Afghan students run underground book club to keep dreams alive
A group of Afghan students runs an underground club in Kabul to learn, read and write their own stories amid expanding Taliban curbs.
On May 8 last year, 17-year-old Tahira and her classmate were discussing their plans for the Eid holidays when a powerful bomb went off at their school in Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood. She was thrown to the other side of the street by the intensity of the explosion.
Two more explosions followed targeting Sayed ul-Shuhada High School for girls and leaving 90 people dead, most of them female students. “One moment I was talking to my friend. Next, I was lying in a hospital, and all wired up,” Tahira recalls.
Three pieces of shrapnel had struck her legs. “Two of them were removed and one became part of my body,” Tahira, who does not wish to reveal her full name, told Al Jazeera.
No group claimed responsibility for the series of blasts. The neighbourhood in Kabul’s western suburb – home to the predominantly Shia Hazara community – had been the target of brutal attacks in recent years, particularly by the ISIL (ISIS) group. In 2020, 24 people were killed, including newborn babies and their mothers in an attack on a maternity ward. ISIL claimed responsibility for that attack.
Politicians and foreign missions in Afghanistan called it an attack on “education”, but to many of the students, it was an attack on their very identities as young women and Hazaras.
A year after the bombing
A year after the bombing the families still are mourning the death of their children, and the students who survived are yet to heal from the trauma.
Tahira, who was in the 11th grade, says the school lacked resources, but there was hope. “We had dreams, and that had made the situation bearable,” she says.
But in the months following the blasts, as United States troops started to withdraw after 20 years of occupation, the security situation worsened. The Taliban armed group retook power in August 2021 after the pullout of the US soldiers triggered a collapse of the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani.
The violent and chaotic collapse of the West-backed previous government brought an abrupt end to Tahira’s education.
Immediately after coming to power, the Taliban promised women’s rights and freedom of the press. But nine months since the takeover, high schools for girls remain closed and public spaces shrinking for Afghan women as the group has expanded curbs.
On Saturday, the group’s Supreme leader Haibatullah Akhunzada ordered women appearing in public to be covered from head to toe, bringing back the memory of the Taliban’s brutal rule between 1996 and 2001.
A series of blasts in recent weeks, particularly targeting Shia Hazaras, has increased the vulnerability of ethnic minorities.
But Tahira and 29 other students from Sayed ul-Shuhada High School remain unwilling to give up on their education despite the unrelenting attacks and renewed Taliban restrictions.
They have worked a way around the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education, by attending an underground book club where students gather to learn, read, and even write their own stories.
The book club
The book club, founded by a group of eight civil activists – some of them students, but not all of them – organises reading sessions every Saturday. They are held in a discreet location in western Kabul to avoid Taliban retribution.
Tareq Qassemi, a co-founder of the club, says the global media focus shifted overnight due to the war in Ukraine.
“Afghanistan is a dead story, but we, the people of Afghanistan, must take ownership,” he said. Qassemi believes girls are the future of the country and must be the narrators of their own stories.
Living to Tell the Tale, the first volume of the autobiography of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, was one of the first books that the girls read.
“This book was chosen deliberately. Gabriel García Márquez dropped out of college,” says Khalidyar Payman, a member of the club. Marquez pursued a self-directed education that resulted in his leaving law school for a career in journalism. And he later won a Nobel Prize in literature, Payman, the 25-year-old graduate from Kabul University, says.
The founders of the book club explain the importance of storytelling, even if pursued in secret.
“These girls are the brightest of our generation; they need to be polished,” Qassemi says. “We light the path for them, and they find their way.”
Razia 16, who is part of the book club, finds it hard to understand the Taliban’s reasoning for preventing girls’ education.
“First of all, I am a human being, not just a woman,” she says. Razia believes that equal opportunity should be provided to both men and women. “Then it is all up to the individual on how they shine with the knowledge they gained,” she said.
Razia lost 12 of her classmates in the explosion at the Sayed ul-Shuhada High School last year. She has been waiting to go back to school, she says, not just to fulfill her dreams, but to live out her classmates’ dreams too.
“And reading is a path to pursuing those dreams,” she told Al Jazeera.
The risk of running a book club is tremendous amid increasing restrictions on women, with girls above the age of 12 no longer allowed to go to school and universities forced to segregate classes.
Female protesters demanding women’s rights have been detained and questioned by the Taliban.
Book club members acknowledge the risks, but their courage comes from the girls’ thirst for education.
Tahira, 17, says she struggles to find the right words to describe her pain.
“I lost my best friend in the bombing and the Taliban doesn’t let me go to school. We are both dead. She is buried, but not me,” she says while trying to hold her tears back.