Projecting the no-nonsense aura obligatory for all hard-pressed headmasters, Sher Ahmed Afghan favours a prompt 7.45am start to assembly at the Wesa Academy in Kandahar. At his command, the throng of pupils pouring through the gate quickly divides into two orderly lines. Boys in smart shirts and ties move to one side of the schoolyard, while a smaller but still sizeable contingent of girls, wearing headscarves in the red, black and green of Afghanistan’s national flag, files towards the other.
Under the gaze of larger-than-life murals of Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry, and Batman, the children greet their principal in English with a drawn-out chorus of “Good morning, teacher.”
It is not so long since Kandahar, the crucible of the Taliban’s rise to power in the mid-1990s, felt like a city defined by its tumultuous past. Today, for an aspirational parent, the debating competitions, and fiercely contested games of musical chairs at Wesa Academy offer a vision of a very different future.
A local entrepreneur founded the school in 2011, when Kandahar province was the pivot for an influx of tens of thousands of US troops fighting to drive the Taliban out of their rural strongholds and secure the city. With those soldiers long gone and the urban centre in the iron grip of a feared police chief, the success of Wesa has triggered a proliferation of rivals.
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In his office, Afghan explains how growing numbers of parents – including members of Kandahar’s business community, officialdom, descendants of respected mujahideen guerrillas who fought the Soviets, and religious leaders – now feel more confident about defying the cultural mores that discourage girls from attending secondary school.
“Their mindset has totally changed,” he says. “These days they’re not just looking for education, they want quality education.”
The biggest city in southern Afghanistan, Kandahar is a focal point for the country’s ethnic Pashtun community, who see a woman’s place as either in the home or veiled behind an anonymising burka. Kandahar served as the seat of the Taliban theocracy, which until it was overthrown in 2001. But for many years afterwards sympathisers maintained the movement’s repressive influence.
The surge in is a barometer of change. The provincial government says that, over the past five years, the number of private schools in Kandahar, a city of half a million, has grown more than tenfold to 31. The school, which educates girls up to the age of 14, and boys up to 18, is so inundated with demand for places that it opened a nearby feeder nursery in September. While only nine of Wesa’s first intake of 58 pupils in 2011 were female, girls now make up more than a third of the 620 students.
The blossoming of private education in the one-time cradle of the Taliban could be seen as a potent symbol of how the west’s intervention in Afghanistan – undertaken at vast human and financial cost – has set the country on a more progressive trajectory. However, the departing foreign forces bequeathed a to the country’s embattled security forces.
Western governments have pointed to the enrolled in government schools across Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban to justify their country’s sacrifices – even though recent reports have revealed grave flaws. These include the siphoning of funds for , the of many US-funded school buildings and the as impromptu bunkers by Afghan forces. There are also of many private education institutions that have mushroomed across Afghanistan to tap into the huge demand from young Afghans. Almost half .
Although the Taliban has at times appeared to , attacks on schools by insurgent factions have surged of late, mainly in the north and east. In 2015, 132 conflict-related incidents affecting education, an 86% increase compared with the previous year. In August, militants launched an in Kabul, an oasis of liberal values, killing at least 16 people and wounding scores of others. A fortnight earlier, two lecturers at the university – an Australian and an American – . Security officials said they suspected the abduction was the work of a ransom-seeking criminal gang.
While Kandaharis say their city feels more secure these days, other problems continue to cause grave concern. For example, the city still has extremely high rates of maternal and infant mortality. Educators say the private grief gripping so many families has contributed to the broader embrace of girls’ education by persuading male family heads of the importance of female doctors.
At Wesa, Rihana, 14, wearing a red prefect’s sash and a badge announcing her status as headgirl, nurses an ambition – shared by many of her peers – to study medicine. “We don’t have many female doctors – that’s why we want to be doctors,” she says.
At Kandahar’s government-run Malalai high school for girls, teachers report a similar pattern, saying many more pupils now aim to pursue higher education. “Three years ago, we didn’t have so many who wanted to go to university,” says the principal, Anahita Rahimi. “We’re convincing families to let them continue with their studies.”
Kandahar’s culture wars will not be settled soon, however. In February, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting , the head of Kandahar university, as saying that of 2,060 high school graduates who had taken entrance exams to study for a degree last year, only 230 were female. Of 1,346 students studying at Kandahar’s teacher training institute, 321 were girls, their report found.
Illustrating the divisions in many families, Fazal Ahmad, a shopkeeper, says he is determined to keep his daughter in school. He laments a decision by his brother to withdraw his own 14-year-old daughter out of a combination of fear that she might be caught up in an insurgent attack and reluctance to defy more conservative elders.
“There are many people who are under pressure not to send their daughters to school, but they are sending them anyway,” says Ahmad. “I’m sure things are starting to change.”
As attitudes slowly evolve, the spirit of the pioneers at Wesa Academy is captured by a motto emblazoned in red, black and green on a sign taped to a classroom wall: “Never give up.”