Before the 19th century, students in Afghanistan would receive traditional education, mostly Islamic, in mosques and madrasas. The first Afghan schools and universities were built in that century: Habibia High School in 1903, Amani High School in 1920 and the Kabul University in 1932. In 1935, Afghanistan Government declared education compulsory and free.
By the 1960s, 90% percent of all school administrators were hired as government officials, and graduates of religious schools were hired as judges or religious functionaries. In 1978, the Soviet-influenced regime launched a literacy campaign as a part of their political agenda, which backfired and caused many families that didn’t live in large cities to view education as a threat to their religious beliefs. Three decades of war in Afghanistan destroyed much infrastructure, including the bases of the education system. In 1996, Afghanistan had the highest levels of illiteracy in Asia.
During the Taliban regime, girls were not allowed to attend school and boys would study in madrasas. Afghanistan’s new government, supported by international aid, started to rebuild schools and provide education to students of both sexes. The new constitution declared education “the right of all citizens of Afghanistan, which shall be provided up to the level of B.A, free of charge by the state.”
However, problems are still abundant in the current education system. Educational institutions are often the target of violence – in 2008 alone, 670 incidents of attacks on schools were recorded. Violence is also prevalent within schools. In many schools around the country, teachers violate students’ rights by beating and punishing them if they do anything that could be categorized as indiscipline. Another issue is child labour, as thousands of children from poor families work on the streets and most of them do not attend school. In addition to this, teachers in suburban schools are sometimes unqualified.
With all of these problems, Afghanistan’s education system seemingly has a long way to go in order to reach the internationally recognized standards of education. The textbooks and educational material available are of inadequate quality.
After the fall of the Taliban, the new government tried to authorize and register religious educational institutions (madrasas) to be able to regulate them, but there are many unauthorized madrasas around the country today. The teaching of extremism in these madrasas seems to pose a threat to the government. Ashraf-ul-Madares in the Kunduz province illustrates this.
Established by two locally influential mullahs, Ashraf-ul-Madares teaches girls an extremist interpretation of Islamic law and thought. A BBC report shows that many girls studying in this madrasa left school because of the male teachers there. In the madrasa, girls are taught by men from behind a physical barrier and a curtain. Ashraf-ul-Madares students spread the belief that only their way of praying and their way of dressing (wearing long hijabs that do not show any part of their body but their eyes) is morally right. They call others with different views “infidels”. These girls avoid listening to the radio, watching TV, taking photos, working outside of their home and celebrating Mother’s Day, Teacher’s Day or even the New Year because they believe these celebrations are illegal under Islam. Reports also indicate that children are abused by teachers for bad behavior or not studying.
The madrasa officials claim that their funds are met by students selling their jewelry, but we do not actually know who their financial supporters are. Students are taught from unofficial books written to teach an extremist interpretation of Islamic law. The BBC reports that the madrasa will expland with branches in Baghlan, Takhar and nine other provinces. This can be a threat to peace and tolerance in Afghanistan, especially as the students are girls, who were barred from education for years, but now are choosing to reclaim ther rights – by studying in such madrasas.
Although teaching extremist interpretations of religion seems to add to social intolerance and cultural and social gaps between people of different sections and religions in Afghanistan, the high rate of school enrollment in Afghanistan shows that there is a passion to study and learn in the children of the country, who are the people’s hopes for a more peaceful and sustainable future. Education is Afghanistan’s hope and this hope is their force to change.
To learn more on teaching extremism in Afghanistan, Al-Jazeera television’s special series, The Girls of the Taliban, which is made by Afghan journalists is recommended. This documentary film interviews both sides, the extremists and the government school’s students, and clearly shows the difference. You can find it below: