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Afghanistan had its primary school curriculum reformed in the year 2002 to 2003. This was supposedly the first thorough review of the national education curriculum following the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and the preceding Mujahideen rule. It is claimed that the aim of the curriculum reform was to achieve a complete break from the past Mujahideen and Taliban era education systems which were founded on principles of violence and intolerance. In that respect, the purpose of the curriculum reform was to change the overall political, cultural and religious environment through the transformation of the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes of the citizens of Afghanistan.
This research with a focus on the primary school textbooks analyzes the new curriculum to determine to what extent it reflects the goals underlying the reform objectives in the wider context of the national education policy.
There is no denying that education plays a pivotal role in the making and breaking of a nation. In the words of famous American writer and philosopher Will Durant, “education is the transmission of civilization”.
From the industrial revolution to space exploration and to the recent miraculous advancements in communication technologies, we owe our progress in every field to education. However, as indicated in the first sentence in some cases education may also be held responsible for the very evils that prevent a nation from achieving progress, peace and prosperity. As Dr. Kenneth D. Bush, who is a conflict studies expert, puts it, “…implicitly and explicitly, intentionally and unintentionally, education inevitably has a societal impact – for good or for ill” (Bush & Saltarelli, 2000).
This means education in itself is not a neutral force for good. It is the end result of education and the mindset it creates through schools that determines its societal impact for good or for ill. As the American educator and cultural critic Neil Postman has said:
“… public education does not serve a public. It creates a public. The question is, what kind of public does it create? A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers? Angry, soulless, directionless masses? Indifferent, confused citizens? Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning and tolerance?” (Postman, 1996, p. 18).
This has precisely been the case with education in Afghanistan. Since the first attempt for the development of a unified and modern system of education in Afghanistan in 1919, education in this country has experienced consecutive periods of political manipulation making it a key contributor of conflict rather than of peace and progress. Curriculum is a key part of education. In order to understand the nature of the societal impact of an education system in a society, it is essential to examine its curriculum.
After gaining its independence from the British in 1919, one of the first challenges of the new government was to introduce a modern education system throughout the country (Spink, 2005). Before that time, only the elite based in the country’s capital Kabul had access to modern education, whereas in the provinces the only form of education Afghans were familiar with were the religious teachings of the mosques (Spink, 2005). By introducing the new education system, the government in Kabul wanted to achieve two goals: to develop technical skills and to create a national identity for the newly independent country.
Technical skills were needed because the government wanted to start work on a number of infrastructure development projects but was lacking in the technical skills needed to build bridges, roads and large-scale water-reservoirs. Although Afghanistan had long emerged as a country but due to the deeply-rooted tribal structure of the Afghan society and the past persecution of several ethnic and religious minorities by the previous rulers, a sense of national identity among the widely separated tribal communities was all but lacking. The government wanted to create this identity through the education curriculum (Spink, 2005). Some of the primary school textbooks were printed in different languages of the country, including Dari, Pashto and Uzbeki with a view to representing various ethnic groups. However, this representation was only limited to the consideration of the languages of the country’s ethnic minorities. The content of the textbooks promoted the history and culture of the dominant Pashtun ethnic group who had been ruling the country for over a century (Spink, 2005).
During the 1970s, Afghanistan fell victim to the Soviet’s expansionist venture. In an attempt to gain allegiance of the Afghan Government, substantial aid began to flow into Afghanistan. Two key areas which the Soviet aid was intended to support were large infrastructure development projects and the education system (Dupree, 1980). During this period, Afghanistan’s national curriculum began to see incorporation of elements of communist ideology with the increasing use of a new vocabulary, which included words and phrases like ‘revolution’, ‘people’s democracy’ and ‘rights of workers’ (Dupree, 1980). The political agenda that was being promoted by means of education curriculum during this period included the spread of communist ideology, one of whose central tenets was the rejection of religion and faith in God. However, for a people who were deeply rooted in religious values, this was not tolerable, and many communities began to see education as threatening their cultural and religious values. In many parts of the country, the schools were burned and the teachers were chased out (Spink, 2005).
Soviet’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 became a serious cause of concern for the US who feared the expansion of the sphere of the communist Soviet’s political influence in the region. During this period of Cold War in which Afghanistan was on the front line, the US saw education as an important means to stop the spread of communist ideology (Spink, 2005). Hence, together with Saudi Arabia, whose Wahabi rulers also saw a vested interest in a religious Jihad against the infidels, the US embarked on a covert action to reform the school textbooks and to train the teachers in an attempt to secure their own opposing political agendas (Spink, 2005). The move was accompanied by a massive flow of financial aid from the two countries to promote anti-communist militant religious education. To this end, hundreds of Madrasa schools were established in Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to a report of the International Crisis Group, a total number of 3906 madrasas had been registered since 1979 (International Crisis Group, 2002, p. 9).
For the development of a new set of books, the services of the University of Nebraska Omahar (UNO) were used. UNO established a center called the Education Center for Afghanistan (ECA) in Peshawar to develop teaching materials and to provide teacher training as part of the new educational reform program undertaken by the U.S. to strengthen the resistance against the Soviets. The Mujahideen (religious warriors) groups, who were staunchly committed to expelling the godless Soviets from their country, were also asked to partake in the reform program. With a $60 million grant from USAID, the militant Jihadi combatants worked for a period of 10 years in the ECA in Peshawar to develop and publish a new series of primary education textbooks which were replete with texts and images that promoted Islamic militancy. The new textbooks aimed both to counterbalance the Marxist ideology of the communist series and to indoctrinate young Afghan children in Islamic militancy (Davis, 2002). David Craig in his essay entitled “A” Is for Allah, “J” Is for Jihad provides the following examples of the texts in the UNO textbooks (2002). The language arts book for students of first-grade contained the following introduction to the Persian alphabet.
As in the above passage, the promotion of violence is the dominating theme throughout the UNO textbook series in both language arts and mathematics for grades one through six. Consider a subtraction problem from a third-grade mathematics textbook which says, “One group of Mujahideen attack 50 Russian soldiers. In that attack 20 Russians were killed. How many Russians fled?” (Davis, 2002). Another mathematics textbook for fourth-graders poses the following problem: “The speed of a Kalashnikov bullet is 800 meters per second. If a Russian is at a distance of 3,200 meters from the mujahid, and that mujahid aims at the Russian’s head, calculate how many seconds it will take for the bullet to strike the Russian in the forehead” (Davis, 2002).
In addition to the language arts and mathematics, religious and history textbooks, particularly those developed for secondary school education, also reflected themes of Islamic militancy. However, these textbooks did not only promote violence against the Russians but also targeted the Shia Muslims who constituted 7-15% of the total population of Afghanistan. For example, the religious textbooks promoted the Deobandi (a conservative Islamic orthodox movement within the Sunni Islam who despise Shia Muslims) ideal of being Muslim by clearly stating that anyone who was not a ‘good Muslim’ must be killed (Spink, 2005). Towards the same end, the history textbooks, besides the infidels, highlighted non-Sunni Muslims as one of the key threats to the Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime (Spink, 2005).
These school textbooks provided the mujahideen (who drove the Soviet occupying forces from Afghanistan after ten years of struggle in 1989) with a means for promoting political propaganda and inculcating a new generation of holy warriors with values of Islamic militancy to prepare them to fight Jihad against the enemies of Islam (Davis, 2002). An education system founded on the principles of promotion of conflict and violence only creates more violence. The most violent product of this system of education were the Taliban, who after seizing control of Afghanistan a few years following the withdrawal of the Soviet forces, promoted absolute theocracy and violent repression (Davis, 2002).
During the time of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the school textbooks went through another process of modification to include yet more Islamic subjects. However, with the exception of the pictures of living things which the Taliban believed were not allowed in Islam, most of the content of the earlier books remained the same (Spink, 2005).
Following the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, the international community led by the U.S. joined hands to support the reconstruction of Afghanistan. At an international conference held in Tokyo to get financial support for the rebuilding efforts, fixing the education system was spotlighted as one of the key areas for support in the post conflict situation (Spink, 2005). The education sector which had begun to experience some real development during the 1960s had badly relapsed as a consequence of over two decades of occupation and civil war and the Taliban, after schools had been burned down for promoting communist ideology, education had been reduced to Islamic studies to promote Islamic militancy and girls had been banned from attending school (Samady, 2001).
The textbooks chosen for analysis is this study are taught across all primary schools throughout Afghanistan. The analysis covers three key ingredients of primary education curriculum, including images, texts (storyline analysis) as well as language. The image analysis involves an examination of what is presented in each picture, as well as what kind of hidden messages the images convey from a gender, ethnicity, and nationality perspective. Analysis of the text content of the textbooks examines aspects of gender, religion, morality, and nationalism to understand what they mean and how they impact children’s attitude in future.
The focus of this analysis is to establish that despite expensive efforts by the international community to support the development of textbooks that would be pedagogically in line with the modern curricula used in the rest of the world, traces of the past curriculums continue to exist in them. To uncover the themes and ideas that this curriculum transmits to children, this analysis relies largely on qualitative data. The themes include These themes gender, nationalism, religion and morality. The themes are discussed below.
gender equality in education by 2015, with a focus on ensuring girls’ full and equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality” (Education Forum Drafting Committee, 2000). Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 3 is to “Promote gender equality and empower women,” and its Target 4 is: “Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015” (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2015). However, upon closer examination of the primary school textbooks published by the Ministry of Education we discover that there are various aspects of gender gaps that are promoted by these textbooks.
Evidence of gender bias in textual and image content can be seen across different textbooks. For instance, in every image the girls or females more generally are shown with the headscarf. Across the textbooks of all primary grades, women are portrayed with headscarves no matter what age, or in what setting. This is how children would imagine or expect women to be. Such images not only suggest what women
should look like but also how the children should perceive them. Many other similar examples could be found in the textbooks analyzed for this research. These are all due to social influences that could be interpreted in various aspects as a result of tradition or more likely religion, which is so embedded in every aspect of life of both men and women in Afghanistan. The textbooks are replete with recurring textual and pictorial examples of male dominance that undermine female existence. For example, one of the lessons in the first-grade Dari book contains the following sentence:
The message that this text implicitly, and perhaps unconsciously, conveys establishes male’s superiority. Fahima brought a piece of paper because Ahmad wanted to write a letter. Hence, the female serving the male. Although the theme of this lesson was to teach the letter ‘F’ but the text was written in a way to reinforce the stereotypical gender roles. This could have been Ahmad grabbed a piece of paper and wrote a letter to Fahima.
In addition, male names can be seen used far more frequently than female names. For examples, male names and pronouns like Padar Kalan (Grandfather), Padar (father), Jawad, Muhammad, Qais, Fareed, Rasul, Zamir, and Obaid… that are all male names can be seen across the textbooks of different grades. However, female names and pronouns such as mother, Fahima, Nargis, Habibah and some others are greatly outnumbered by names representing the male gender. For example, in the Dari book for the first grade, female names are used only 39 times whereas male names and pronouns associated with male are used about 116 times. This indicates that males constitute up to 77 per cent of the characters in the textbook, clearly demonstrating under-representation of females. This under-representation is also evident in the imagery illustrations.
These stereotypical and under-representations certainly have an impact on girls’ motivation, participation, and achievement in schools. This problem has also been pointed out in some other studies. For example, a study conducted for the Education For All’s monitoring report reports, “Unfortunately, however measured – in lines of text, proportions of named characters, mentions in titles, citations in indexes – girls and women are under-represented in textbooks and curricula” (Benavot, 2016). In order to achieve gender equity, it is important that students are provided with a gender-sensitive learning environment.
The textbooks have also been assessed to promote gender stereotypes by presenting male and female characters in highly stereotypical household and occupational roles. There is a large number of images portraying women and girls as household workers, caretakers, cleaners, and girls as passive conformists, while they depict men and boys as engaged in more impressive, noble, exciting and fun things and tasks that require more physical strength.
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