Marsela, left, and Hamida received two-year scholarships to complete secondary education at UWC Thailand International School in Phuket. (Photo: UWC Thailand)
After the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, Hamida and Marsela are happy to go back to school in Thailand. Despite being far from home, they not only take interesting classes, but grow up in a safe environment with new friends and teachers.
“I love it when I can choose what I want to study. When you have the right to choose your passion, you learn what interests you. It’s always been a dream of mine,” Hamida said in an interview before returning to an afternoon class.
Widespread restrictions were again imposed on women after the Taliban returned to power last August. In a reversal after six months of closure, girls are not allowed to attend secondary school. Hamida and Marsela were no exception. But when the opportunity arose, they left their homeland to follow their dreams. Now they are starting a new school year at UWC Thailand International School in Phuket.
“Before the Taliban took over, life was much better. We had schools, hospitals and everything was going well. Most people were employed and had good incomes,” Hamida said. “It wasn’t that good, but it was still developing. When the Taliban came, everything just stopped working.”
Political unrest dealt a blow to her family. Her father lost his job because local markets dried up, and her sister lost his job because women were no longer allowed to work. Her siblings no longer went to school or university. Hamida lost her network of those campaigning for change on social media. On the day the American soldiers left, most of her best friends followed her.
(Photo: UWC Thailand)
Afghanistan first came under Taliban rule in the late 1990s. Hamida learned the brutality of the previous regime from her mother and grandmother. She lost her grandfather in an attack. For Marsela, her parents got married at that time. They told her that the Taliban enforced rules for daily life.
“I never thought they would come back because they are an unreal nightmare, like a monster,” she said. “But in a second they came and it was announced that the Taliban had taken over. My mother had a panic attack. My father helped my mother but I couldn’t help them because I was shocked.”
In a series of escalating restrictions, the Taliban ordered women to cover their faces in public or their male guardians would be fined or jailed. Women were banned from traveling alone and attending secondary school. Since October, girls have been banned from enrolling in some courses, but they are still allowed to attend primary school.
“They define their rule and say it is Islamic. They abuse religion to gain support from the people and maintain their power,” Hamida said. “They say, for example, that you can work, but according to Islamic rules you have to have your father, husband or brother with you. That is impossible because there are many people who do not have such relatives.”
According to UNHCR data for 2021, there are at least 2.3 million refugees and asylum-seekers from Afghanistan in neighboring countries. Hamida and Marsela joined the Exodus.
Pornpan Prongchitr, Lecturer in History, Faculty of Social Sciences, Srinakharinwirot University. (Photo: Pornpan Prongchitr)
Each year, UWC Thailand offers scholarships for conflict-affected students to complete their high school education. Each student applies to their own country’s National Committee and is selected through a rigorous process. Scholarships are funded through individual donors, community events, and partnerships.
Hamida said the whole process will take nine months and will include rounds of interviews and other activities. After that, they have to apply for visas, but the fact that there is no Thai embassy in Afghanistan forced them to travel to Pakistan. Marsela said it had been a long journey and she couldn’t believe she made it to Thailand.
However, not everyone can flee their country. After the return of the Taliban, girls are increasingly prone to child marriage, according to Unicef. Families sell their daughters into a future marriage when they are just 20 days old. Marsela said when she checked Instagram, she found her friend, 16, was engaged. Hamida said her mother got married when she was 13, but education changed her family’s attitudes.
Hamida and Marsela arrived in Thailand and began a new semester in August, marking the first anniversary of the recent Taliban takeover. But they haven’t forgotten their homeland and will make the most of the scholarship. Marsela said she plans to study medicine and later become a cardiac surgeon. Meanwhile, Hamida said she will study international relations or public policy.
“I love my country and I will return, not now but when things get better. I go back and work for the people,” she said.
In the last graduating class, UWC Thailand had three refugee students from Palestine, Syria and Tibet. Nicki Robertson, chief advancement officer at the international school, said the plight of young students, especially females, should be at the forefront of fundraising efforts. Scholarships help them open the door to opportunities in US and UK universities.
“Many students want to return to their home countries to make a difference and be change-makers,” she said.
However, political instability in many countries is forcing talent to live elsewhere. After China cracked down on political disagreements coupled with tough pandemic rules, many are leaving Hong Kong. After the military government’s crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, Thais are moving to where they can have a future.
“The emigration of these two students is a typical example of an incipient brain drain from Afghanistan,” said Pornpan Prongchitr, Middle East expert at Srinakharinwirot University’s Faculty of Social Sciences. “As long as the Taliban remain in power, they will not be able to return to a repressive environment in Afghanistan once they graduate.”
Pornpan said the previous government allowed women to study at the university. Her Afghan friends received scholarships to study in Iran and were able to return home to work. However, the Taliban reversed this progress. Violations of women’s right to education will take a heavy toll on their freedom and standard of living.
“For example, they are denied the opportunity to study medicine. In Muslim communities, patients must be treated by doctors of the same sex,” she said.
The Taliban emerged in the early 1990s when Soviet troops left Afghanistan. They are a predominantly Pashtun Islamic group that took control before the US overthrew them in 2001. After two decades, the Taliban returned after the US withdrew its remaining forces following a peace deal. At first they said they would let women be free, but within the framework of Islam.
Pornpan said despite their claim to religious affiliation to gain public support, the Taliban’s interpretation is based on local tradition and differs from Islamic law or Sharia. Islam does not advocate gender inequality, but many countries, such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, make interpretations according to their customs. When it comes to education, the Qur’an encourages all Muslims to seek knowledge, no matter how far from home.
“The Taliban have made peace [regulations] and claim to follow religious principles. That’s a misinterpretation,” she said.
Whether those leaving for better opportunities, including Hamida and Marsela, can return depends on many factors, most notably international support, Pornpan said, because local Afghans lack the strength to resist the Taliban. It will be a few years before anything changes.