The Taliban regime has been stripping Afghan women and girls of basic human rights, including access to secondary school and university education. Unsurprisingly, the persistent, severe restrictions of movement, education, and employment under Taliban rule are having an impact on the mental health of women and girls in Afghanistan. In her master thesis at the Asian University for Women (AUW), Fatima Ameri specifically researched what the closures of universities for female students meant for the affected students’ mental health, what coping strategies are open to them, and if online learning might provide relief.
Please tell me about your motivation to research this topic for your Master Thesis.
My motivation stems from a deep concern for the well-being of women in my country. Witnessing the severe impact of the Taliban’s policies, I felt compelled to document how this affects women’s daily lives, mental well-being and future aspirations. By shedding light on the psychological toll inflicted by discriminatory policies, my research aspires to contribute to broader discussions on women’s rights, education, and mental health. I hope that the findings can inform interventions, policies, and support systems. Ultimately, my motivation is rooted in a commitment to effect positive change and advocate for the restoration of fundamental rights and opportunities for Afghan women.
Who did you interview?
I conducted a total of twelve interviews. Among them were five female university students residing in Afghanistan, four female students at Asian University for Women (AUW) who had left the country and managed to pursue their education abroad, and three mental health providers offering consultation services to female students. The age range was 23 to 27 years for the students and 30 to 46 years for the mental health professionals.
Were there challenges?
While the interview process was good, I faced notable challenges, particularly related to Internet connectivity in Afghanistan. In one case it took six days to complete an interview due to persistent connectivity issues. Interviewing students at AUW was much easier, because it was face-to-face and direct.
What degree programs did the Afghan students you talked to had to leave behind?
The Afghan female students I interviewed had to abandon diverse degree programs, including medical college, computer science, civil engineering, sociology, and literature. The abrupt bans on education for students who are based in Afghanistan meant that they had to discontinue their education. The impact of leaving behind degrees in medical college, computer science, and civil engineering underscores the substantial human capital loss to society in Afghanistan.
For students who managed to continue their studies abroad this meant shifts in academic pursuits that were not driven by choice but were imposed by the challenging circumstances in Afghanistan. All students had to relinquish aspirations in the fields they loved, be it in the sciences, humanities, or technology. In the case of AUW students, the unintended and challenging shift to new degree programs shows the resilience and adaptability of these students, who, despite facing academic detours, continue to seek educational opportunities and contribute to the reconstruction of their lives.
What were the most important concerns raised by the mental health providers?
Firstly, escalating mental health challenges: The mental health professionals consistently highlighted the severe consequences of university closures for female students. Anxiety, mood disorders, depression, isolation, and loneliness were frequently reported issues. The experts noted a disturbing increase in suicidal ideation among these students, attributing it to the social mistrust, disbelief, and despair resulting from gender discrimination and severe restrictions imposed by the Taliban. Secondly, limited access to mental health services: The mental health professionals expressed concerns about the increased demand for counselling services, especially among female students, while there are no available support systems for them. Thirdly, cultural stigma surrounding mental health: The experts highlighted the pervasive stigma attached to seeking mental health consultations in Afghan society. They noted that the majority of people view counselling as a stigma, making it challenging for female students to openly discuss their mental health issues. This stigma is further compounded by the restrictions imposed by the Taliban, creating an atmosphere of fear and reluctance to seek help. Last but not least, long-term mental health consequences: The mental health professionals anticipated a heightened risk of suicidal tendencies, forced marriages under social pressure, an overall deterioration of mental well-being in the absence of educational opportunities, and a bleak future outlook.
What mental health problems did students report?
Students consistently expressed feelings of frustration, worry, and fear dominating their day-to-day emotions. Sleep disturbances, weight gain, and a general sense of anxiety contributed to a state of constant stress. Withdrawal from family, friends, and social interactions, leading to a sense of numbness and aimlessness. They felt like “useless” members of their family and lost self-esteem, with minimal activities such as reading or painting at home left to compensate for the void created by the loss of educational opportunities. A deep sense of abandonment was also felt among Afghan women, who felt forgotten and negated, with their achievements rendered meaningless.
Students studying abroad also reported stress, anxiety, and depression due to the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, the uncertainty of the political situation, and concerns for the safety of loved ones. Despite the opportunity to continue their studies, these students grappled with the psychological strain of adapting to a new environment, culture, and academic system.
Before the return of the Taliban, it was not easy for women to pursue higher education. Can you describe some typical obstacles from the interviews? What role did the support of family play?
Before the Taliban’s return, Afghan women faced considerable challenges when pursuing higher education. For instance, the participants stressed that the majority of people in Afghanistan think that women are primarily intended for marriage and childcare. Societal and cultural norms limit educational opportunities, while economic constraints often hinder access. Family support played a crucial role in overcoming these obstacles. The women I interviewed shared that their fathers, in particular, defended daughters’ educational rights, promoting open-mindedness within families. Despite financial hardships, families prioritized education over non-essential expenses, emphasizing education as a key to societal progress. The inability to finish degrees due to university closures affected families emotionally and financially, halting their pursuit of an economically stable future.
Leaving the country to escape the gender apartheid of Afghanistan is an opportunity awarded to a lucky few. However, students who leave to continue their education still face problems. Can you describe these based on your interview data?
Well, what I understood from the interview data is that yes, getting out of the country since the education ban and other restrictions posed on women is like a golden opportunity for women who were not allowed to pursue their studies, work or appear in society anymore. However, it doesn’t mean that they no longer worry or care. Although physically distant, students of course maintain connections with home. Although they managed to pursue their studies and escape the situation, even for those abroad, despite escaping immediate constraints, emotional repercussions persist, and they wake up every day with bad news from their country. Adapting to a new environment and culture—a shift from their field of study and academic system—presents significant strain. They have concerns about loved ones’ safety, political uncertainty in their home country, and an ambiguous future in which they don’t know what is next after graduation.
What were messages of hope and resilience? What coping strategies do (former) students use who remain in the country?
While female students in Afghanistan exhibit signs of resilience, the closure of universities has left them frustrated, isolated, and with a sense of purposelessness. Restricted in their movements, the challenges of severe social restrictions on women’s mobility shape their coping mechanisms. Some of them seek solace in artistic pursuits like writing, painting, and reading at home, even though stress hampers their motivation. Few seek mental health support.
Though the prohibition on education has persisted for over two years, hope for the future remains. Many students actively seek opportunities for online classes or studying abroad, demonstrating a persistent desire to continue their education within the constraints they face.
How do the AUW students you talked to adjust to their new study environment?
Despite the stark differences between their past experiences and the current environment, most find improved mental well-being in their new surroundings. Active engagement in extracurricular activities available on campus, such as sports and writing groups, being busy with their workloads, maintaining connections with family and friends, and having a positive perspective on the new study environment contribute to their adjustment. All the participants at AUW stated that they are happy for the opportunity that they have gotten, which has made them able to continue their further studies despite all the difficulties. While challenges persist, including homesickness and uncertainty about the future, these students display a determination to focus on their studies and social interactions, underscoring their ability to adapt and find hope amid difficult circumstances. Their ability to bounce back from setbacks showcases their determination to surpass imposed boundaries and highlights the strength of their resilience in the face of adversity.
Can female students in Afghanistan switch to online learning? What problems exist with this approach based on the student interviews?
While female students in Afghanistan acknowledge the potential benefits of online learning, significant challenges hinder its widespread effectiveness and implementation. Participants recognize the advantages, such as global connectivity and the ability to continue education amidst closures. However, obstacles like limited Internet access, high costs, and frequent power cuts pose substantial barriers, especially for those in rural areas. Some families resist mobile phone use for daughters, restricting online learning opportunities. Participants express frustration with poor Internet connectivity and slow downloads and find online classes less engaging and interactive than traditional settings, affecting motivation and learning outcomes.
Mental health professionals acknowledge the potentially vital role of online education in supporting psychological health but stress the urgent need for financial and infrastructural support to address accessibility issues.
How would online or distance learning need to be designed to be effective for reaching Afghan students who want to complete their degrees?
To design effective online or distance learning for Afghan students, particularly females affected by university closures, financial burdens and infrastructure challenges need to be addressed. Mobile-friendly platforms, culturally sensitive content, interactive and engaging learning methods, mental health support services, flexibility, and adaptability are essential.
Investing in robust infrastructure in rural areas and collaborating with international NGOs can make online education more accessible. Mobile-friendly platforms should be optimized to accommodate cultural norms and offer access to learning resources that require low bandwidth. Flexible learning schedules and adaptable curricula should be provided to recognize the diverse circumstances of Afghan students.
Localized content and language options can make online learning more accessible and familiar to Afghan students. Engaging learning methods, such as group discussions and collaborative projects, can overcome the resistance towards online classes. Mental health support services should be integrated into online programs to address the psychological impact of the restrictions imposed on Afghan women.
Fatima Ameri holds a BA in sociology and has recently completed a Master’s degree in Education from the Asian University for Women. She worked as a social organizer with UNICEF for one year in Afghanistan and as a journalist with the local media in Bamyan. For two years, she worked as a residencies assistant (RA) on the AUW campus in Chittagong (Bangladesh). Ever since AUW initiated the Roshani-e Omid Online Teaching Programme for deprived Afghan female students, Fatima has been teaching online. Her research interests encompass the societal and educational challenges confronting women in Afghanistan. Building on her MA thesis, she is interested in exploring innovative approaches for reaching out to and advocating for women and girls in her home country, including the potential benefits of online learning.