For a brief moment in the tree-lined courtyard of Malalai School in Kabul, it’s like nothing else matters.
Dozens of schoolgirls hold hands, whirling around as they dance together in a circle, their giggles ringing through the air. Others sit in a row, their faces earnest as they sing a song together about unity in Afghanistan.
It’s the easy joy of youth, but for schoolgirls under Taliban control, it’s devastatingly precarious.
Inside the school in the Afghan capital, Grade 6 students, now the oldest female pupils at Malalai, study the day’s lesson as the fear that their education may be in jeopardy weighs on their minds.
“I got sad when I heard the upper classes can’t come to school [anymore],” said Rahna, sitting in the front row of the class.
“I don’t know if this is our last year. If next year, we can come to school or not?”
About 1,000 students at this school alone have been forced to stay home since the Taliban barred female students in grades seven and above from going to school in the weeks after taking back power from the Western-backed government following 20 years of war.
The extremist rulers have said the move is only temporary. But it’s been more than a month, and hundreds of thousands of female students remain stuck at home, with their dreams and potential at risk of being squandered.
“I hope … we can continue our education until we get a good job,” Rahna said. “I’d like to be a doctor to serve my nation.”
‘Education is our power’
Just days after the Taliban’s August victory, government spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid held his first press conference. He promised the new Taliban regime was “committed to the rights of women” within the context of its strict interpretation of Islamic law.
“Our sisters, our men have the same rights,” Mujahid said. “The international community, if they have concerns, we would like to assure them that there’s not going to be any discrimination against women, but, of course, within the frameworks that we have.”
But in mid-September, when secondary schools were allowed to re-open, only boys were allowed to return to class. Girls were left out of the announcement completely — invisible despite that vow to respect women’s rights. The UN says 4.2 million Afghan children are currently out of school, including 2.6 million girls.
Taliban officials, including Mujahid, have since said a “safe learning environment” needs to be established before girls in upper years can return to classes. But there’s scant detail on what that means or when it might be in place.
Every day that passes brings more heartache for the young women who fear their futures are slipping away.
“They know that education is our power,” said Massouda, 18, a university student who was studying engineering when the former government fell.
She is now unsure whether she will be able to resume her studies.
“I’m so sad,” she said. “I’m so upset. I feel disappointed.”
Massouda is not her real name. CBC News has agreed not to name her because her family fears Taliban reprisals for speaking out.
She flips through a scrapbook of school certificates and glowing reports from past teachers.
“I have lots of goals,” Massouda said, her voice breaking and tears streaming down her cheeks. “I think I won’t reach them.”
WATCH | How life has changed for girls and women in Afghanistan:
Access is widely restricted
While the vast majority of girls are currently barred from attending grades seven to 12, there are some regions of the country where female secondary students have been allowed back to class. It’s unclear why this is happening in some areas and not nationwide.
Taliban officials have also said women can continue their university studies, but access has been widely restricted.
All areas of university campuses must be gender-segregated, including classrooms; strict Islamic dress is compulsory; the subjects women will be allowed to study are under review; and, according to Taliban rules, female students should only be taught by female teachers — even as many women have been told by the Taliban to stay home from work.
Scores of professionals and academics were among the tens of thousands of Afghans who fled the country during the August evacuation, limiting the number of teachers available. Many of those who are still teaching aren’t getting paid as Afghanistan faces a perilous cash crunch.
Kabul University has been shut down completely for now. Its chancellor was replaced last month by a Taliban appointee with no academic experience. Other public universities across the country also remain closed.
“I can’t be a girl who should marry and bear babies,” Massouda said. “I want to work. I want to go study, to do something for my country.”
Instead of attending classes, Massouda now spends her days at home with her family, trying to beat back her sadness by reading English-language books and doing her best to study alone.
“I won’t stop,” she said. “Whatever they do, I won’t stop.”
‘Half of our society belongs to women’
The restrictions are fuelling fears among Afghan girls and women that the Taliban’s assurances that women’s rights will be protected are merely empty promises; that a repeat of its harsh rule of the 1990s, when women were barred from school and largely confined to their homes, is again taking hold.
There are other worrying signs for women. There are no women in the government, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been refashioned into the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
Still, some say they believe positive change is coming.
“The Taliban — their vision has changed,” said Sediqua Nuristani, the acting principal at Malalai.
She says the current Taliban regime is more educated than the last.
“I have trust they will open our schools for all women and girls,” Nuristani said.
“Half of our society belongs to women.”
International pressure is key, say advocates
But women’s rights advocates say the only way that half of Afghan society may be afforded their full rights is with the pressure of the international community.
Foreign aid has long been Afghanistan’s lifeblood, but most of it was frozen following the Taliban takeover. Without it, the country is teetering on the brink of economic collapse with a humanitarian catastrophe seemingly inevitable.
Most households already don’t have enough to eat, banks are running out of money and Afghans are selling their household possessions on the sides of busy roads just to get by.
Despite the increasingly desperate reality for the Afghan people, the international community is hesitant to provide more aid until the Taliban’s actions demonstrate that women and girls will be treated equally.
“The Taliban don’t have much time to sit down and think and dwell and rethink,” said Mahbouba Seraj, a prominent women’s rights activist in Kabul featured on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2021.
“There is no rethinking about this. Girls, they have to go to school. Period.
“The world is going to make a decision whether to recognize the Taliban or not. And a whole lot of it depends on their actions — whether they are going to let girls go to school or not.”
WATCH | ‘They cannot hold the girls back,’ says activist Mahbouba Seraj:
But some Afghan women, buoyed by the ambitions they’ve long nourished, are refusing to wait patiently. Instead, they’re agitating for their rights on the streets and on social media.
Small protests happen every few weeks in Kabul — and have taken place in other cities, too — organized by brave young women holding signs and marching even after violent Taliban crackdowns on previous demonstrations.
“If we want to raise our voice, we should accept some risk and difficulties on ourselves to get our rights,” said Zwaak, a university student of law and politics. “For that, we accept this risk to take part in this protest.”
Zwaak is not her real name. It’s a Pashto word for “power” and is the alias she chose when CBC News agreed to withhold her name.
A young activist and artist, Zwaak uses her paintings and writings to further the cause of Afghan women — creating searing images depicting a dark present for women desperate to learn.
Zwaak is continuing to fight, steeling herself against mounting fears that it may be a losing battle.
“I’m losing my hope, day by day.”