Defiance Amid Darkness: Secret Schools Illuminate Afghan Girls’ Path To Education – OpEd


In the aftermath of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, a dark cloud of educational restrictions descended upon the nation, particularly affecting its young girls. Formal secondary education for girls was abruptly banned, extinguishing their dreams of learning and aspiring for a brighter future. Amid this adversity, a group of courageous educators and students in Kabul has defied the oppressive regime, running secret schools in a clandestine effort to keep the flame of education alive.

In the heart of Kabul, a teacher known only as “R” has embarked on a daring mission to provide education to girls who were forcibly denied access to schools by the Taliban. Initially, her school had just ten students, but today, she instructs over 60 girls, ranging in age, alongside their mothers, in a concealed educational oasis.

R’s school, although hidden from the Taliban’s watchful eye, resembles any other classroom. Girls, dressed in black abayas as mandated by the extremist regime, sit on the floor, actively engaged in learning. In a video interview, R reveals her secret world, proudly showcasing her students’ artwork. Despite the secrecy surrounding her school, the passion for learning shines brightly within these young hearts.

Teaching Courage and Knowledge

R’s commitment to education goes beyond traditional subjects. In a concealed hideout behind her home, she conducts classes on drawing and sewing while offering formal lessons in math, history, science, and social studies with the help of two other teachers. This comprehensive approach aims to empower girls with essential skills and knowledge that will serve them well in the future.

Running a clandestine school under the Taliban’s watchful gaze is not without its perils. R initially lived in fear, seldom leaving her home due to the risk of Taliban attacks. However, as word of her school spread within the community, more and more girls arrived, scaling walls and evading vigilant Taliban patrols to access education. These acts of bravery inspired R to persevere in her mission.

A Worsening Educational Crisis

The grim reality in Afghanistan is that 2.5 million girls, a staggering 80% of their age group, are currently excluded from education, according to a recent United Nations report. Since the Taliban’s return to power, 1.2 million girls have been denied access to secondary schools and universities, with older women added to the ban in late 2022. The extremist regime now allows education for girls only up to the sixth grade, pushing them towards religious madrassas as their sole option for learning.

This is not the first time that secret schools have emerged in Afghanistan. During the Taliban’s previous rule in the 1990s, countless clandestine schools defied the oppressive regime. Reports from that era revealed that humanitarian organizations supported over a hundred secret schools, enabling approximately 45,000 children to receive an education.

In the face of adversity, activists like Matiullah Wesa, co-founder of the nonprofit organization PenPath, have been at the forefront of advocating for girls’ education in Afghanistan. Even after being detained by the Taliban, Wesa and his organization shifted their focus toward campaigning for the reopening of schools. PenPath currently operates nearly 40 underground schools, providing education to more than 5,000 girls from grades one to nine.

The importance of these secret schools is underscored by the determination of their students. A 13-year-old girl attending R’s school dreams of becoming an engineer despite the risks. She emphasizes that she and her fellow students “are not doing anything wrong” and that their parents fully support their education. The risk is outweighed by the hope of realizing their dreams.

Facing Close Calls

Running secret schools inevitably involves close calls with the Taliban. R recalls an incident when Taliban officials came knocking at her door, but she wasn’t home at the time. Her courageous students managed the situation, contacting her in fear. In response, she temporarily closed the school for a month and left Kabul for a week, safeguarding the precious educational lifeline she provides.

Despite the constant threat, R remains resolute in her mission to educate girls. She envisions expanding her school to reach more girls and involve more teachers. She draws inspiration from friends who run similar secret schools, teaching hundreds of girls. When asked what they would say if the Taliban discovered their classes, she responds with a determined smile, “We will tell them we are studying only the Holy Quran.”


In the shadows of adversity, secret schools in Kabul illuminate a path to education for Afghan girls. These dedicated educators and brave students defy the Taliban’s oppressive ban on girls’ formal education. As the world watches their courageous efforts, they stand as a beacon of hope, reminding us that the thirst for knowledge cannot be extinguished, even in the darkest of times. Their resilience and determination offer a glimpse of a brighter future when all Afghan girls can access education without fear or discrimination. 

Khalid Iqbal

Khalid Iqbal is a BS student at NUML, Islamabad.

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