How Afghan refugees studying with Manchester University are defying Taliban ban on women’s education

Brave women studying at the University of Manchester have shared their stories of how they want education to empower change in Afghanistan.
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The University of Manchester is helping a group of Afghan refugee women who were forced to flee when the Taliban took over last year to become education leaders of the future.

A group of 15 women from Afghanistan are studying part of the MA Educational Leadership in Practice programme in exile at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh.

It is hoped the students will go on to run schools, colleges and nurseries and help other Afghan girls to access education despite Taliban efforts to prevent it.

They spoke of their hope that the international community will support their efforts for girls and women, while the university talked of its pride at being involved in the scheme.

What study are the Afghan refugee women doing with the University of Manchester?

The 15 women are studying one of the eight units that make up the two-year MA Educational Leadership in Practice postgraduate course offered by The University of Manchester.

The module they are doing is called Models of Educational Leadership and looks at the theoretical basis for leadership in learning.

Girls having to study at home in Kabul. Photo:Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP via Getty ImagesGirls having to study at home in Kabul. Photo:Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP via Getty Images
Girls having to study at home in Kabul. Photo:Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP via Getty Images

They started learning remotely with The University of Manchester staff in the last week of February and will finish the unit in May.

A number of universities and academics have come together to put together a postgraduate teaching package for the women at the Asian University for Women.

The women did their undergraduate degrees in Bangladesh before returning to Afghanistan after graduating, only to have to flee the country when the previous government of president Ashraf Ghani collapsed.

Some of the students managed to make their way to Bangladesh overland while others who studied at the university for women were involved in the chaotic airlift from Kabul airport and made it to Dubai on board an aircraft.

What have the women said about their studies?

None of the women involved can be named or identified for fear of Taliban reprisals against family members who are still in Afghanistan.

Speaking anonymously, they shared their hopes for a better future for their country in which girls have the right to learn and achieve their ambitions in life.

They also spoke movingly about their determination to ensure that many Afghan girls in the future get to enjoy the same level of education they have had.

One student told ManchesterWorld: “We often did not have enough teachers or books at school. Remembering those days makes me sad, but it also strengthens my resolve and urges me not to take any educational opportunity for granted.

“The University of Manchester, therefore, means a lot to me. It means I have come a long way and a longer one lies ahead so that the next generation of Afghanistan does not go through what we went through.

“It allows me to gain world class education but also gives me a bigger responsibility to use it for the good of women in my society.”

Another described the opportunity to learn with lecturers from a top British university as “a dream come true”.

The students spoke of their ambitions after their courses, which included establishing schools in Afghanistan for girls, provided online and offline learning to get around the Taliban’s bans on female education and working for international bodies such as Unesco.

They also spoke of the huge challenges girls face to get an education with Afghanistan under the control of the hardline Islamist group.

Afghan women and girls take part in a protest  demanding that high schools be reopened for girls. Photo: Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP via Getty ImagesAfghan women and girls take part in a protest  demanding that high schools be reopened for girls. Photo: Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP via Getty Images
Afghan women and girls take part in a protest demanding that high schools be reopened for girls. Photo: Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP via Getty Images

One pointed out that on 23 March there had been confusion and heartache for girls when the Taliban said schools would reopen to them only for the female pupils to be sent home and barred from the classroom once more hours later.

Many girls are trying to learn at home without attracting the attention of the authorities, while protests demanding schools readmit girls have also been held.

One student said: “The most difficult thing about being educated in Afghanistan is that you fully understand the depth of crisis but often feel miserable for not being able to solve it urgently.

“Your education allows you to feel the magnitude of misery around yourself, but it also tells you that you cannot fix it easily and certainly not soon.

“The most difficult aspect of being a woman in my society is struggling with winning trust of others, be it family members or employers.

“You often struggle to tell them that you can, you are as capable as they are, or even you are equal to them. But very often, you fail.”

Another student said: “The opportunities for Afghan girls are very much less and women are not accepted as part of public life. The ongoing situation in Afghanistan is devastating.

“Fathers are still selling their daughters for the equivalent of about 50 dollars because of poverty.

“This is killing each of us because we have had the opportunity to be here and take this course. It is a chance for us to be future leaders of Afghanistan. I want to pave the way for other Afghan girls, whether that is through online or offline platforms.

“Afghan girls are so passionate about education and they are not going to stop. They are put in a prison in their homes but the Taliban cannot finish their motivation and passion for education.”

The students also said they want to see the international community support Afghan girls’ right to go to school, saying education is a universal human right that should be denied to anyone.

What has the university said about supporting the women?

Dr Alexander Gardner-McTaggart, academic lead for flexible learning at The University of Manchester, spoke with pride about teaching the Afghan women to be future leaders.

He said: “This is a transformational point in my career, it is something I really believe in. I do this job because I believe education has the power to change people’s lives and being involved in this project is really meaningful.

“Everything I’ve learned about education and leadership, speaking to constituents and students and making lives better, is going to a place where it is urgently needed.

“I can empower these young women to become strong, robust individuals who can speak back to power and break down the barriers that have stopped them being everything they can be.”

Dr Gardner-McTaggart said he was keen to see the partnership develop further and hoped that by next year there will be two groups at the Asian University for Women enrolled on courses taught by Manchester lecturers and women interested in signing up to study other subjects.

He also hopes that more of the young women who had previously studied in Bangladesh will be able to continue their education via remote learning in the future.

He said: “We would like to teach the ones who escaped from the airport but they have been through a traumatic experience. They were stuck on coaches in the queues at the airport for three days without food, water or sanitation and at one point a suicide bomb went off in the queue killing over 100 people.”