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Home » Dr. Tariq Habibyar on Women and Education in Afghanistan

Dr. Tariq Habibyar on Women and Education in Afghanistan

Interview by Serena Aprile

You were living in Afghanistan, where you grew up, in 1995, when the Taliban took power. The Taliban made it illegal for girls to receive an education. Although it was illegal, you taught your sisters, while you were still a youth yourself, and you ended up teaching other neighbourhood girls as well. What made you want to help educate these young women? What were the possible consequences? Did you worry about what might happen if you were caught?  

I was encouraged by my parents to pursue education through private institutions. I took private English and computer courses as they became available at the time. Soon I was able to share what I learned to other children.  

My parents always put great emphasis on education; they always believed that, alongside food and water, education was a necessity. And they just could not tolerate the injustices that were inflicted on women and girls so they encouraged me to teach girls, in secret, as it was forbidden by the Taliban.

At the time, my father was running a small business. He was a journalist by profession and so, because of the regime, he had lost his job. A neighbour came to my father and said, “I understand your son knows some English. I have two daughters at home. I would appreciate it if your son would come to our home and teach them.”

Being a young person, my father knew the consequences could have been terrible for me, if I were caught. But the desire to help was much greater than the risk and fear, I guess.

"My father knew the consequences could have been terrible for me, if I were caught. But the desire to help was much greater than the risk and fear."

Tariq Habibyar

So, I started teaching those two girls! After my own sisters, those two sisters were my first students. Every time I went to their home, their mother showed appreciation for my work. She would treat me like a very special guest. The family were hospitable and wanted to make sure I continued teaching their daughters.

I enjoyed teaching, I fell in love with it. 

Then other people started to come to my father and asking: “Can your son teach my daughters at home?”. 

I had a few students in every corner of the city. I would get on my bike, not carrying any blackboards or anything that would give a clue to the Taliban and I would teach not just English language but numeracy and literacy too.

I enjoyed it. I never thought about the risks of getting caught. 

The one time I did get caught, I was punished for carrying a movie - Titanic. Afghan clothing is different from what I am wearing now, so I was able to hide the video cassettes under my shirt.
I was riding my bike against a strong wind. A member of the Taliban saw the edges of the cassettes. He stopped me. He found the cassette. He broke it. And then he slapped me.

He wanted to imprison me for that. 

An elderly man, a bypasser, stopped and said, “He is just a young boy. Let him go. And he will never do that again.”

The next day, I borrowed another copy of the Titanic and I watched it. One should never give in to bullies and extremists.

I didn’t really think about the risks too much. I took precautions and mitigated risks to the extent I could, but the cause was always greater than the fears.

I wasn’t alone with this attitude of mind.

There were many, many more in Afghanistan, at the time and today, who simply stand for their basic rights, even if the risks are great.

Tariq Habibyar grew up in Herat, Afghanistan. He holds a PhD in Education from the University of Canterbury, an MA degree in Civics and Citizenship education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a BA degree in English Literature from Herat University.  
Tariq taught at Herat University for several years and worked as a career and learning consultant at Massey University. He advocates for children’s education and dreams of a world where every child has access to quality education. He dared to teach young girls literacy and language courses underground when women and girls in Afghanistan were forbidden from getting an education. He led a number of educational projects for children in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2021.  
Tariq also worked with numerous international humanitarian organizations and promoted small and medium enterprises within local communities.  His research interests are feminist leadership in the context of war affected countries, civics and citizenship education, and social entrepreneurship.   

In 2016, you completed your PhD thesis In Pursuit of Light: Voices of Educational Activists in Afghanistan. Why did the voices of educational activists’ matter then. And why do they matter now, in 2023, two years after the United States of America withdrew their troops from Afghanistan?

I reached out to volunteer educators because I admired them. They believed in a country that respects the rights of women and men equally. They were prepared to sacrifice for the Afghani community to become a nation that provides equal opportunities for both men and women.

These educators were up against oppressive regimes, warlords and corrupt individuals. But they worked hard alongside schools, parents and community leaders to humanize education for the children.

"These educators were up against oppressive regimes, warlords and corrupt individuals. But they worked hard…to humanize education for the children."

Tariq Habibyar

Today, the situation has deteriorated significantly. Schools have been transformed into platforms for spreading propaganda, fostering ignorance among children and young people. Extremists' ultimate goal, by shutting school doors for girls and largely restricting science education for boys, is to dehumanize children, coercing them to conform to a particular agenda and the ruling regime's ideology. Although schools faced challenges during the Republic, the current state of education is a stark departure from the past and falls far short of ideal.

The job of educators and advocates is much harder today. Their voices must be heard. They will one day make a difference in creating a future of hope, fairness and respect, because these educators are creating space for human dignity.

Since the withdrawal of the United States’ troops, what has happened in Afghanistan? What do you think people outside of Afghanistan should know?

Women in Afghanistan are experiencing gender apartheid. Women are denied their humanity, their basic rights. Their country has turned into a prison for them.

Injustices like these should never be acceptable to any human being. If we believe in treating humans with dignity in Canada, New Zealand, America, or Germany, we should hold the same belief for humans in Afghanistan.

Currently, what I find most challenging in Afghanistan is the regime's failure to grasp the fundamental concept that by denying girls access to education,
they are shutting the doors on knowledge, wisdom, and learning. Only an enemy of a nation closes the doors of schools and universities to its citizens.

When the regime does that, they are closing the door on any sort of progress.

Leadership of the Taliban comfortably travel on planes and ride in modern cars built by both women and men, enjoying all the luxuries of the modern world created by women and men without any reservations.

But, they deny the very education that has created the modern life. Such an irony.

In the long run, denying women education will only make Afghanistan a poorer and more dependent nation on others. Afghanistan can’t live for long by begging from other countries. No country is sustainable through charity and begging.

"When you imprison half the society, half the population, the future is darker and darker for everyone."

Tariq Habibyar

When you imprison half the society, half the population, the future is darker and darker for everyone there.

I understand that your hometown, Herat, recently suffered an earthquake.

The earthquake in my hometown took the lives of at least 3000 people. According to UNICEF, 90% were women and children – and that is because of poverty. Most of the men had gone to neighbouring countries to make a living, earn some money and send it back to their families. Or they were in their farms and gardens, since women are not allowed to leave their homes.

I wouldn’t be surprised if women couldn’t leave their homes because they feared being seen by the Taliban -- so the earthquake took their lives. It is very shameful.

What can we do in Canada? 

In Canada and in other advanced societies, we can genuinely and authentically stand for those who are oppressed. We must do what we can to amplify their voices and to say no to oppression and bullying, say no to brutalities and say no to injustices.

Feminists have a vital role here, since, to me, feminism is about amplifying the voice of the voiceless, especially women, who have been denied their rights, historically.

"Feminists have a vital role since…feminism is about amplifying the voice of the voiceless, especially women, who have been denied their rights."

Tariq Habibyar

There is no justification in Islam for denying women their rights to learn and to work. At the time of Prophet Mohammed, his own wife was a business woman. She was a great supporter of the prophet and a good friend.

In Afghanistan, during the 14th century, there were women like Gawhar Shad Begum. She served as a Minister to the king, who was also her husband. Gawhar Shad was passionate about architecture and the arts, and her legacy endures through numerous monuments that stand today, a testament to her wisdom and knowledge.

She encouraged many other women to acquire literature, philosophy and poetry. The pursuit for equality of women and men is not a foreign concept in Afghanistan. Rather, the ideal like equality has always existed in Afghanistan: it always has, and it always will. 

Right now, women in Afghanistan are oppressed.

But they will not be oppressed forever. Standing in solidarity with women in Afghanistan and genuinely engaging with them is the way that we can make a difference.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Despite the numerous challenges faced within Afghanistan, I maintain the belief that it is an emerging country. I envision a future where Afghanistan emerges as a free nation, where its people can live with dignity and prosper.

The union of feminists between Afghanistan and more advanced countries, like Canada, is important. When I speak of a union, I mean a union of perspectives, thoughts, values and principles to support each other. The fight for equality continues in Afghanistan, and it will take many generations – or maybe it is a never-ending struggle -- but it’s all about standing on the right side of history and making progress.

"The fight for equality continues in Afghanistan and it will take many generations—or maybe it is a never-ending struggle – but it’s all about standing on the right side of history and making progress."

Tariq Habibyar

Education is key. We need to find alternative ways to provide education, especially for girls: because education is power and with the internet today and the potential for connection over vast distances, we can work together, despite the obstacles ahead.

What about international aid?

The international aid system is not the solution. I worked with aid agencies and it is a failed system. There are studies that show that many none-governmental (NGO) and charitable organizations spend 75-80 percent of their budget on their own salaries, security, their own bodyguards and their own food.

I travelled to some of the poorest provinces in Afghanistan, places where people had one very basic meal during the day and nothing else to eat. Then, inside a camp where my expat colleagues lived, I saw so many varieties of food that shocked me. I couldn’t name at least half of them.

Are there insights for young women like me, things we should know?

For me, the solution lies in collaborating with each other with humility, forging innovative pathways towards sustainable alternatives. These avenues would provide access to education and employment opportunities for women in Afghanistan. Ultimately advancing the prosperity of all humankind should be our common goal and it is possible in today’s world!

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, denial of education should be regarded as a crime because the denial of education - and employment - denies the people their right to be human. We flourish through education. We are intelligent beings and when they close school and university doors on intelligent beings it is a crime against humanity, it is about stopping women from fulfilling their human potential through learning and applying their knowledge for their own betterment and for the betterment of the world around them.

"In Afghanistan women are very tired…But there is still a…fire in their hearts, because they want to make sure that millions of women and girls in Afghanistan are not forgotten."

Tariq Habibyar

In Afghanistan, women are very tired and still recovering from the trauma that they experienced, beginning from the dark days of August 2021. But there is still that willingness and there is still that passion, like a fire in their hearts, because they want to make sure that millions of women and girls in Afghanistan are not forgotten.

We need each other.

Dr. Tariq Habibyar was a visiting scholar at the CFR from 2022-2023. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University.

Serena Aprile is a third-year student at York University's Glendon Campus majoring in sociology and minoring in political science. She is interested in the impact of education especially for young women.