Stronger than before: Resilience in times of socio-political confinement under the Taliban and coronavirus quarantine

Huma Saeed - Afghanistan - Italy

Huma Saeed is an affiliated senior researcher at the Leuven Institute of Criminology (KU Leuven) and an independent research consultant with national and international human rights and development organizations. Her research expertise is transitional justice and economic-state crime with extensive fieldwork in Afghanistan. She is a published author on a number of human rights issues based on her activist and research experiences.

Most of us will remember 2020 as the Covid-19 or Coronavirus year. Initially, everybody’s feeling was one of indifference and detachment: something happening so far away in China will not affect us. However, by February 2020 the virus started to spread everywhere as fast as the news itself. In Italy, where I live, schools notified their closure –initially for one week- during the last week of February. Still at this stage, we were in disbelief, hoping schools would remain close for one, two or maximum three weeks. Contrarily, soon thereafter the government declared other restrictive measures, and on 9 March 2020 -on my daughter’s eight birthday- Italy became the first country to declare nationwide quarantine. Many countries, especially in Europe, shortly followed Italy’s model. Millions of people around the world overnight found themselves confined at home, where the daily routine of children and adults alike came to an abrupt disruption. Restaurants, cafes, bars and all public gatherings were banned. Many lives were lost, and an uncertain specter loomed over, which continues to date. Just like the sudden and unexpected emergence of coronavirus, twenty-four years ago, the advent of a religious-political movement called the Taliban took Afghans by surprise. They too imposed quarantine measures. Not to contain a virus but to contain “immorality” in society. They imposed strict rules and regulations on the population in general and women and girls in particular. From 1996-2001, girls could not attend schools and women could not go to universities or work. They could not even see a doctor without a male companion or mahram. Burqa, the blue garment already in use in more traditional parts of the society, became mandatory and soon thereafter a world-famous image of Afghan women. The long list of restrictions imposed by the Taliban also included a ban on public celebrations and gatherings, such as wedding parties and New Year or Nowroz festivities. While many Afghans forced their way out of the country in search of a life with access to basic human rights, an uncertain prospect loomed over for five years for majority of the population. Under the Taliban, I lived as a young and passionate human rights refugee activist in Pakistan with some visits to Afghanistan. In 1999, my family returned to Afghanistan, while I continued to stay in Pakistan with other family members. Although I did not live under the Taliban regime, except for short periods, the stories and accounts that my family and others had shared were still so vivid in my mind that the corona time quarantine, twenty-four years later and in my comfort zone in Italy, stirred a familiar feeling. In particular, as my eight years old daughter was left with no other option but to follow home based and online schooling, I was reminded of stories of secret girls’ schools under the Taliban. With this outlook, I started to put the pandemic confinement into perspective, which attested to serve as a strong coping mechanism. While there is much to draw comparisons and parallels between the current pandemic and the Taliban era, in this piece, I would like to reflect on the home-based schooling under the Taliban; taking this as an opportune moment to highlight the creativity, bravery and enthusiasm exhibited by so many Afghan girls and women facing formidable challenges.

Self-organization in times of uncertainty Quarantine measures took us by surprise, leaving us disoriented and bewildered initially. Many Italian friends expressed in their lifetime it was the first time they found themselves in such difficulties. Indeed, in Italy during the pandemic peak newspapers sketched comparisons with the World War II era. For me, however, difficulties associated with the lockdown were neither the first nor certainly among the most arduous experiences of my life. It took schools a couple of weeks to make arrangements to ensure continuity of lessons. My daughter’s class of second grade started online lessons after two months, leaving some of us pondering about such a delay considering that all technical possibilities were in place. A similar uncertainty and bewilderment prevailed under the Taliban initially. However, as they closed girls’ schools across the country, many women and girls realized soon they had to take matters in their own hands by organizing home-based schools in secret. Urban, middle class women and girls were palpably affected by the Taliban’s restrictive measures, whereas many rural and poor women and girls either did not have access to an education or had only restrictive access even prior to the Taliban era. We may never know how many such “schools” existed given their clandestine nature, but based on witness and written accounts, we know there were many such experiments in major cities like Kabul and Herat. My family were living in Herat, and with a group of trustable family friends, my parents decided to organize home-based classes to ensure continuity of their daughters’ education. As professional women who could no longer continue their jobs because of the Taliban ban, our mothers decided to teach to this group, each according to their areas of expertise. Some classes were taking place in my parents’ home, where my mother taught history, geography and English. Others were convened in the homes of the families co-sharing the experience. They were eight students in total, including my two sisters, who studied grades seven and eight in this manner. They had to keep classes small and in diverse locations not to attract attention of the Taliban. Longevity

Length of time during quarantine is significant. In Italy, the sternest lockdown period lasted for two and half months. My daughter’s home-based schooling, including online lessons, continued until the end of school year 2020 in early June. The Taliban quarantine lasted for five years, which is a long period to deprive girls and young women from education and higher education. This meant the loss of an entire university program and degree for tens of thousands young women who were ready and enthusiastic to embark upon new experiences. After the fall of the Taliban regime, when schools opened and girls could once again attend, the mismatch between attendees’ age and classes became the new normal. My sisters were among the blessed ones who, in the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban when schools reopened, could enter the ninth grade after successfully passing the state entrance exam. Many young women had to repeat some grades or enter the first grade at the age of eleven.

Threat and danger

Quarantines are imposed because of a threat of a danger such as a pandemic. The Taliban considered women “dangerous” in the society because they could be provocative if men saw their faces or shape and form of their bodies. Women thus had to be quarantined to ensure the containment of “immorality” virus. Those breaking quarantine rules were punished, whether in Italy in the form of fines or in Afghanistan under the Taliban in the form of imprisonment, public lashing and sometimes public executions. In Italy, continuation of education was not against quarantine rules. On the contrary, public officials took measures –though many would say not sufficient- and continue to do so to ensure school continuity. Under the Taliban, however, girls’ education was a crime and on the black list of the Taliban ban. Those who took measures to preserve this continuity endured a great risk. This meant every girl and woman attending a classroom had to be prepared for an adequate reaction at any given moment in case they were stopped or discovered by the Taliban. The strategy for many young women, including my sisters, was to carry along a copy of the Holy Quran to show they were attending a religious class. Courageous girls and women who maintained and attended secret schools had to be also creative, perceptive and resourceful.


People exhibit more their creativity during the quarantine. Under such circumstances, creativity in and of itself becomes a coping strategy. During the pandemic lockdown, people across the globe performed creativity and innovation in different forms and shapes: in music, in technology, in sharing experiences, and even in expressing different forms of solidarity. Internet and technology evidently played a significant role in facilitating innovative measures. Under the Taliban, to run and maintain secret schools, women and girls had to rely on various creative measures. Common strategies included holding classes under the guise of Holy Quran or tailoring courses, both of which the Taliban did not oppose. In addition to their home-based classes, my sisters also attended a tailoring course where they were also learning English. Women even formed small circles of poetry in secret and disguise. One such poetry club in Herat was called the Golden Needle Workshop, where under the disguise of teaching tailoring, women assembled to read Persian poetry or discuss and critique literary work. One of the prominent participants of the Golden Needle Workshop was Nadia Anjuman, a young poet who was concurrently studying in secret schools. After the fall of the Taliban, she attended the Faculty of Literature and Political Science at the University of Herat. Surviving the Taliban era, in 2005 Anjuman became a victim of domestic violence and was killed by her husband because she wanted to continue her participation in the literary circles, which he had prohibited. She wrote in one of her poems in Farsi: Let us welcome the day when I open the cage Take my head out of this isolation and sing in a drunken state I am not that weak willow that trembles with every wind I am an Afghan1 woman, aptly screaming all the while Resources and entertainment

Resources, in particular technology, have been an imperative enabling factor during the corona pandemic. Throughout the lockdown, many of us blessed with technology and Internet, could continue working from home, studying from home, keeping in touch with family and friends, and having access to entertainment. In my daughter’s school, soon a platform of communication and exchange was developed whereby students could download and upload school works. Under the Taliban quarantine, however, there was a ban on everything. There was no TV, no music, no Internet, no public celebrations and limited private celebrations, which were often held in the basements. Paradoxically, the scarcity of resources and entertainment opportunities created a space where many girls and young women immersed themselves into learning. They devoured any learning opportunity that was attainable given the circumstances: school material, English language, tailoring, books, and radio programs. Learning became a coping strategy, a tool of entertainment. According to my sisters, reading novels became prevalent among girls and young women in the city of Herat where they exchanged books in tailoring classes.

Hope in times of despair

Confinement experiences by definition create a level of uncertainty and angst in us that in the stretch of time could transform into despair. The pandemic confinement lasted, comparatively, a short while. Nevertheless, many people across the globe experienced a spike in domestic violence, child abuse and psychosocial problems. The five-year long socio-political confinement under the Taliban led many into despair, affecting in particular women and girls. The prospect of living under the confinement of the Taliban for a seemingly eternal period on the one hand, and providing for family and desiring to advance regardless of circumstances on the other, was so absurd and incongruent that for some left no other option but to take their own lives. Many young girls, disenchanted about the continuation of their education and future, were married off. Others, oddly, turned the scarcity of opportunities into an occasion to maintain hope and equilibrium. The opportunity they created was a determination to remain concentrated on what was feasible. In the absence of TV, computer, mobile phones and other digital devices, my sisters dedicated their time to learning. They were concentrating on their studies not so much because they were hopeful, they could one day enter university, but because learning had become their only aperture of hope. Every day, they were studying 8 to 9 hours between classes and homework. Once they told me they had never studied as seriously and strictly as in those years because it was the only thing they could do; the only thing that could keep them going and they had little of anything else to distract them. Every night after dinner, they were listening to Voice of America’s Special English program. They became fluent in English language during the years of confinement. As one of my sisters said, their disenchantment forced them to study hard; it was their only saviour.

Sometimes hard times can help us triumph over them. In the aftermath of the Taliban, after being deprived of formal education for five years, millions of girls and young women ushered into education and higher education enrolment. Never before Afghanistan had seen such a large percentage of girls attending schools. Conservative families, who prior to the Taliban rule would not allow their daughters to gain education, started to enrol their daughters in schools enthusiastically. Private institutions in the education and higher education sectors mushroomed in Afghanistan during the last two decades. Many young women went abroad as exchange students or for a master’s degree. Prior to the Taliban, it was only seldom that families would send their daughters alone for an education abroad. In the post-Taliban era, young women broke away with this tradition and at least among educated middle class; since then it has become a norm to send a young woman abroad for education or vocational trainings.

The isolation and pandemic confinement instigated a familiar feeling in me, but this time it did not take me by surprise. I knew I did not need to fear beating or imprisonment or loss of limbs and life because my daughter continued her education online or I worked from home. This time, I was lucky to be connected worldwide with family, friends and colleagues while in confinement. Reflecting on the isolation, creativity and courage of women and girls under the Taliban, I kept reminding myself that we would overcome it, just as millions of brave women and girls in Afghanistan did, and become stronger than before.