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Afghan Scholars-in-Exile Providing Online Education for Girls Living under Taliban

AU's Bashir Mobasher leads group of exile scholars providing online classes for Afghan girls who are banned from pursuing an education under Taliban rule

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Veiled person reading a red bookIn August 2021, Fatima* was an ordinary 14-year-old girl living in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul. She attended ninth grade and studied math, science, history, writing, and the arts. She dreamed of becoming a doctor. Then the Taliban swept through Afghanistan, and everything changed overnight.  

“People were terrified. They did not go out because they thought the Taliban would kill them,” Fatima says. “Everything closed for girls. They promised us they would open the doors of schools to us. But they did not.”

Under Taliban rule, girls in Afghanistan are now prohibited from attending school past sixth grade. Women are banned from universities and from working at most jobs. They have no voice, political or otherwise. They cannot leave their homes without a male chaperone. They are not allowed to go to a playground, walk through public parks, or play sports. They spend most of their days hidden inside their homes. As the UN Special Rapporteur for Afghanistan said, “In no other country have women and girls so rapidly disappeared from all spheres of public life, nor are they as disadvantaged in every aspect of their lives.”

As women and girls struggle to adjust to this bleak existence, a bit of new hope is emerging. It comes in the form of underground schools and clandestine online education. One of the organizations offering this education is the Afghanistan Law & Political Science Association (ALPA), an association of Afghan scholars in exile. Its president is American University’s Afghan Exile Scholar Postdoctoral Fellow Bashir Mobasher.

Under Mobasher’s leadership, ALPA’s courses are college level, free, and offered to Afghan girls and women in tenth grade through graduate school and beyond. Topics range from the hard sciences to gender studies, human rights, critical thinking, the arts, scholarship preparation, and more. Especially popular are English language courses because so many girls dream of escaping Afghanistan to study abroad. Mental health classes are critically important too, because of skyrocketing female depression and suicide rates.

A Lifeline for Afghan Girls

The students face many challenges in accessing these online classes: lack of reliable technology and internet, inadequate electrical infrastructure, economic constraints, and threats to their safety. Yet they continue to sign up. In fall 2023, ALPA offered 15 classes to approximately 400 girls and women, with 100 additional applicants waiting for openings. ALPA is offering nearly 30 classes this spring. Students learn about the program through word of mouth—from friends, family members, former pupils, classmates, and social media.

Person in blue veil writing in a hardbound journal.

All student names are kept secret because of the very real danger of the Taliban finding them. “Online learning offers a potential lifeline for many Afghan girls who have no access to education,” says Mobasher. “However, the current political climate in Afghanistan presents significant challenges for online education initiatives. Ensuring the safety, security, and quality of online education resources for Afghan girls remains a critical concern for us.” 

The classes are taught by AU faculty and alumni, along with scholars from other universities. AU professors who have made online appearances during Mobasher’s classes include Max Paul Friedman, Professor of History and former College of Arts and Sciences Dean; Ernesto Castañeda, Director of AU’s Immigration Lab and Director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies; Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies Núria Vilanova; and Professor of Sociology Alexandra Parrs.

During one of the very first ALPA classes, Friedman spoke about critical thinking and its relationship to the development of an independent personality. “I was impressed—and moved by—the enthusiastic response of the students, whose warmth and engagement came through despite the anonymity required by the format,” he says. “So many of them are determined to pursue their education regardless of the persecution they face, and they have built a sense of community through the class that is often the only source of connection to others outside their homes. These classes are truly a lifeline in a dark time." 

Castañeda adds that the courses are critically important to helping girls stay curious, hopeful, and learning during incredibly difficult times. “What Professor Mobasher is doing cannot undo the banning of women from schools, but it does a lot to keep the morale and free minds of many of the people enrolled in the courses. It is something truly commendable and that shows the impact that academics can have.” 

The Fall of a Nation

In all, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have fled the county since 2021, seeking asylum across the world. Among them are large numbers of intellectuals, who knew that the Taliban would target academics, people in positions of influence, and families with international connections. It is estimated that close to 70 percent of Afghan law and political science professors are living in exile today, including Mobasher, who was hired in 2022 by American University, with support from the College of Arts and Sciences, AU alumni, and the Afghan Challenge Fund of the Open Society Network. Since then, Mobasher has been teaching classes and publishing widely, including his first book, Constitutional Law and the Politics of Ethnic Accommodation: Institutional Design in Afghanistan (Routledge 2024).

In his role of president of ALPA, Mobasher is keenly focused on the fight for human rights back home. ALPA was initially founded in 2019 in Afghanistan as a venue for conferences and workshops, and to encourage research, publications, and the exchange of ideas. After the Taliban took over, the group’s members reconvened online from across Europe and the United States to discuss the best way to redefine their work in exile. Offering an education for girls left behind seemed like a natural fit.

“Initially, I offered a Critical Social Thought class as a pilot program for more than 20 Afghan students during the summer of 2022,” says Mobasher. “That fall, I was joined by Zahra Tawana, a James Madison University graduate student, who taught an English class. Once we concluded that our program was successful, we invited other members of ALPA to get involved and invest in online education for Afghan girls and women as its new mission, and ALPA’s Online Education Academy was born.”

Waiting for Better Times

In Afghanistan, girls and women have been left with two paths, says Mobasher. They can try to leave to study in other countries, which typically requires English language skills, a spot at a US or European university, a generous scholarship, and travel to Pakistan to obtain a visa from an embassy. It is not easy, but thousands of Afghan women have done it; in fact, many live now in the Washington, DC, region. The other path is to stay in Afghanistan and wait things out. “The first time the Taliban collapsed, we rebuilt our country and created a couple of generations of peace and human rights activists,” Mobasher says. “We have so many talented people waiting for whenever the Taliban is gone, ready to pick up the pieces and start to rebuild.” 

Layla* is one of these women. She is 22 years old and was studying politics and law at Kabul University before the Taliban took over. She now takes ALPA classes in secret. “Most [members] of our class are suffering from mental illness because schools are closed, universities are closed,” she writes. “All our hopes in life are gone, and our only hopes are to go to school, and for our restrictions to end, so we will be able to live freely.”

Mobasher and his colleagues at ALPA want to support the dreams of girls like Layla and grow the ALPA’s Online Education Academy into a formal online college with accredited 100-400 level university courses. The group is working in this direction by standardizing the curriculum and collaborating with outside educational institutions for partnerships and accreditation.

In the meantime, Mobasher keeps up hope for fellow citizens left behind. “I dream that they can someday be free,” he says. “That they will be able to get an education, to work, to live in peace. Afghanistan was a patriarchal society even before the Taliban returned, and it will still be a struggle for women after the Taliban, but at least I hope that girls and women will be able to keep learning and finally be able to contribute to Afghan society again.”

* Student names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy and safety of the people involved.