“I Am Unstoppable”:
How An Afghan Student is Persevering for Her Education
By: Madison Plemens-Schunk
July 25, 2022
During August of 2021, after the Taliban seized Kabul, Afghan girls were prohibited from attending school. A month later, girls in primary school were told they could return with gender-segregated classes, including teachers, and strict curriculums. A year later, teenage girls have yet to return, and many are beginning to lose hope.
In late March of this year, the Taliban government was invited to economic talks with other state parties of the World Bank. These talks, concerning the Afghan Central Bank, would have been the first step towards diplomatic recognition of the Taliban. Western states declared that if the Taliban allowed girls 13-years-old and older to go to secondary school, they would be allowed to participate in discussions about four projects in Afghanistan aimed at improving education, health, and agriculture – a contract worth $600 million.
However, the Taliban reversed their decision to allow secondary schools for girls to reopen, and this decision undermined the possibility of more “moderate” leadership within the Taliban, and it caused girls across Afghanistan to lose hope of ever returning to school.
As many girls headed to class the day that school was set to reopen, they were faced with an unsettling rejection from Taliban officials, declaring that schools for girls over 6th grade would remain closed indefinitely.
In a New York Times podcast on the subject of girl’s education under Taliban rule, one girl remembers, “Even now, when I think of that day, my heart is, like, feeling a deep pain, because I’m not sure that I can feel that excitement ever, and ever again.” The Taliban have been a threat to girls’ education since their takeover in 1996.
Restricting access, instating madrassas (mosque schools) as the primary source of education, and forcing girls to be fully covered are just some of the obstacles Afghan girls have faced in their pursuit of education. The United States helped to establish schools in Afghanistan during their presence, however many schools maintained serious infrastructural instabilities, causing some parents to refuse to send girls to school to begin with.
Madison Plemens-Schunk, a rising junior at the University of Minnesota and Spring/Summer intern for Global Rights for Women, was able to interview Farzana, a young woman from Afghanistan who fled to Turkey in August of 2021. Having finished her secondary education prior to the Taliban government, she is now uncertain of the future of her education, and the education of all girls in Afghanistan. However, she has not lost hope.
Below is a transcript of the interview (edited for length and clarity).
Madison: So, I guess I will just start by asking a little bit about you. When did you leave Afghanistan? And what ultimately caused your family to leave?
Farzana: [I left] after the Taliban came in Kabul. I think one week after they came, we came to Turkey by the soldiers’ plane. In Afghanistan, there are lots of bomb explosions. When we go outside we say “today we may be killed.” Because of insecurity we were forced to come [to Turkey].
M: What are you doing now that you’re in Turkey? You had mentioned that you are painting, do you have any other things that you like to do in your free time?
F: Because we came and we don’t know Turkish, we must learn the language. So now we are learning the language. My brothers, my little brothers are going to school but because I graduated from school, my focus is in learning Turkish and reading books, paintings, and some cooking, like that.
M: So you were attending school, then, and you graduated. What was school like for you? What were some of your favorite subjects? What do you miss most about school now?
F: In Afghanistan, my school is everything [to] me. I was lucky because I had a good education in Afghanistan. My teachers were perfect. I was not going to a government school, it’s a private school. Because of that, the teachers are a little bit better than the government schools and the situation, like the buildings and others, are a little bit better. My favorite subject was mathematics and I like social subjects. I miss my friends and my teachers the most.
I am a writer. I published a book in 2018. It was about my own stories and it was all about the [struggles of] Afghan women. They are real stories. The characters are not real, but the main point or the idea is real. I think that the main problem in Afghanistan is the men. The fathers, the brothers or the husbands, they see as if our girls, or our mothers, or our wife are not human. [Women and girls] can do anything, if they let them go to school. [Men] cause a lot of problems in the home and in society… if they support the girls, if they support their wifes, the mothers, everything will be good and all the people will be happy.
I was so young… I was in elementary school when I published that book. I had a teacher that really encouraged me and he said “don’t worry, it will be so good. You can publish a book, don’t be so shy.” When he encouraged me, I published the book and it’s about 140 pages.
M: I’m glad you had a teacher that encouraged you so much; I would be so grateful for that.
F: Yes, we have such good teachers in my school, I really miss them now.
M: You’re not sure if you’ll be able to go to university, but do you know what you would have to do in order to go to university?
F: No. When I was in Kabul, I decided to study in [the] U.S., so I should learn English, but unfortunately I was not able to take the [necessary] test. I just want to take the test and apply for university in the U.S..
M: Do you know if you will be able to go back to Afghanistan some day? What do you miss most about it?
F: I really miss my home. Actually it’s not so… it was not so perfect because it doesn’t have so many equalities, but I love it. I love my country, my city, my people, and everything.
M: Do you know what [the new Taliban educational system for girls] would have looked like? Would you have considered going if they were to have opened schools like that?
F: So I think that if they want to have a separate educational system it’s like similar to political Islam. For example, in schools you’re issued to study some religious book, holy book, and like they publish the books. It’s not really school.
M: Do you have any ideas for how education in Afghanistan could be more inclusive for girls?
F: In this situation, because the Taliban [won’t] let girls go to school, we [could] have some organizations that educate the girls in their own home. Or maybe we can have some organizations that have the girls leave Afghanistan and have another chance to study in another country, their schools or maybe their university. I am so hopeful because people are now educated and people don’t want their girls to be uneducated. The fathers or the mothers, they are fighting for their girls, and I am hopeful that we will have good education in Afghanistan.
M: Well, I am very thankful that you are able to be in a safe place. But I really hope for you that one day you can go home. It must be so tough, I can’t imagine.
F: Yeah, it’s so tough. Living in Afghanistan is really dangerous because in the recent years, when we go out of the home, we don’t know if we will come back home. When we go to school there are some soldiers that have guns, that they are protecting us. And in that situation, how can we get education, how can we be hopeful that we are alive, that we are living?
You know that last year, there was a bomb explosion at a girls school. And we have some celebrations, for example, Ramadan and we get to fast, we don’t eat any food or any water, but [when Ramadan is over], we have three days when we celebrate. Last year, on these days, when Ramandan was over, they exploded the girls’ school and it was so horrible. All the city was quiet and everyone was so sad.
Reflections from Madison:
As I spoke with Farzana, her situation, and the situation of millions of Afghan girls and women became blatantly clear to me. No longer was I reading a book or news article about this ongoing gender discrimination and human rights violation by the Taliban. Rather, I was having a conversation with someone my own age, someone with the same interests as me, but who I learned lived uncertain of what the next day would bring and was denied a right I so easily took for granted. Since the interview, no substantive process has been made for girls’ education in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, women and girls remain unwavering in their faith that their dreams will be made a reality and they have yet to lose hope. In a text message sent prior to our video interview, she wrote “I am unstoppable. Nothing, not even war, could stop me.”