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Revisiting an Afghan woman's experience of being a student under the Taliban

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Taliban has banned women from universities. Girls in secondary schools, too, are being turned away or finding their schools closed indefinitely. That's a supposedly temporary measure the Taliban imposed when it took power in September of 2021. In October last year, NPR spoke to Zakia Menhas, who was then a third-year medical student at Kabul University, about how the atmosphere had changed under the Taliban.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ZAKIA MENHAS: Before, like, we were so confident when we were out. Whenever we had a problem in one of our subjects or in anything, we were able to just go to our friend if that is male or female. But now it's all, like, weird. If you just talk to a male friend, they will just harass you, or somehow, they will just punish you.

SIMON: Since that time, Zakia Menhas has decided it was just too risky to stay. She has left Afghanistan and her family to continue her education here in the United States. Zakia Menhas joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

MENHAS: Thank you.

SIMON: And this news about women being banned from universities and what we've learned about girls in secondary schools - are you in any way surprised?

MENHAS: It really didn't because I knew that something like this will happen because they didn't let teenage girls to go to school. So how is it possible for them to let girls go to universities?

SIMON: When NPR last spoke to you, you were in Afghanistan. May we ask how you got here?

MENHAS: I really wanted to continue my education. I searched for a lot of scholarships in many countries. And then, finally, I found out about Bard College, that they are having this hundred scholarships for Afghan students. Fortunately, they accept me, and I just decided to change my major because it is hard to take a scholarship to study medical here.

SIMON: So you're not studying medicine right now?

MENHAS: No, I don't. I'm just a freshman majoring in computer science. So, yeah. All those - four years, just starting from the beginning. It was very hard for me at first, but it was the only option. I was not sure that - whether I'm able to leave my country or not. I faced a lot of things to just get out of there. And I was lucky. There were 17 girls, and they were trying to go to Doha and then, like, continue their education, but they didn't let them.

SIMON: You still have friends and family there including sisters who teach in high school, I gather. Have you been able to speak with them, communicate with them?

MENHAS: Well, yeah. First, when I saw those news, I just called to my friends. And they had just - one final exam was left. And then, I talked to my sister, and she told me that, well, I went to school, and they didn't let us in. And they told us, like, you have to just go home.

SIMON: May I ask what your sisters are doing at the moment? Do you know?

MENHAS: Today, I called them, and they told me, like, now we are home. They are not happy because they had a good job. They were satisfied with teaching the girls. And, like, just - that one day, everything changed. So they are not OK.

SIMON: Because you're in the United States, because this interview will be heard, do you worry about what might happen to your family?

MENHAS: Of course. Every second, I'm just thinking about that. It's not like I'm here and I'm safe, that's it. I just thinking about my family and - I'm sorry.

SIMON: That's all right. We understand entirely. Don't worry.

MENHAS: And all the friends who are still there. And they're suffering. So literally, everyone. The whole Afghanistan is my family, and I'm thinking about them.

SIMON: Is there something the world can do?

MENHAS: I just want to say to the world that this is the beginning. And if they don't stand with Afghan women, the future will be the darkest. So just support them through media and, like, to raise their voice for Afghan women. And that can help.

SIMON: Zakia Menhas is a student from Afghanistan here at Bard College in New York. Thanks so much for being with us, and our best to you and your family.

MENHAS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

HADAG NAHASH: (Singing in Hebrew). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.