‘Nothing compensates for the stolen years’: the Afghan women rebuilding shattered dreams in Iran – The Guardian

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Relief set in the moment Hasina crossed the border into Iran. For two years, the Taliban barred the 24-year-old medical student from continuing her studies. Now, as part of a growing exodus of Afghan women who desperately want an education, Hasina is pursuing her degree in Tehran.

“I was terrified the Taliban would prevent me from leaving,” she says. Last year, they stopped 100 female Afghan students boarding a flight to take up places at university in the United Arab Emirates where they had won scholarships.

As a precaution, Hasina – whose full name has not been given to protect her identity – left Afghanistan with a tourist visa for Iran. She was accompanied by her father, they posed as a family going on a visit, but he returned home alone. Now, Hasina is enrolled at the Iran University of Medical Sciences in the capital, studying to become a surgeon.

It has been more than 1,000 days since the all-male Taliban government shut the door on girls’ education beyond the age of 12 after their August 2021 government takeover. Neighbouring Iran – which had previously denounced the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education – has opened it.

More than 40,000 Afghan students – most of them women – are now studying at university in Iran, according to the country’s deputy science minister for international affairs, Vahid Haddadi-Asl. More than 600,000 Afghan children are also enrolled in schools across the country, the Norwegian Refugee Council says, explaining that they can enrol in Iranian public schools regardless of their legal status because of a 2015 government decree.

“Since the Taliban came to power, the number of Afghan students has increased,” Iran’s ambassador to Germany, Mahmoud Farazandeh, tells the Guardian. “The issue of education, especially of women, is of great importance. The doors of Iranian universities are open to Afghan women and girls who have been deprived of education,” he says.

Accurate figures on the number of Afghans living in Iran are hard to come by – many cross through unofficial border points, complicating documentation. Estimates suggest that about a million Afghans have fled to Iran since the Taliban takeover. Many Afghan families left to ensure their children went to school. At least 1.5 million girls in Afghanistan are still barred from education.

With a shared language and many cultural similarities, Iran has become a last resort for many Afghan women determined to finish their studies. According to the World Bank, Iran’s female literacy rate sits at 85%, while Afghanistan’s reaches roughly 23% – despite heavy investment in the education sector during the 20 years of the US-led invasion.

Studying at a private university in Iran is not cheap, Hasina explains, saying she pays $4,500 (£3,550) annually – a discounted rate. Her family scrambles to raise the funds, but is determined to support her education.

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“I miss my family and my home and I hope that one day I can go back; I hope the oppression women across our country face will end. Still, nothing can compensate for the years the Taliban has stolen from Afghan girls and women, including from me,” says Hasina, adding that she is surprised to see how different things are in Iran. “There are women everywhere here: professors, doctors, employees. It amazes me.”

Heather Barr, a director at Human Rights Watch, says there are no signs of any positive developments regarding education or women’s rights in Afghanistan. “The Taliban are intensifying their crackdown, sending the message that women shouldn’t be educated – and that extends to education outside Afghanistan as well,” she says, adding that the Taliban’s ban has been “denounced by the Muslim community, including Afghanistan’s neighbours Iran and Pakistan”, two countries where many Afghan women now study.

Many Iranians have voiced concerns over growing numbers of Afghans entering the country, with Afghans repeatedly reporting discriminatory and derogatory behaviour towards them.

There have also been reports of pushbacks at the border. Still, Iran could benefit from the influx, as its population growth rate had dropped to 0.7% in 2022, down from 2.3% in 2015. Afghan students who have been accepted into universities additionally invest in the Iranian economy and could contribute to the workforce in the future.

Farzaneh, 23, arrived in Tehran four months ago, accompanied by her brother. She is continuing her journalism studies at Allameh Tabataba’i University, hoping to one day return home to “cover Afghanistan”. She pays about €800 (£680) a year; funded by part-time jobs. Tuition fees in Kabul, where she previously studied, were lower, but when the Taliban took over Farzaneh was dismissed from classes. For two years she struggled to find a way to continue her studies – this year she was finally accepted into university in Tehran.

“Most women just want to leave Afghanistan now to rebuild their destroyed dreams elsewhere. This is so painful to me. If the situation for women continues like it has, I don’t have hope,” Farzaheh says. “I’m studying to make my family – my father – proud, but I miss my friends and my home. I remember those days when we smiled and were happy together. These days are gone.”

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