New online platform provides free education to girls in Afghanistan

It is accepted around the world that children and young people have a right to education. But for girls in Afghanistan, this is not the case. 

In 2021, the Taliban seized power after launching a military offensive which lasted three and a half months. One of the first measures they imposed was a ban on girls over the age of 12 returning to school. A year later, they extended this ban to include universities, leaving millions of Afghan girls without any access to higher education at all. 

Accessing education was already a struggle prior to the Taliban’s return to power due to the scarcity and inadequacy of learning facilities for girls. It is estimated that 30% of girls in the country have never even entered primary school. Now, in light of the current ban, receiving education beyond this will be close to impossible.

The Begum Academy has been launched in an attempt to combat this.

The Begum Academy is an online platform aimed at female students from seventh to twelfth grade, which offers the entire Afghan curriculum free of charge by subject based on the official school books from the Ministry of Education. The idea behind the initiative is that girls will be able to teach themselves the Afghan school curriculum from their own homes in order to improve their future prospects even if they aren’t allowed to physically attend school.

A spokesperson for the organisation, who preferred not to be named, spoke to Index about the importance of this movement for a country with the lowest ranking for women’s inclusion, justice and security in the world.

“If you take into account Covid and the Taliban in power at the moment, girls have been out of school for basically five years,” he explained.

“The idea is to give them hope. To be a girl in Afghanistan today is hell. There’s absolutely no future. The idea for us is to say okay, you’re forbidden to go to school, you’re not forbidden to learn.”

The platform contains more than 8,000 videos from a team of teachers and producers covering the entire school curriculum in Dari and Pashto, chapter by chapter, which took many months to put together. 

“Recording videos, editing them, working the content. It’s an enormous task,” admitted the Begum Academy correspondent. “Everybody told us that it was crazy, that it was impossible. We decided to go for it.”

The group is also endeavouring to break down other barriers faced by those in Afghanistan who want to learn, such as the lack of internet access in a number of homes across the country. They note that this is an issue they are actively “working on” to try and ensure that as many girls as possible are able to access the resources provided.

This is a sizeable task. Since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in 2021, internet connection in the state has been limited. Gallup’s 2022 World Poll found that just 15% of the Afghan population said they have access to the internet. This is potentially due to costs of Wi-Fi or electronics considering more than 90% of the country’s population is affected by poverty.

There is also a significant gender disparity when it comes to internet access, with only 6% of women having access compared to 25% of men. Those living in cities were also more likely to use the internet than those in rural areas. 

Thankfully, the Taliban do not seem to have any plans to ban the internet completely. They even use the internet, which they previously rallied against due to their suspicions of what they deemed to be Western technology, to communicate with the world on social media.

According to a 2023 report by the Atlantic Council, the approximate $77 million in taxes collected by the Afghan government from internet and mobile phone operators since taking over is a crucial source of income. The Taliban have even announced plans to upgrade to 4G networks – a hopeful sign on the internet access front.

However, the Taliban have also been accused of limiting internet access for their own gain, allegedly suspending connectivity in Kabul and other areas on a regular basis in order to curb opposition, as well as blocking millions of websites for “immoral” content. There is therefore a fear that even if internet access is available, the militant group can restrict the content available on it. 

Nonprofit group Access Now, who advocate for digital rights, warns that even those who can access Google in Afghanistan are restricted by the fear of surveillance due to the ability of the Taliban to monitor browser history. Debilitating internet speeds and frequent power cuts may also hinder proceedings.

Despite concerns about the accessibility of the platform in the long-term, the overall feeling regarding the Begum Academy’s launch is positive today.

“We still have a lot of things to do, but I think this project can genuinely help,” the platform’s spokesperson said. “Once the word has spread, and it’s started already on social media, we can expect something quite big.”

You can find the Begum Academy here: 

You can also access online materials on their YouTube channels: (Pashto) (Dari)

Campaigner for Afghan girls’ education takes the path to freedom

Today, Matiullah Wesa walked out of an Afghan prison. The co-founder of Pen Path, an organisation forging routes to education in Afghanistan, has spent the last seven months behind bars. Only recently has his mother been allowed to visit him.

Until 27 March this year, Wesa was riding a motorbike around Afghanistan, a bookcase and computer built into the mobile classroom, to areas where schools do not exist. He read from books to cohorts of girls, locked out of education. And he campaigned for schools to reopen. All of these activities put him in the spotlight.

On his way home from evening prayer seven months ago, Wesa was arrested. Then his house was raided. For much of his imprisonment, Wesa’s family were not allowed to speak with him. Today, his brother and co-founder of Pen Path, Attaullah Wesa, spoke to Index from Toronto about the news. He too is at risk from his work with Pen Path, and arrived in Canada in September.

“I am so happy. I couldn’t sleep last night, I was waking with Matiullah in my dreams. But I don’t know about [the lack] of sleep, I feel very well,” he said.

“I spoke to him when he came out from the jail, just for two minutes — ‘Hi, how are you, how was the jail?’ He told me, ‘No problem,’” Attaullah Wesa said, able to make light of the situation. Some other family members are now with him, and he will now go for health checks. “He looks in good spirit.”

An hour before his brother’s release, Attaullah Wesa had a phone call from his brother, telling him what was about to happen.

Since Matiullah Wesa was released earlier today, his brother’s phone has rung constantly, with messages of congratulations. Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai called him personally to tell him how happy he was. Further calls came from members of parliament around the world, human rights organisations and the press. The international community, he explained, has put a lot of pressure on the Taliban about his brother’s imprisonment.

Pen Path was established in 2009 to create greater access to education, and make sure all children have access to learning and books. Since the Taliban takeover, this job has become more and more difficult, with access to education for women and girls becoming a priority. During the recent earthquakes near Herat, Pen Path have forged on, speaking with people in affected areas about their needs.

This work has continued this year, but without Matiullah Wesa. Just last week, he was announced as the winner of the campaigning category of the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards. With Wesa behind bars, his brother sent a video message to receive the award, saying that the award was vital in “Letting Matiullah know that he is remembered and won’t be forgotten.”

Baroness Helena Kennedy took to the stage in London to announce Wesa as the winner, echoing the voices of campaigners inside Afghanistan who are calling the current situation a gender apartheid. She said: “It’s very important that we don’t forget Afghanistan.”

With his brother out of prison, Pen Path will continue its work, Attaullah Wesa explains.

“Now we will start in a good spirit, because now the international community knows more about us,” he said. “We will also come with the international community and we will deal some pressure to the Taliban to accept the basic right of girls and women of Afghanistan.”

He ends the call to Index with a message: “For those social activists who are in the prison of the Taliban, they must release them soon.”

US women’s university struggles to find fair balance on transgender issues

(Photo: Georden West)

(Photo: Georden West)

A women’s university considered to be one of the most restrictive on transgender issues in the US is reconsidering its approach.

Rated as the strictest of any US university on transgender policies by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Hollins University currently forbids students from making any legal or biological step toward becoming male.

But a university official says the school is considering the addition of gender-neutral bathrooms to make the campus more welcoming and to support its students on the transgender spectrum.

Founded in 1842, Hollins University has attracted many now famous names including writers Annie Dillard and Margaret Wise Brown, US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and White House correspondent Ann Compton.

However, in the past few years its restrictive policy on the retention of transgender students has attracted national attention from activists and academics.

The current policy states that any student who “’self identifies’ as a male and initiates any of the following processes: 1) begins hormone therapy with the intent to transform from female to male, 2) undergoes any surgical process (procedure) to transform from female to male or 3) changes her name legally with the intent of identifying herself as a man,” will not be allowed to graduate from the university. After substantial criticism, Hollins agreed to re-evaluate its policy and drafted a new version in 2013. The current policy also maintains the university’s position against allowing female-to-male students and adds that any student who chooses to undergo sex reassignment “will be helped [by university officials] to transfer to another institution.”

The issue of gender-neutral spaces has become increasingly contentious and polarising with the emergence of a new transgender-equality group on campus called EqualiT*. Its appearance was marked by mysterious flyers in bathroom stalls and on announcement boards calling for the addition of gender-neutral bathrooms. Soon a blog and a Facebook page also appeared, and the group began to stage events, including a candlelight vigil to commemorate Transgender Awareness Day. Due to the sensitive nature of the organisation, the group has remained mainly anonymous in hopes of protecting its transgender members. Some students fear that, if exposed, transgender students will lose their scholarships or be expelled from the university. The university has not taken any action against students who are legally and biologically female, but some students say they self-censor because they are worried about what may happen.

With a student population of less than 600, low retention rates and a high-priced tuition cost of over $46,000 per year, critics question whether the university can afford to alienate any portion of its student demographic.

The forced removal of transgender students from Hollins presents not only financial and academic challenges but a threat to students’ safety. Forty-five per cent of transgender university students in the US reported experiencing verbal, physical or sexual abuse due to their gender identity according to a 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality. Many transgender students attending all-female institutions regard the environment as safe and welcoming and fear for their safety in transferring to a coeducational environment. A study in 2006 revealed that one in twelve transgender people is murdered in the United States, and many more experience severe verbal harassment and physical violence.

“I believe creating gender neutral safe spaces should be at the forefront of the actions Hollins is taking right now,” said Cal Thompson, a transgender student who graduated in the spring of 2014. “Everyone needs a safe space for personal business. We don’t want to use the gendered bathrooms just as badly as the cisgendered don’t want us.”

Despite the relative safety transgender students feel at Hollins, students still find the university a challenging place to explore individual gender identities. Perhaps one of the most substantial of these challenges is in the lack of gender-neutral spaces, specifically bathrooms. Because of the requirement for students to remain female during their time at Hollins, students who identify as transgender are prohibited from using the men’s restroom.

“Using the bathroom at Hollins was uncomfortable,” said Lee Collie, a 2013 graduate, known as Leanna during his time at Hollins. “Even if you flip the sign to ‘male’ when you walk in, girls walked in all the time and said, ‘Oh, it’s just Lee,’ which meant that they didn’t really see me as a male.”

Hollins’ Dean of Students, Patty O’Toole told Index, “As we continue to renovate our facilities, when appropriate we are considering developing gender-neutral bathrooms.” With regards to facilities in residence halls, students in each community can collectively determine facility-usage and associated language, O’Toole said. Bathroom usage in residence halls is indicated by a paper sign for each hall’s bathroom, which can be flipped over to indicate different users. Thus, some facilities may be labelled with “men” and “women,” while others may use “residents” and “guests.” No other official steps have been taken to utilise gender-neutral language.

A number of students disagree with the student organisation’s position, including current student Deborah Birch, class of 2016. “I don’t think that there should gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. You apply to Hollins knowing that it is an all-women’s institution. If want to change your biological make-up to transition from female to male, you should choose to attend another institution.”

Though transgender graduate Lee Collie likes the idea of gender-neutral restrooms, he also worries about respecting the larger campus community, specifically those with opposing ideals. “I would probably limit them to the dorms or specific floors, because we have professors and visitors who may not feel comfortable.”

Hollins is not the only US institution struggling over whether it should create gender-neutral bathrooms. Recently Illinois State University has attracted media attention through its decision to change its family bathroom to an all-gender bathroom. Although the change was not specifically requested by any students or faculty, ISU officials made the change in efforts to remain proactive and to promote inclusivity among all members of campus. Over 150 universities across the United States have instituted similar changes in campus facilities, including New York University, Ohio State University and UCLA. Even fellow women’s universities like Smith College in Massachusetts and Agnes Scott College in Georgia have begun to embrace the issue, with the addition of gender-neutral restrooms and more progressive policies.

Collie, a former vice president of the university’s student government association, stated that the policy at Hollins may be strict, but he is glad that Hollins has a policy and acknowledges the existence of transgender students on campus. Other women’s universities have yet to adopt any policy on the matter.

Dean of Students, Patty O’Toole explained that the 2011 policy was originally created by the university’s Board of Trustees in response to students on the transgender spectrum who were seeking a written policy. “Hollins wanted to support those students. The focus of the policy is not strictness but clarifying our institutional mission.”

Collie supported the university’s actions and its mission as a women’s institution, despite the personal challenges he faced, and related the support and camaraderie he experienced at the university. “Hollins has never punished me for being or identifying as male. It isn’t that they’re trying to stop someone from being who they really are, but it is Hollins standing true to itself as well.”

 This article was published on August 6, 2014 at

Is the university gender gap a barrier to free expression?

(Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

At the University of Bristol the stagnating number of female academics in multiple degree subjects has become an increasingly important and concerning issue. Over 65.4% of Bristol students, according to my March 2014 survey, perceived a noticeable imbalance of female to male lecturers. I agree. My research led me towards an obvious concern for Bristol students: gender inequality of academia in all subjects.

With The Independent reporting that 63.9% of female undergraduates are leaving universities with “good” degrees, a lack of visibility of female academics at the University of Bristol — especially in the more scientific faculties — is in stark contrast to the number of undergraduates in the same subjects. More and more articles are appearing asking “Where are the men?” seeking to discover why the gender gap of undergraduates is weighted in women’s favour, but few have even commented on the fact that women are still struggling for visibility as academics. Women are avoiding the academic world and important questions must be asked about whether this is evidence of institutional laziness on the part of universities.

A recent Commons Report titled “Women in Scientific Careers” (focussing solely on the topic of academia) found the gender diversity – or lack of it – in senior academic positions in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) “astonishing”. This conclusion of surprise is certainly supported by the Bristol experience: only 19% female Biology academics and fewer than 7% female Chemistry academics. Science students are beginning to question the gender gap at an academic level and why in 2014 it still remains an issue for women to break into STEM academia. One biology student commented: “I’m in my second term of University and I’ve yet to be taught by a woman. Representation is important and it’s worrying that female undergraduates might be less inclined to pursue an academic career.”

Universities are attempting to improve the imbalance in STEM departments with processes such as the Athena Swan awards. However, the School of Chemistry at Bristol holds a Bronze award for “promoting gender equality” despite having fewer than ten female academics in one of the largest departments at Bristol. The bar seems quite low. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a tangible appetite to tackle inequality in academia head on, it just seems that there has been little visible progression, simply supplementary reports and promises to improve.

Many female academics such as Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, have expressed disappointment with the Commons Report mostly due to it appearing to provide nothing more than “superficial recommendations”. I agree with Donald when she suggests more “drastic action” to tackle the current gender norms in university departments, without a vocal and aggressive protest calling for more inclusive hiring strategies. “There is a long, long way to go but all parts of the system need to be addressed if we are going to get past the stage of mere astonishment,” Donald wrote in February. We need to involve all levels of education; if women aren’t being encouraged equally at all stages of schooling then fixing the top level of academia will do little to fix the imbalance.

Personally, it’s been my experience with the history department at Bristol that has sparked this article. Why in a subject such as history with an equal amount of male and female undergraduates are there only 29% female academic staff? Having so few women lecturers in history when both genders are so equally matched at undergraduate level causes students to wonder if the higher jobs remain a boys’ club even in 2014.

Lynne H. Walling, head of pure mathematics at University of Bristol, has experienced more than her fair of sexism on her route to the top of her profession. Maths stereotypically has always been seen as a masculine pursuit and women have often been excluded or stymied in their interest. “More and more women do math, but we can hardly find female mathematicians who keep on researching the field.” She commented in interview with Somin Kim: “Only a few speakers at academic conferences are women, and sometimes none. Women feel that they don’t fit in the mathematical society and this is the hardship to continue their research.” Representation has always been a core issue. Without at least an approximation of gender equality among lecturers, female students are less like to dream to achieve. There isn’t an absence of female curiosity or intellect, there’s a lack of a platform.

But does a mismatch between women students and male lecturers actually impact free expression? At an undergraduate level the gender of their tutor seems to greatly impact female students. It becomes an issue of their future career as many women are told by those in academia that their gender is a weakness in the fight for research funding. No wonder women are half as likely to choose academia as a preferred career than men. Penelope Lockwood investigated whether the gender of career role models affected university students and she conclusively proved that women are more greatly motivated when inspired by the women in their chosen career, not the men. This is because the female students understood that their role model had surmounted and survived gender-specific challenges that they anticipate combatting in the future. They decisively empathise better with a female tutor.

Without an equal amount of female lecturers and tutors, female students are hindered in their progression through academic ladder. We need female lecturers teaching at an undergraduate level on an equal basis with men otherwise young women will continue to find the idea of achieving equal academic freedom with men in their subject simply unachievable. It’s a cyclical system: a minority of women teach, a minority of women become academics. Freedom of expression in academia involves an equal standing at all levels, and if we’re teaching equality at undergraduate level we need to clear the career path of gender obstacles for women from the grassroots up.

It’s obviously a more complex topic than can be covered in my brief assessment but the debate needs to be breached, universities need to answer questions about their hiring process and work together to close any forms of gender imbalance that still exist in higher education – including the wage gap. The statistics referred to above appear to support the conclusion that women are still experiencing sexism, especially when applying for jobs in STEM departments.

Universities would be well advised to address the issue swiftly so that the gender balance of academic, at the very least, reflects the gender balance of their undergraduates. Research support gender equality, so why aren’t universities?

 This article was posted on 15 April 2014 at