Dozens of happy girls juggling, balancing on wooden balls and performing acrobatics to jaunty music is an unexpected sight in today’s Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban took over last August, girls over 12 have been effectively banned from schools. Women are expected to dress more conservatively and cannot travel without mahrams, or male guardians. They are barred from Kabul government roles. At home there is little entertainment — even soap operas are outlawed.
Yet some girls have been able to cling on to their education in the most unlikely of places: the circus. “This is our only happiness nowadays, not just for me, but for all the girls coming here and I hope [the Taliban] don’t take this place away from us,” Anita Faizy, 14, said.
Faizy had just been part of an afternoon show put on by the girls at the Mini Mobile Children’s Circus (MMCC) in the western city of Herat. As well as acrobatics, there were poem recitals and drama skits. The atmosphere was electric.
Set up in 2002, the MMCC has managed to survive the Taliban takeover and increase its female membership. This is particularly evident in Herat, where it doubled to 220 in the past year, twice the number of boys. For girls facing dismal futures, it is a lifeline to laughter.
Alongside circus skills, Dari, Pashto, Quran studies and English are taught. Boys attend in the mornings and girls in the afternoons, five days a week. Children get a free meal, vital to many in a crippled economy. MMCC has spaces in nine provinces, run by 21 Afghan team leaders, including three young women.
Faizy has attended for six years. Her two sisters recently joined. During the show she beamed full of energy, but her spirits dropped when she talked about the education ban.
“Each and every Afghan girl has her own hopes and dreams. Before [the takeover] mine was to become a lawyer,” said Faizy, her lip trembling. “Why is everyone quiet? Why are the men not fighting for their daughters and their sisters?”
The manager at MMCC’s Herat centre, Abdul Jalil, 53, has tried to build a relationship with the local authorities. This, he believes, is one of the reasons MMCC still operates. He also credits the fact that they are technically providing circus skills, not schooling. But his position is precarious.
“We’ve had visits from the Taliban authorities, and we have some children here whose parents are Taliban members. So far there have not been any issues but it is a constant worry that they will find a reason to stop the girls coming here,” he said.