Prior to 1979, Afghanistan had a growing though still inadequate educational system. School enrollment had reached about one million students. Tuition and textbooks were free and a monthly allowance was provided for students at postsecondary schools. However, various barriers to education remained in place: many rural areas lacked adequate schools; children of poor families (particularly girls) were often more needed to help at home than to attend school; and children of nomadic tribes had great difficulty accessing schools. Currently, Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in Asia.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, education in Afghanistan was limited to religious schools, which were run by mosques and open only to boys. Girls received religious instruction from women at home. The first public school was opened in Kabul by King Habibullah in 1903. Soon other primary, secondary and vocational schools were established, patterned on the French academic system and also offering Islamic subjects. In 1924, the first school for girls opened, and in 1931, Afghanistan’s constitution made primary education compulsory and free for all children.

From the inception of the modern educational system, a minority of conservative religious leaders opposed education for girls; some opposed any education outside Islamic subjects. Despite this opposition, Afghanistan’s education system continued to expand. The first university was established in 1932 in Kabul; although initially segregated, by 1960 faculties were co-educational. The country now has four universities, all of which are co-educational.

The war with the Soviets and subsequent strife have greatly disrupted Afghanistan’s already limited educational system, destroying facilities and displacing millions of families. The majority of the country’s teachers have left. The Taliban regime banned education for girls over the age of 12, but girls in Kabul are now beginning to return to school.

Some children have been educated in schools established in refugee camps, while in Afghanistan, education continues in a limited number of still-operational schools and in family homes. Officially, primary education begins at age seven and lasts for six years, followed by six years of secondary school. Two of Afghanistan’s universities have remained open during the war, and the university in Kabul has recently reopened.

  Did you know?
Abdul Ahad Momand was the first Afghan in space. Born in 1959, he trained as a pilot and was chosen to be part of a cosmonaut team that flew to the Russian space station Mir in 1988.