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The Unbearable Weight of 1000 Days: Afghan girls and their Stolen Future 

  • 13 June 2024
  • By Naimat Zafary
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Naimat Zafary, a PhD researcher at the University of Sussex and a former Afghan Chevening Scholar. Today, 13 June 2024, marks 1,000 days since girls’ education was banned in Afghanistan.

In 1893, for the first time in modern democratic history, women voted in the national elections in New Zealand.[1] 131 years ago this was a model for equality in the political arena.

Yet the arc of history does not always bend towards justice. In the heart of Asia in a country known to the world for its struggles and oppression rather than its beauty and vast talent, a group called the Taliban has ended the fundamental rights of education for Afghan girls and constrained their engagement in civic life. To our shared horror, we are about to make 1000 days of what is nothing less than gender apartheid. 

Afghanistan is my country. It is the place that gave life to my mother, wife, sisters and daughters. And yet I look at it today as an exile, grateful to be in my second year of a PhD in international development studies at Sussex University. But simultaneously grieving what has been lost.

In my research I mainly cover the perceptions and participation of actors (NGO workers) in development schemes, something I had seen first-hand in my career in Afghanistan before the Taliban once again took power. So, I understand deeply that participation is critical for any development initiative to succeed. The same is true for wider society. In my studies and fieldwork, I see the consequences of an absence of genuine participation — the errors, misunderstandings and inadvertent waste and oppression which plague systems of aid and politics. And I fear what the exclusion of half of the population, the talent of women and girls, will lead to. 

Of course, policy is also personal and those excluded have names. I think of my sister and cousins who have been barred from their higher education and my lovely nieces who have been banned from their schools for secondary education. For me and any Afghan, there are live examples. Weekly, I speak with my sister and my nieces, and each time, their questions remain — how long? Have we been abandoned and forgotten? 

One thousand days — how quickly we calculate the unimaginable. It’s also two years and nine months, 33 months, almost 143 weeks, 24,000 hours, and 1,440,000 minutes of waiting. What is the endurance of teenage girls needed to hold onto their dreams for that long?

Last week, I visited the British Library, one of my favourite places in London. I was attracted by the Magna Carta which declared: ‘No free man shall be seizedimprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or ruined in any way, nor in any way proceeded against, except by the lawful judgment.

But where is lawful judgment for those denied? What fault in Afghan girls? My little nieces don’t understand their crime. Is love of education a criminal act if you happen to be female? 

There are times when it is right to think of education not only in terms of statistics and rankings but in terms of people. The great philosopher of education John Henry Newman understood this when he chooses for his crest the motto ‘Cor ad Cor Loquitur‘ — ‘Heart speaks unto Heart.’

So, forgive me for speaking personally as I try to convey what this means in my own circumstances. Like many Afghans, my family has been directly impacted by the Taliban. My sister was supposed to sit for her final medical exit exam, yet remains a doctor without a certificate. My two cousins were in their second year of medical school when the Taliban took power and now sit at home. My three talented nieces are denied access to secondary school and another will soon be caught by the age limit if this continues. Each of these women and girls has a name, dreams, hopes. They are no less talented or dedicated to learning than me. 

My youngest daughter who is just five and a half asks me: Why we are not going back to Afghanistan to live? Before I could answer, my daughter Hurmat responded, ‘It is because the Taliban would not let us study. Had we been in Afghanistan, we would have been banned like all of our other cousins.’ Every Afghan scholar in the U.K. feels this pain. Yes, we live on the other side of the world, where we have full access to our rights, especially education, but we carry our loved ones in our hearts and minds every minute, and we always will.

The losses and damage of the war will be finally counted only when the war ends, and we list our soldiers and other casualties. The same is true for the return of Afghan girls to schools and universities. In a conservative society like Afghanistan, a brave girl makes an agreement with her family to not bring her a marriage proposal so she can finish her studies and university. But when education finally opens for Afghan girls, how many will never enter those doors. How many have been forced to marry to escape the fear of Taliban brutality? How many have left the country by any means possible? Names and faces will be missing. Some answers will be heartbreaking.

At this critical time in history, the people of Afghanistan (inside and outside) have lost their way. They don’t know which door to knock at, who to scream, to, who to beg to listen to our voices and give Afghan women the right to education. The world has other wars to occupy it and Afghanistan seems a lost cause. There may be a 97% poverty rate, but our world has other famines. What energy exists for reaching out to Afghan girls?

And yet there are those who refuse to give up hope. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) stand in stark contrast to the plight of Afghan girls. There is talk of a global village, yet for 1000 days half of the villagers of my country have been barred from education. 

Each day and each action counts. So, organisations and universities reach out as they can. Online studies with universities like my own at Sussex seeking to work with Afghans to help. Radio teaching of the kind that once reached Australians in the outback now attempts to keep a flame alive for girls restricted to their homes. And political and educational pressure of the kind that may seem hopeless, until it isn’t. 

My plea to the U.K. higher education sector is not to forget. To support Afghan students in exile who will one day return to rebuild a wasted system and to keep hope alive for those who are held hostage. Let a new generation of Afghans know that tyranny does not last forever, that walls can fall. After 1000 days, we need to do more than wait quietly.


[1] Fleming, A. (2023). 50 democracy ideas you really need to know. Greenfinch.

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1 comment

  1. Sarah Williams says:

    A powerful piece of writing that reveals the very real and personal impact of these despicable developments in Afghanistan. Thank you for sharing and my thoughts are with you, your family, and all the forgotten and excluded women in Afghanistan.

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