Back to school under Taliban rule?
Girls’ education in Afghanistan faces an uncertain future
More than one thousand girls in the Afghanistan province of Herat were supposed to start school in a new building last week. “They couldn’t, of course, because everything has changed,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. John Bradley. Bradley, 75, runs the Lamia Afghan Foundation with his wife, Jan, from their home in Nashville, Tenn.
While in the Air Force (he retired in 2008), Bradley occasionally traveled to Afghanistan for a few days at a time to visit airmen. When he told Jan that some of the men were helping with humanitarian aid during their off-duty time, she collected 40,000 pounds of aid to send with him on his next visit. The organization has since sent 3.5 million pounds of aid, including an ambulance, a full-size ultrasound machine, and custom-made prosthetics for children.
In 2009, the Bradleys met the Afghanistan Minister of Education, Farooq Wardak, who asked the Lamia Afghan Foundation to help build schools in rural Afghanistan. The first of seven schools the foundation helped build opened in 2011 for 400 children. Bradley estimates the seven schools serve 6,000 students. The Bradleys also fund five schools in camps for internally displaced persons.
Now, the United States and other countries are racing to evacuate their citizens and supporters from Afghanistan, where the Taliban is the process of forming a government based on Sharia law. The Taliban didn’t allow girls’ education during its previous rule. It has said it will support schooling for women within certain limits, but it hasn’t clarified what those limits will be.
In April, the U.S. National Intelligence Council stated in a report that the Taliban “would roll back much of the past two decades’ progress if the group regained national power.” The council added that the number of Afghan schools “rose more than tenfold” since the Taliban lost power in 2001. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, there were 900,000 Afghan students in 2001. As of 2020, there were over 9.5 million, and girls made up about 39 percent of the students.
Zaher Wahab, professor emeritus at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., attended a village school in the early 1950s in a leaky mud building about 90 miles southeast of Kabul. When he was 11, the government selected him to attend a Kabul boarding school. It was Wahab’s first time to see electricity, indoor plumbing, and cars. In 1961, 17-year-old Wahab attended the American University of Beirut and later Columbia University and Stanford University, where he earned his doctorate in international development education. He stayed in the United States after completing his studies.
In the early years after the United States pushed out the Taliban, Wahab spent one semester a year in Afghanistan, working part-time as an advisor to the minister of higher education.
“We tried to expand education at all levels,” he said. According to UNESCO, from 2016-2020, the national literacy rate rose from 34.8 to 43 percent. Despite these gains, Wahab said the country still faced barriers like war, poverty, and under-educated teachers.
Rebecca Carter, 64, was the founding director of admissions and records at the American University of Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009.
Carter is now the general director of student progress and university registrar at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. She said that her university is looking into helping Afghan students by accepting them as transfer students. Countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan also want to help students. But the task may be difficult, as illustrated by two Afghan students Nazarbayev University accepted before the Taliban took over. “Problem is, can they even get a flight out?” Carter asked.
Bradley said the Lamia Afghan Foundation’s work is not religious, and it does not try to convert Afghans to Christianity. But faith does influence what they do. Even with a new school sitting empty, he doesn’t regret investing in Afghanistan’s students: “It’s not all for naught, because those girls are educated and you can’t take that away.”
Carter said that the American University of Afghanistan taught students to think critically and base their decisions on facts. “It’s those young people that will make a difference in the country,” she said. “They’ll be back over there.”
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