The Challenges of Educating Afghan Women

Barakat’s mission of reaching out to girls and women in some of the most conservative communities in the world, and the most hard-to-reach places, challenges us daily. Even as we tailor our educational programs to invite the highest level of female participation possible, we struggle with setbacks like the ones typified by two students at our higher level literacy courses (Sewad Hayati courses) in Faryab province of Afghanistan.

Both girls, Fareeda, 24 and Mozain, 18, dropped out after the 4th grade because their marriages had been arranged. You, as the reader, are probably wondering why these 4th grade students are so much older than is the norm in this country. What Barakat finds in Afghanistan is that students, especially girls, are often much older than the typical age for their grade level. Not only did the Taliban years cast a long shadow over the education of girls, but the customs and culture of the communities in which we work have also always been at odds with education for girls.

To date, parents are often reluctant to send their girls to school; only when parents feel confident that the educational setting is one that is being accepted by the community as a whole, and doesn’t make them stand out as belonging to the one, singular house where girls are getting an education, will they be willing to allow their daughters to attend school. Therefore, any educational program that succeeds in enlisting girls as students, and in getting their parents’ consent, must make special provisions for female students.

altBarakat’s higher level literacy courses have only female teachers and students, and are conducted in safe and accessible neighborhood locations. These courses provide an education from 4th to 9th grade, following up on the intensive lower level literacy courses which provide basic literacy and numeracy skills equivalent to a 3rd grade education. Barakat also gathers community support by approaching community leaders as well as the local mullah, or religious leader, prior to opening the program.

However, despite these attempts on our part, many girls are forced to end their education abruptly when they get married. Continued education for these married women is a moot point – it is no longer a possibility when the girl has entered into her in-laws’/husband’s household. The duties incumbent upon a young married girl are time-consuming and furthermore, she is expected to remain modestly within the women’s quarters of the house – not venturing out to get an education.

 

A young married girl in a new house – meeting her husband for the first time – is looked upon as a welcome addition to the women’s quarters and indeed to the household. Her time is occupied with household chores, taking care of the extended family, and adding to it by having children over the course of her fertile years. Marriage is an extremely important milestone for women; unmarried, single women are pitied, for the large part. Marriage is considered the most desired and socially acceptable course of action that a family can take for their daughter’s well-being.

So, what Barakat faces then, is a perfect storm of societal conditions that work to actively prohibit women’s education. Compounding these is the fact that the entire concept of ‘education for females’ is a relatively new idea to the communities we work with. This is because Barakat works primarily with first-generation learners who have yet to cultivate a ‘culture of learning’ within their families and generate a tradition of passing on this culture from parent to child.

In the face of these challenges, Barakat strives to provide an education for females which will allow for greater space and latitude in defining the role of women in Afghan society – where families can see neither shame nor a contradiction in allowing both married and unmarried girls to continue their education.

Consequently, Barakat’s programs are designed to cater to the needs of a society coming to terms with the proposition of female education and the change that it would engender. Our programs for girls and women’s education form a ladder for them to scale – from lower to higher level literacy courses, to separate classes for girls in our formal schools, and scholarships for female Barakat school graduates to continue studying.

Even as Barakat continues its struggle for female education, we find partners in some of the men in the communities that we work with. Mohammad Naim, who encourages his wife Hajera, 20, to continue her education, says, “All the problems that we had were due to illiteracy. Other countries are developed because they have literate people and have great lives. Therefore I support my wife to continue her education to have a great and prosperous future and to help her people and community.” Hajera is now in the 8th grade at Barakat’s higher level literacy courses.

Support exists for the younger generations as well. Sayed Mohammad strongly approves of his daughter Mahr-u-Nisa’s education. Mahr is also in the same grade as Hajera. “I will support my daughter’s education until the end of my life,” declared Sayed.

Both Naim and Sayed stand strong in their beliefs, often against the opposing force of public opinion. “If she wants to get married I will tell her in-laws to let her continue her education,” says Sayed.

For his part, Naim has already weathered the storm of criticism. “People tried to make me not let my wife continue her education. But I stood against them and told them about the importance of literacy.”

Barakat programs provide a platform and a way forward for men such as Naim and Sayed as well as for their female counterparts, Hajera and Mehr-u-Nisa, who together form the face of a changing Afghanistan.