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Women astronomers in Afghanistan need the world’s support

The return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan makes women and girls outcasts in society, and their education illegal. However, they are clever and deserve to be taught and learn, and for that international (financial) support is needed.

I am a woman with a passion for astronomy. My passion is also to teach other women and girls about astronomy, and in 2018, in Herat, Afghanistan, along with Sohail Karimi, an engineering student, I founded the Kayhana Astronomical Group, a grass-roots educational collective. Now Afghanistan has changed, and the leaders, the Taliban, do not want women or girls to be educated in science. Scholars, especially girls and young people, are referred to here as outcasts. However, I must continue my work, despite much danger, since the women here are clever and deserve to be taught and think for themselves. My long-term goal is to introduce astronomy to the Afghan people, eliminate gender discrimination from this society and re-introduce the principle of humanity to Afghanistan.

Astronomy does not exist here in Afghanistan. There is no college or centre for teaching astronomy. In fact, at the beginning our people did not even know the meaning of the word, but we explained that astronomy is the science of the sky. To outsiders, the studies we held in the group were attributed to witchcraft and we had to deal with people saying that astronomy is a sin, it is magic, and what is the usage of these things? However, we are in a critical time when human beings are in dire need of science and technology, and Sohail and I wanted to create an organization with thousands of members, particularly to explore how improvements in astronomy have had a significant impact on the development of industry, medicine, international cooperation, everyday life, and humankind.

Our first goal for the people of Afghanistan, especially the youth and students, is to start thinking about astronomy and get acquainted with its dimensions. Therefore, with a systematic plan, we began to give seminars to students, starting with girls’ schools. To embark on such a plan broke many taboos and we faced great opposition. Extremist and traditional religious groups initially did not allow us to hold seminars in girls’ schools, but with paperwork and almost three months of insistence, we were able to get permission. I saw girls with a lot of interest and fascination in science. They surprised me with their intelligence and so, although we were under threat, we never stopped. We looked for a sponsor, but unfortunately in Afghanistan, most people do not value science and technology. Instead, we paid all the expenses from our own pockets; we needed staple things such as astronomy equipment, a laptop with an internet connection and a projector, transportation for the students, a place for working, astronomy books, notepads and pens, student prizes for encouragement and so on, but we didn’t have the budget for everything.

I worked as a technical surveyor on an EU project to support the municipality of Herat, and I had to ask my boss for permission to leave to give the seminars. Sometimes I only received half a month’s salary due to my absenteeism. Sohail faced similar problems. As a student, he has to either study or work to pay for Kayhana costs and hold seminars with me. If we could only focus on the Kayhana group and have no financial worries, the situation would be dramatically improved. But we have no foreign support.

Herat fell to the Taliban on 12 August 2021. The return to power of the Taliban was like the sky falling on us. The Taliban are a religious extremist group that hates science, technology, philosophy, art and freedom. They do not allow boys and girls to study together. Moreover, several times they issued a proclamation stating that girls should no longer be taught by men, and women should not have the right to wear their own choice of clothing. One of the strangest diktats was that all scientific, philosophical and technological books were to be collected from bookstores and set on fire. We knew how dangerous it was to continue along our educational path, we knew we could be assassinated as with the women activists, but we thought bigger than that and we would not give up our goals. With each passing day, our problems increase, but we still do not give up.

With the closure of schools (due to COVID-19, seasonal work and now because of the Taliban), we continued our work online, reaching all the provinces of Afghanistan. Astronomical books are taught to students every day, with scientific discussions occurring every week. The whole time we and the students were under the threat of the Taliban because of our activities and they often fought to be alive, they struggled to pay for food, they worried about war and many thought that all their achievements had been completely destroyed. Afghanistan is burning in the fire of war and thousands of Afghans are losing their lives every day. You may be surprised, but we want to continue our way, despite the constant threat of death.

But to keep the light of science and knowledge on, especially astronomy, I call on international astronomical organizations to provide scholarships to our group members and help them leave Afghanistan. We also need books, tools and other financial support to keep our efforts going.

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Correspondence to Amena Karimyan.

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Karimyan, A. Women astronomers in Afghanistan need the world’s support. Nat Astron 6, 405 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-022-01653-8

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