Under the Taliban, girls were denied an education but with a new ruling power and school to welcome them, they now have the chance to thrive
The educational system in Afghanistan was left in an extremely poor state after the removal of the Taliban from power at the end of 2001. Infamous for its brutal treatment of women during its five years in control, it shut down and destroyed girls’ schools all over the country, leaving facilities empty of students and falling into disrepair.
Although secret night schools were organised by parents, the damage was considerable and literacy rates dropped to an alarming 10 per cent. With education as the trusted path to rebuilding a war-weary nation, the reconstruction and expansion of Gohar Khatoon Girls’ School turned into an initiative emblematic of the inclusion of women within Afghan society as well as a major contributor to the country’s push toward development.
The project was made possible by a unique collaboration funded by Sahar Education International and the Janet W Ketcham Foundation. It brought together the Miller Hull Partnership (on behalf of architect Robert Hull, making this school the first in the country to involve an architect), the University of Washington, an Afghan structural engineer and local workforces.
Situated in Mazar-i-Sharif, the country’s fourth biggest city, the school opened last June. It has the capacity to welcome 3,500 students from kindergarten to secondary school age, split over three daily shifts, making it Afghanistan’s largest girls’ school. As the city is a university hub, the scheme is a beacon signalling the importance of granting young women access to education, as well as a gateway to the pursuit of further studies.
In the rapidly expanding city, the school is conceived as a protective oasis of peace and knowledge, a microcosm for an unforeseeable but promising future. The three main rocky volumes occupying the centre of the site are connected via aerial bridges and surrounded by two large enclosed courtyards used for gathering, exercising and gardening - this last being a long and significant tradition. Fruit-bearing trees were planted on site and combined with vegetable and flower gardens to be tended by the students.
The institution makes use of simple environmental strategies that enable it to operate off grid rather than relying on the unstable energy supply: on the south side of the project, the staircases - known as sunspaces - capture sunlight to heat the classrooms. During the warmer months, their large doors remain open, allowing a light breeze to cool the interiors.
Students and staff members were actively involved in the design process, choosing the paint colours for the walls and following the construction’s evolution. A competition was organised for the design of large murals on the staircases, offering emerging women artists the opportunity to showcase their work and inspire students to pursue artistic interests. Art was traditionally a practice reserved almost exclusively for men and, under Taliban rule, Kabul’s national gallery was closed and much of its content destroyed.
Today, girls remain a minority in Afghan classrooms and face high drop-out rates due to early marriage - nationwide, only 21 per cent of schoolgirls graduate. But Sahar Education International estimates that for every girl educated in their schools, 7 to 11 family members are positively affected. Its success relies on a commitment to empower young women, giving them the confidence to actively participate in the social, political and economic arenas of their communities.
If the approach aims to break the barriers that exist for girls in Afghanistan one school at a time, the organisation’s 13th scheme certainly marks a milestone. As aid to Afghanistan is dwindling and NATO troops are leaving the country, Gohar Khatoon is more than a school. Both a local success and a national symbol, this convincing architectural proposition acts as a model and inspiration for further initiatives to flourish.
Gohar Khatoon Girl’s School
Lead architect: Miller Hull Partnership (on behalf of Robert Hull) with University of Washington Department of Architecture
Project architect: Elizabeth Golden, University of Washington
Structural and civil engineer: Solaiman Salahi
Photographs: Nic Lehoux