By Eltaf Najafizada
July 31, 2019
Khaleda Sediqqi risks her life every time she goes to work.
She tells her neighbors she’s teaching at a nearby primary school, and instead travels to Jalalabad city along a stretch of highway that often comes under militant attack. The head trainer for the charity Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, Sediqqi provides tuition for young female primary teachers. They then take that knowledge back to schools in their villages -- all under the shadow of the Taliban and Islamic State.
“I have put my life at risk to come here and educate the young ladies whose dreams are just to graduate from high school,” said Sediqqi, 31, who has a degree in chemistry from Nangarhar University. Speaking at the training center in an old, two-room house in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province in the country’s east, she said: “The goal is to empower them through education so they can fight back and defend other girls’ educational rights.”
Most districts of Nangarhar, including Sediqqi’s home town, are on the front line of the country’s battle with the Taliban and its efforts to prevent the militant group IS from gaining a deeper foothold outside Kabul. Surrounded by the sweeping Hindu Kush mountain range, Nangarhar was the staging ground for the Islamic State’s first appearance in Afghanistan. Now under constant threat from militants, Jalalabad is ringed by informal settlements of internally displaced people who’ve fled their homes to escape the violence.
Girls’ education -- and the treatment of women in general -- is a critical issue for many in Afghanistan. Yet the rights of the country’s female citizens are yet to become the center of the peace talks that the U.S. has been pursuing with the Taliban over the last year.
The U.S. special envoy on Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, was heading to Doha on Wednesday, with a stop in Islamabad, to resume the eighth round of negotiations with Taliban leaders in the hope of concluding a peace deal to end the 18-year war. The talks have taken on greater urgency as the Afghan presidential elections slated for September 28 draw closer.
"In Doha, if the Taliban do their part, we will do ours, and conclude the agreement we have been working on," he said on Twitter, adding he had the most "productive" meeting with Afghan leaders on peace issues and an agreement to create an Afghan-led negotiating team.
“Intra-Afghan negotiations” -– something the Taliban has so far refused to engage in -- would take place after the U.S. talks conclude, and would involve a “national negotiating team consisting of senior government officials, key political party representatives, civil society and women,” Khalizad said earlier. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is contesting the election, has consistently protested the meetings, saying they lacked government representatives.
Many were surprised when Taliban representatives told Afghan and U.S. delegations they would allow girls to receive full education, but only in single-sex schools. The statement contradicts their ongoing violence against schools in Afghanistan -- attacks that have torn at the heart of Sediqqi’s academic life.
Earlier this year, militants shot dead one of her close friends, a female student at Nangarhar University, Sediqqi said.
Unknown militants also carried out two bomb attacks at a primary school where Sediqqi teaches several months ago, killing two schoolchildren and wounding tens of others. Schools, especially those in remote areas, have repeatedly been subject to violent attacks, including setting them ablaze or poisoning students.
The attacks have not stopped Sediqqi, who’s vowed she’ll continue defying the threats to educate girls who’ve been long deprived of education.
“We’ve suffered for decades -- deliberately beaten by family members or killed by the insurgents -- because we lack education and knowledge,” Sediqqi said. “The only way we can protect our rights is through education, and I’m here at any cost to teach these defenseless girls.”
The Taliban, which now controls or contests half the country, is divided on girls’ education. It had previously banned women from education and punished them with lashes and stoning for leaving home without a partner or a Burqa when they ruled the nation from 1996-2001.
In some districts -- including Seddiqi’s hometown -- the militants now allow girls to attend school until sixth grade, before they are forced by their relatives or the militants to get married. Nationwide, 17% of the 3.5 million girls enrolled in school marry before their 15th birthday, according to UNICEF.
The Taliban were trying to garner public support by appearing to soften their stance on education, Abdul Qader Mesbah, a political analyst based in Mazar-e-Sharif, said by phone. "They used to be against girls’ education during their regime and they are still killing or punishing girls in areas under their control for attending schools," which under their beliefs is "anti-Islamic.”
Nooria Nahzat, the spokeswoman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, said along with budgetary constraints, security issues provided the greatest challenge.
“We build a school in a rural area but soon afterward the militants destroy it,” Nahzat said, adding that “99%” of the problems are security-related, with hundreds of schools across the country set ablaze or partially destroyed by rockets or suicide attacks since 2001.
It’s not just Sediqqi who takes an enormous risk going to work every day. So too do the 14 students currently in the program. Each of them attend the training secretly, leaving their home wearing a Burqa and making sure no one is following them.
“If the Taliban catch me, they will think of me as a spy and execute me,” said one of her students who cannot be identified for security reasons. “It’s worth attending this program to educate and grow ourselves, in order to educate other vulnerable girls and become decision-makers in our own lives.”