Afghan education authorities have organised graduation exams for high school girls across much of the country despite most of them being barred from attending classes since the Taliban’s return to power last year.
The education ministry did not provide details of the exams – or how many pupils were sitting them – and refused to allow the media near schools where they were being held on Wednesday.
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A document, signed by Habibullah Agha, the education minister who took office in September, said the tests would be held in 31 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The three excluded provinces – Kandahar, Helmand and Nimroz – have different timetables for the school year and high-school graduation exams typically take place later.
“I am in a very bad state right now,” said Sajida, a 12th-grade student, while speaking to Al Jazeera about the exam on Wednesday. “We haven’t studied a single book for it.”
“We are here to answer 140 questions without knowing anything,” she said.
Most secondary schools for girls have been shut across the country since the Taliban returned to power in August last year, with the hardliners offering a series of excuses for the closures.
Women’s groups and students have protested, demanding the lifting of the ban on high schools for girls.
Officials have said there were not enough teachers or funds, that they would reopen once an Islamic curriculum had been prepared, or that a national policy on modest school attire first had to be formulated.
“We are obeying the hijab rule and since we obey them [Taliban] they should also fulfil our wishes,” Zubaida, also a grade-12 student, told Al Jazeera.
“We don’t want much. We only want to study in our country because it’s our right. Half of the population is women. We have a right and they should give us our right to prosper,” said Zubaida.
A Kabul high school principal said she was informed that 12th-grade girls had just one day to take exams in 14 subjects, with 10 questions in each subject.
The principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said most girl students lacked textbooks.
“Giving an exam is meaningless,” she said.
Girls who could not attend or those who fail Wednesday’s exam would be allowed to retake the test in mid-March, after the winter vacation.
The ministry announced the reopening of schools in March last year, but they were shut hours later on the order of Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhunzada.
Women have increasingly been squeezed out of public life since the Taliban’s return despite their promise of a softer version of the harsh rule that characterised their first stint in power that ended in 2001.
Women have been pushed out of government jobs – or are being paid a pittance to stay at home – and are also barred from travelling without a male relative, and must cover up with a burqa or hijab when out of the home.
Last month they were also prohibited from going to parks, funfairs, gyms and public baths.
The Taliban has so far allowed young women to attend university, with classes segregated by sex.
There are fears, however, that without being able to pass the school leaving exam, there will be very few women able to apply to university.
Students who pass the leaving exam are eligible to sit the “Kankor”, a highly competitive test that decides coveted university places.