A suburban group has helped Afghan girls get an education. Now their future is uncertain.

Posted by  on 8/22/2021 8:05 AM. Retrieved from www.dailyherald.com.

For seven years, the suburban-based Zakat Foundation of America has run a girls' school in Kabul that typically averages about 100 students, many of whom have gone on to study in universities.

Today, the future of that school, and girls' education in general in Afghanistan, remains uncertain with the Taliban seizing control of the Central and South Asian nation nearly 20 years after being ousted from power by U.S. troops.

Halil Demir, executive director of the Bridgeview-based foundation, has not been able to reach the principal of Farda-e-Afghan, or "Future of Afghanistan," school since the Taliban captured Kabul. But news reports and accounts from insiders on the ground give him hope that today's Taliban are more moderate and different from the group that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

"At the moment, it is very difficult to say what is going to happen," Demir said. "I know the schools are closed. I know the girls are not in school. Taliban has promised that girls' (education) is going to continue."

When the Taliban first conquered Afghanistan, the group imposed strict rules -- stemming from its austere interpretation of Islamic law -- mandating that women be covered from head to toe, forbidding them from studying, working or traveling alone, and banning TV, music and non-Islamic holidays. After recapturing Kabul and all major cities in a matter of days in a largely bloodless coup last week, Taliban leaders vowed to respect women's rights and allow them to work and go to school "within the framework of Islam."

Between 2014 and 2020, Zakat Foundation's school educated 300 students in seventh through 12th grades and graduated 140 girls, many of whom have found employment or gone on to study at universities. Enrollment fell in the 2020 school year due to COVID-19, with only 85 girls attending for part of the year.

The foundation also supports 400 students studying at 10 universities across the country, Demir said.

So far, Demir said, the Taliban are not forcing women to leave their jobs or don the niqab -- a face covering worn by orthodox Muslim women -- that was mandated during their earlier rule. Both signs are promising, he said.

"To educate a nation, you have to educate the girls who are going to be mothers, teachers, nurses so that society can be uplifted," Demir said.

Advocates of girls' education in Afghanistan are cautiously optimistic. Others remain fearful for what might happen if history repeats itself.

"The people of Afghanistan are scared," said Sima Qader Quraishi, an Afghan American woman and executive director of Chicago-based Muslim Women Resource Center. "It's the lack of trust more than anything. It's going to take some time before (the Taliban) can be trusted. Even if the schools are open, nobody wants to go because they are scared."

Quraishi said the Taliban's promises aside, "everything is up in the air."

Some observers believe the United Nations' continued involvement in Afghanistan bodes well for the future of girls' education. In December, the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, struck a rare deal with the Taliban to establish 4,000 community-based schools in four provinces -- expected to reach up to 140,000 Afghan boys and girls. An estimated 3.7 million children are out of school there.

"Because of that contract and the U.N. (deciding) they are not leaving (Afghanistan), I have hope that the Taliban's attitude toward girls' education will be dictated by that agreement," said Abdul Malik Mujahid, of Hazelcrest, founder and president of Chicago-based Sound Vision, which runs Muslim Network TV, and founder of the human rights watchdog group Justice for All.

Mujahid said despite the chaos and unpredictability of the situation, U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan "is the right decision."

"America needs to learn to live with Muslims who prefer to have a different way of life than ours," he said.

A 2017 Human Rights Watch report revealed an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not attend school -- 16 years after the U.S.-led military intervention that ousted the Taliban. That's because the efforts of the Afghan government and international donors toward educating girls had faltered.

Allowing girls' education to flourish could become the Taliban's salvation or toll the death knell for the regime, some say.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Thursday the Security Council's only leverage to press for an inclusive government and respect for rights, particularly of women, is the Taliban's desire for international recognition. U.N. officials in Kabul have been in close contact with the Taliban, according to a Reuters report.

In the last 20 years, Afghan women have progressed, gained rights and become active in all aspects of civil society and government. If women are stifled, there will be heavy pushback from women's groups, Demir said.

"Many men in Afghan society have witnessed women's participation and their impact on society, and support keeping the gains," Demir said. "We are hopeful ... that progress will go forward rather than backward. If you don't allow them to be educated, you are only digging (the) grave for a nation and its future."