On May 8 last year, 17-year-old Tahira and her classmate were discussing their plans for the Eid holiday when a powerful bomb exploded at their school in the Dasht-e-Barchi district of Kabul. She was thrown across the street by the intensity of the explosion.
Two more explosions followed, targeting Sayed ul-Shuhada Girls’ High School and killing 90, most of them female students. “One moment I was talking to my friend. Then I was lying in a hospital, and everything was wired,” Tahira recalls.
Three shrapnel had hit his 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 has claimed responsibility for the series of explosions. The western suburban neighborhood of Kabul – 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 this attack.
Politicians and foreign missions in Afghanistan called it an attack on “education,” but for many students it was an attack on their very identity as young women and Hazaras.
One year after the attack
A year after the bombing, families are still mourning the death of their children, and the students who survived have yet to heal from the trauma.
Tahira, who was in grade 11, said the school lacked resources, but there was hope. “We had dreams, and that made it bearable,” she says.
But in the months following the explosions, as US troops began to withdraw after 20 years of occupation, the security situation deteriorated. The Taliban armed group regained power in August 2021 after the withdrawal of American soldiers triggered the collapse of the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani.
The violent and chaotic collapse of the previous Western-backed 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 after the takeover, girls’ high schools remain closed and public spaces are shrinking for Afghan women as the group has expanded the curbs.
On Saturday, the group’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada, ordered women appearing in public to be covered from head to toe, bringing back memories of the brutal Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001.
A series of explosions in recent weeks, targeting Hazara Shiites in particular, have increased the vulnerability of ethnic minorities.
But Tahira and 29 other students at Sayed ul-Shuhada High School are still unwilling to drop out despite relentless attacks and renewed restrictions from the Taliban.
They circumvented 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 civic activists – some students, but not all – organizes reading sessions every Saturday. They are being held in a discreet location west of Kabul to avoid reprisals from the Taliban.
Tareq Qassemi, the club’s co-founder, says global media attention changed overnight due to the war in Ukraine.
“Afghanistan is a dead story, but we, the Afghan people, have to take ownership,” he said. Qassemi believes that girls are the future of the country and should tell their own stories.
Living to Tell the Tale, the first volume of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez’s autobiography, was one of the first books the girls read.
“This book was chosen deliberately. Gabriel García Márquez dropped out of college,” says club member Khalidyar Payman. Marquez pursued a self-directed education that led him to leave law school for a career in journalism. And he went on to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, said Payman, a 25-year-old Kabul University graduate.
The founders of the book club explain the importance of storytelling, even if it is practiced in secret.
“These girls are the brightest of our generation; they need to be fine-tuned,” says Qassemi. “We light the way for them and they find their way.”
Razia 16, who is part of the book club, struggles to understand the Taliban’s reasoning for preventing girls’ education.
“First of all, I’m a human being, not just a woman,” she says. Razia believes that equal opportunities should be offered to men and women. “Then it all depends on how well they shine with the knowledge they have acquired,” she said.
Razia lost 12 of her classmates in the Sayed ul-Shuhada High School explosion last year. She was waiting to go back to school, she said, not only to fulfill her dreams, but also to live out the dreams of her classmates.
“And reading is a way to pursue those dreams,” she told Al Jazeera.
The risk of running a book club is huge amid growing restrictions on women, with girls over the age of 12 no longer allowed to go to school and universities forced to separate classes.
Demonstrators demanding women’s rights have been arrested and interrogated by the Taliban.
Book club members recognize 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 attack and the Taliban won’t let me go to school. We are both dead. She’s buried, but I’m not,” she said, trying to hold back tears.