MASHHAD, Iran (Middle East Eye) -- An increasing number of Afghan families have found refuge in neighboring Iran after the Taliban government reneged on its promise to allow girls to go to school in March.
It has now been more than eight months since girls in Afghanistan were allowed to attend secondary school.
Initially kept out of the classroom for six months because of the turmoil in the country following the August 2021 U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power, girls were repeatedly told they would be able to recommence their education at the start of the new school year in March.
But on Wednesday March 23, as thousands of teenage girls across Afghanistan headed back to school, the Taliban reversed the decision at the last minute. Taliban guards posted outside schools barred their entry, leaving students in tears as they headed back home with books in hand.
“They would look at the girls and say: ‘Go home. Even studying this much should be enough for you all’,” recalled Nilofar, 31, a teacher in the western province of Herat.
Sources who spoke to Middle East Eye in the city of Mashhad, northeast Iran, said that enrolment at schools catering for Afghan refugees had increased over the last six weeks, particularly for young girls.
A principal at one such school said that, although education might not be the primary factor pulling people towards Iran, it was a significant one.
“There are major issues with insecurity and the economy,” the principal, who did not want to be identified by name, said. “But if education isn’t the number one reason for these families to come here, it’s definitely high up.”
In recent months, forces claiming allegiance to the Daesh group have staged increasingly brazen attacks on schools, education centers and
places of worship in several provinces of Afghanistan.
The attacks came despite the Taliban’s repeated claims that once they came to power and the U.S.-led occupation had ended, safety and security would finally return to the nation.
Yet one international organization has said that nearly 20 million Afghans, or 47 percent of the population, were facing food insecurity due to the economic downturn, drought, aid cutbacks and Washington’s withholding of billions in Afghan assets following the Taliban’s return to power.
Zainab Sajadi, the principal at a non-governmental school for Afghan refugees in Mashhad, told MEE that the enrolment of undocumented students had risen since the Taliban takeover last summer.
“We received hundreds of new students. Our classrooms are completely full,” Sajadi, 41, said. “We don’t have enough chairs. Some students stand in class, others have to share their chairs.”
Sajadi said the school had started to hold three different shifts of classes a day, with the teachers doing extra lessons voluntarily and without additional pay.
But Sajadi feared that no matter how many steps they took, it would never be enough to meet the outsized demand.
“Even If we keep teaching three shifts a day and continue enrolling students, there will still be thousands of other students who will be unable to attend school,” she told MEE.
Sixty percent of the pupils in Sajadi’s school are Afghan girls.
“They are the most intelligent students in our school,” she said. “I can see just how much they are starving for education.”
But the journey to Iran for Afghans is fraught with dangers and difficulties.
Paying smugglers to get you across the border can cost upwards of $400 per person, and with bank restrictions on weekly withdrawals in place and millions of people unemployed or on severely reduced wages since the Taliban returned to power, such fees are beyond many Afghans.