HERAT, Afghanistan – She may live in a conservative Afghan city known for ancient poetry and cultural pursuits, but 16-year-old Parisa Rahmati clearly isn’t afraid to sound modern. “I want to write poetry too,” Rahmati announced recently before a room packed with parents, community elders, her high school principal and fellow students.
“But I think it’s important to write about girls’ rights, about the problems they face, especially if their families don’t let daughters attend school. There can be no good reason for this if we truly follow the teachings of Allah,” she says.
Looking on, principal Basira smiles back with approval: “Yes, welcome to Herat’s Female Experimental High School. Here, we encourage such strength and independent thinking in our young women.”
It wasn’t always like this. In fact, just a decade ago in this city, 100 kilometers from the Iranian border, Taliban forces forbade all young Afghan women from attending school. It was a harsh fate in a place that straddles the ancient Silk Routes, and is famously recognized as a center of the arts. An old saying promises: “In Herat, if you stretch out your feet, you are sure to kick a poet.”
But in recent years, with help from the Education Quality Improvement Program (EQUIP), a Ministry of Education flagship program supported by the World Bank and Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), schools like Rahmati’s have risen again to educate and empower another generation of students, particularly girls. In the province of Herat alone, EQUIP has helped finance 787 schools.
Parents care about education
Principal Basira still remembers the early rebuilding days vividly. “In 2003, we had thousands studying in tents with no power, no water, no proper buildings,” she recalls. “The facility we have now is proof the parents and community care about education. There is no problem having girls go to school.”
Basira is one of many dedicated teachers who risked her life to follow this maxim. She ran a ‘secret school’ for about 100 students during the Taliban era, disguising academics as embroidery and tailoring classes.
Now her school offers a full range of courses to about 4,000 girls who attend in three daily shifts. The school is designated ‘experimental’ because it’s a model facility for others in the region, and a place where trainee teachers practice their profession.
Each day, the arrival of students begins with a whirl of dark patterned cloaks called ‘chadar namaz,’ as girls uncover their black and white school uniforms tucked underneath.
“Here we are free to be ourselves, but we also must respect tradition,” explains Basira. This is a message that she and the school council pass on in countless ways. On the walls of the compound, neatly arranged with trees, flowers, playground equipment and volleyball courts, are plenty of painted reminders of religious teachings, health advice, biology diagrams, and more poetry.
“Not to be born is better than being without knowledge and learning because ignorance is the base of all adversity,” says one sign.