By Nilofar Abrahemi (Text and Photos)
Simin and Parvin live on the Barchi road west of Kabul. It is the place where the two young women have grown and walked towards their dreams for many years. It is a crowded neighborhood with hardworking people, who sweat and struggle from morning to night for a loaf of bread. Most of them are middle-class and from the Shiite minority of the Hazara, but likewise, they are poor when it comes to income.
Simin: The “Kankor” entrance exam is a test that is held every year for high school graduates in Afghanistan.
The Kaaj educational center had been training girls for the exam. Simin had been studying there together with other female students as well. The pictures of after the suicide bombing on September 30, 2022, are like scars on her mind. The Islamic State confirmed the attack later on. Simin left the school just a month before the explosion because her family was worried about previous attacks and threads targeting the education of female students.
The girls she had been studying with at Kaaj Educational Center were dreaming of becoming doctors, engineers, and decision makers. They hoped to be able to take the Kankor entrance exam and study at Kabul University one day.
Simin asserts, “I view the prospect of surviving in the perilous circumstances of Afghanistan as a chance. Many of my friends didn’t get that chance, and now they’re gone.”
The attack on the Kaaj educational center in Kabul, 30.09.2022
Nearly a year after the attack, the Taliban banned girls from going to school and universities. She was in 11th grade at the time and looked back to a history of struggle for education. Not because her family didn’t want her to study, but because they hardly could afford it.
Until the fifth grade, Simin attended school in Ghazni, a town in Central Afghanistan, Southwest of Kabul. Nonetheless, her childhood aspirations consistently revolved around pursuing a superior educational institution, one that she firmly believed would enable her aspirations to flourish. Even though Simin’s family did not have much money, they still attempted to help her achieve her goals. Many Hazara families favor education for males and females. She was enrolled in one of the city’s finest private schools after her family relocated to Kabul. Her father was a staunch advocate for her education, he devotedly worked tirelessly throughout the day and night to ensure that she was able to study without any qualms. Simin’s father was an ordinary worker, who worked in construction from early morning to evening. Studying in poor conditions was stressful for Simin.
When the school fees came in each month, she said, “I remember, it was expensive. As a young girl, I felt a significant burden because I felt responsible for this financial obstacle.” (Simin)
For Simin, the KANKOR-Exam was her destiny, the goal her family had sacrificed for. She wanted to pursue economics and become a successful businesswoman. It was the key to her dreams that got lost now to an uncertain future.
Parvin: “I’ve always known that my journey as an Afghan girl will be filled with both ups and downs, still I believed in trying hard.”
Parvin, a 18-year-old student in the 12th grade, has been in similar situations. Parvin has never found life to be an easy task as an Afghan woman, facing cultural and social poverty, street harassment, violence, and gender inequality as the biggest barriers that she struggled with. Still, she felt that it was worth the effort, since she was getting closer to her goals every day. She is now far away from her aspirations and spends her entire day with books, reviewing memories, and writing about her deprivations as the only shelter that calms her mind.
Parvin and her peers have always had a difficult life in Afghanistan, but they have always been hopeful that equal rights for women, such as the right to education and work, would help them grow and realize their dreams. Nowadays, the most basic rights, like the desire to learn and work, are considered lofty goals for them.
The Taliban has been systematically removing women from public life. A woman can’t work in government or non-government offices, go to school or university, use public facilities like amusement parks and public baths, travel without “Mahraam,” a male relative, or take part in politics.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was shut down. The recent closure of beauty salons is another decree imposed by the Taliban. While the Taliban initially claimed that women would be permitted to work and study within the framework of Sharia law, the reality has been far from promising. Each passing day brings new restrictions that further restrict the lives of women.
These circumstances have compelled numerous girls to make unfavorable choices, such as entering into forced marriages or even resorting to suicide. Recent reports indicate that there is a big increase in underage and forced marriages, as well as cases of suicide among girls because of psychological pressure.
The Department of Statistics and Information of the Taliban government conducted a survey in 2022 with the financial support of the United Nations. It is showing that 38.9% of girls under the age of 18 in Afghanistan are married, and it’s getting higher by the day. This study shows that in Helmand and Herat, 52.2% of married women were underage, while in Kabul, 27.6% of married women were between 20 and 49 years old. This report states that among women aged between 20 and 29, 9.6% of them were married at the age of 15. They also noted that the rate of underage marriage among women is 40.9% in villages and 33.3% in cities.
In August 2023, The Middle East Monitor newspaper reported that 188 women committed suicide in Afghanistan last year. The majority of the suicides take place in places like Takhar, Kunduz, Bamyan, Badghis, Faryab, Mazar-i-Sharif, and other rural areas. The escalating number of female suicide attempts is attributed to the decline in their living conditions in Afghanistan. The report noted that depression among girls and women is rampant, exacerbated by the ban on learning and work, which is aggravated by the already dire financial circumstances of numerous families engulfed impoverished. Other factors include forced marriages, domestic violence, and a general lack of social life.
Rabia and Fatemeh (nicknames) are two friends of Parvin’s, who got married young out of desperation after Afghanistan was defeated. Parvin adds that this was not what they desired. Nonetheless, Parvin is not prepared to accept such a fate.
Forced marriage isn’t a matter of the religion.
According to Islam, women are entitled to consent to marriage. A marriage and its modalities cannot be valid without the consent of the women involved. A verse from the Holy Quran for example says clearly:“Oh you who have believed, it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion.” — Holy Quran 4/19
Forcing marriage of girls in Islam is prohibited by a hadith of the Holy Prophet. Saheeh Muslim was written in 1419 and is also included in Saheeh al-Bukhari 6968. The Holy Prophet is quoted there: “a woman (regardless if she is a virgin, divorced, or a widow) cannot be married to anyone until her permission is sought.”
However, the Taliban use Islamic laws and Sharia to restrict women. They’re always acting haphazardly. They say that women can work and study according to Islam and Sharia laws. Even though two years have passed since the fall of the previous regime and the assumption of power by the Taliban, no framework has been established to support women’s labor and education. Numerous laws have made women’s lives worse every day.
A government that’s all guns and horns shames anyone who stands up to wrong makes Parvin and Simin feel left out. Protests have been halted and people have been badly beaten. There are protesters being held in Taliban jails.
“The international condemnations of the incidents don’t change our reality”, Simin says. Parvin is in the same state of mind, where hope is mixed with despair. “Sometimes I wish to wake up from a bad dream and to head to my Kankor-exam”.
The lives of numerous Afghans have been thrown into a tumultuous swirl of uncertainty and despair following Afghanistan’s demise on August 15, 2021, when the Taliban took Kabul. Many people have fled to neighboring countries. According to United Nations sources, Afghan refugees are the third largest displaced population in the world, after Syrian and Ukrainian refugees. Over 1.6 million Afghans have left their country since 2021. These figures indicate that there are 8.2 million Afghans in neighboring countries, of which 70 percent are women and children.
Simin and Parvin, were left behind with their families in Afghanistan. The two young women represent the countless young minds that are denied an education and other basic rights. Both families struggled to give their daughters an education to help them get out of poverty.
In Afghanistan, a gender-based segregation system was imposed on the women like a nightmare. The ambitions and potential of the generation of Simin and Parwin may not be wasted.