roughly 4 million girls in school — lies a more complicated reality. While 66 percent of girls attend primary school, compared with 92 percent of boys, the share of girls attending secondary school drops to 26 percent. Across the country, the growth in enrollment rates has been uneven. Over the past decade, nearly 350,000 girls have completed high school. In Kandahar, the country’s fifth-most-populous province, there are only 4,027 female high school graduates. Continuous fighting with the insurgency and a deeply rooted conservatism have hampered progress there.  

But Orzala Nemat, an Afghan academic and rights activist, says aid groups and the government sometimes use the lack of security as an excuse. “If insecurity and Taliban presence is an argument for lack of education in the south, there were initiatives even in the strictest times of Taliban rule,” she says.

The approach toward education has been rigid, she and others say, prioritizing the construction of school buildings, which is difficult in volatile areas. More flexible, small-scale initiatives such as involving local mosques and supporting home schools could have been employed in insecure areas, she says.

And while USAID alone has spent over $550 million on Afghan girls’ education since 2002, activists say it has missed a larger target: trying to change men’s attitudes.

I have been teaching for about 20 years. The girl’s been working for only a year, and already she makes twice as much as I do.

Mohamed Ishaq

Girls and boys are separated in school throughout their education, and in the curriculum, female role models are few. A 2013 study of the Dari literature book for fifth and sixth grades found that “almost all … drawings, pictures, introductions of heroes, fables, anecdotes and moral instructions contain only male characters or one or two minor female ones. Women are mostly discussed in relation to men and in the context of their homes only.” The study asked, “Perhaps part of the reason it is hard to find girls in Afghan classrooms is … women and girls are hard to find in textbooks?”

Not only does the lack of women in textbooks limit young girls’ view of their own potential role in society at an early age, say activists, but it has also contributed to the failure to change men’s views of women as the second sex, dependent on men for food and shelter. While 63 percent of surveyed Afghans said they support the idea of women working outside the home, according to a 2014 Asia Foundation report, only 5 percent of women hold jobs, and just 17 percent said they have “female members of their household contributing to household income.”

But in Old Aqcha, the girls’ school — a project initiated by local people and made possible by the relative security here — has had a significant impact across the village. Two of the girls from the school, one of them Nazifa, Ishaq’s daughter, are now midwives at the village clinic.

“All the village women who come to the clinic recognize me and are surprised,” said Nazifa in her dimly lit, mud-walled office at the clinic. After 10 years at the village school, she completed a 24-month training course at the provincial capital before returning to the village to work at the clinic and serve patients at home. Now she earns about $300 per month.

“I have been teaching for about 20 years. The girl’s been working for only a year, and already she makes twice as much as I do,” says Ishaq.

Nemat says there should be a thorough assessment of the women’s-rights campaign and its progress over the past decade. Its focus, she believes, should move from urban to rural areas.

“The impact and the change needs to be measured in the rural communities that still make up the majority of this country,” she says. “Yes, that change would be slower, but it would be more grounded.

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