WA woman launches home schools for Afghan girls kept out of class

Marnie Gustavson of Port Orchard has led a Kabul-based organization for 16 years, helping those on the margins of Afghanistan society.

Marnie Gustavson at her home in Port Orchard

Marnie Gustavson, executive director of PARSA, in her home in Port Orchard on Monday, April 24, 2023. PARSA is a Kabul-based nonprofit that helps women and children. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Listen to the author discuss this story on the Crosscut Reports podcast.

Marnie Gustavson got the bad news last December 24, just hours after returning from Afghanistan for a holiday break at her family’s homestead in Port Orchard, Washington.

For 16 years, Gustavson had led a small Kabul-based aid group, PARSA, that assists women and those on the margins of Afghan society.

The Taliban, after reclaiming power in Afghanistan in August 2021, had made that task a lot more difficult with a suite of repressive decrees that included an order keeping girls out of secondary schools and another shutting them out of universities.

In the predawn phone call, a staffer relayed the latest: a prohibition on women leaving home to work for aid organizations.

That meant some 30 women employed at PARSA’s Kabul offices would have to be sent home, and on-site leadership training  – Sisters 4 Sisters –  involving more than 60 teenage girls would be shut down.

This disheartening and tumultuous end to 2022 did not bode well for the new year.

Yet within the five months since, PARSA has not only survived but launched in a new direction, organizing more than 170 home schools that serve more than 2,000 students, including girls of secondary-school age.

This work, in 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, is part of a broader – but low-profile – effort to help girls continue their education outside of public schools in Afghanistan. It has unfolded against a tense political backdrop as Taliban leaders in Kandahar seek to impose their ultra-conservative Islamic vision of Afghanistan society.

In March, the Taliban arrested Matiullah Wesa, an outspoken advocate for improving girls’ access to education. And in an April 27 unanimous vote, the United Nations Security Council called for countries “to promote an urgent reversal” of policies that have in effect erased women from public life, according to a council statement.

So far, Gustavson has been able to keep all of PARSA’s women on the payroll while they continue to work from their residences.

“We’re going to stay the course. We’re going to serve. How do we do that humanely? How do we take care of each other? We rose to the challenge,” Gustavson said.

The schools range in size from tiny gatherings of just three people to some with nearly 50 students. Although most are in homes, a few of the largest are in community buildings. 

In Kabul, the 60 teenage girls who can no longer attend the PARSA leadership training have been deeply involved in organizing this alternative education. Maqbola, an 18-year-old, teaches several classes a week in her own home. She also tracks enrollment, offers counsel and relays lessons and course materials to other newly formed home schools. 

“They are receiving education like English and math,” said Maqbola in a recent Zoom interview. “We should use this opportunity in dark times.”

As of 2023, PARSA has organized more than 170 home schools that serve more than 2,000 students, including girls of secondary-school age. (Courtesy of PARSA)

Roots in Port Orchard

This spring Gustavson was once again back in Washington for a month-long stay to rally support for the home schools. Those efforts included a May 5 fundraising event, a dinner and silent auction at The Lakehouse in Bellevue, where Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, gave a talk.

While in Washington, Gustavson and her husband, Norm, live at her family’s Port Orchard homestead. She calls it “The Shire,” a Hobbit-like A-frame of logs and mortar in a clearing surrounded by a forest of fir and cedar. This property was settled by her great-grandfather, Fred Harper, who was drawn to Port Orchard in the late 19th century by the opportunity to forge bricks from hillside clay.

Although she was raised in Seattle, Gustavson would often spend the summers at the family retreat in Kitsap County.

Gustavson also has deep roots in Afghanistan. Her father, Frank Hartung, left Seattle in 1964 to teach math and biology at an international school in Kabul. Gustavson, the eldest of three sisters, was 9 and would live in Kabul until she was 13. This was a bygone era when King Zahir Shah sought to open his country to the West. Women could walk through the city without a head covering, and Gustavson recalls bicycling through the streets and joining in a square-dance exhibition at the king’s palace.

Gustavson spent much of her adult life in Washington, teaching and later helping women find work in contract jobs with the state of Washington. Her childhood memories of Afghanistan remained strong, but the southwest Asian nation appeared to be in her past.

Then came the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. sent in troops to oust the Taliban regime that had offered a safe haven for Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida training camps. This would trigger America’s longest war, along with a massive U.S. effort to prop up a new government and remake Afghanistan.

Gustavson made her first trip back in 2003.

She found she still had a powerful connection to Afghanistan, and she convinced her husband, a psychologist, to settle there. In 2006, she took over the leadership of PARSA from Mary MacMakin, an American physical therapist who founded the organization – Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan – under the first Taliban regime and had organized secret schools for some 1,200 girls.

The new government formed by then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai allowed girls to attend secondary schools as well as universities. So Gustavson pivoted and pushed PARSA in new directions, such as assisting Afghanistan’s troubled network of orphanages and supporting Afghan Scouts and other youth training programs.

PARSA’s headquarters, along with Gustavson’s home, occupy leased buildings within the 20-acre campus of the Afghan Red Crescent. I visited there twice – in 2009 and 2012 – during reporting assignments in Afghanistan for The Seattle Times. 

Marnie Gustavson, executive director of PARSA, pets her dog Andiwal outside her home in Port Orchard. Andiwal came with her from Kabul. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

As the war intensified and bombings frequently struck Kabul, PARSA seemed a place apart. A big garden yielded tomatoes and squash, and a visitor could enjoy home-baked pizza on a veranda that offered a sunset view of the mountains ringing Kabul.

Then there are the dogs who are very much a part of the Gustavson family in Afghanistan. She currently has 32 rescued from the streets of Kabul, and through the years she also has taken in cats, goats and an abused donkey. And at one point a spay/neuter clinic, launched by a British military veteran, operated at PARSA.

Under Gustavson’s leadership, PARSA was not afraid to point out the failings of the U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan. PARSA documented how orphanage supplies were stolen by underpaid staff, and that security guards at a Kabul facility had arranged for boys to leave at night to dance for men in parties that ended in sexual abuse. Eventually a PARSA investigator secured a video of a boy at one of these parties, and the orphanage director lost his job. 

In the run-up to the Taliban retaking control of Afghanistan, the violence in Kabul intensified, including a triple bombing in a neighborhood near PARSA that killed dozens of schoolgirls. Gustavson’s son, one of her four children, urged her to consider returning to Washington. She stayed in Kabul until August, evacuating on one of the last scheduled fights prior to the Taliban's surge into the capital city.

She monitored the first few months of the new regime from back in Port Orchard. She was restless to return, and in November of that year flew back to Kabul.

In the war’s aftermath, Afghanistan was in an economic free fall. As refugees camped in Kabul, some without food, water or shelter, PARSA organized the scouts to distribute tents and food boxes as Gustavson put out a funding appeal to supporters back in the United States. Gustavson had long thought that the Taliban might eventually take over Afghanistan, and had had to negotiate with them through the years as she sought to operate in provinces where they had control. But she was stunned by the circumstances of their arrival in Kabul.

 “Nobody expected the complete collapse of the government,” Gustavson said.


Girls’ education made gains

During the two-decade-long war in Afghanistan, the U.S. government poured more than $1.1 billion into Afghanistan to improve education – and get more girls into the classroom.

This emerged as a key policy goal during the Obama administration, championed by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who during a 2010 trip to Kabul vowed that no peace deal with the Taliban would trample on women’s rights.

“We will not abandon you. We will stand with you always,” said Clinton, according to an account of her visit published in Foreign Policy.

Girls’ education did make big gains during that period. During the first Taliban regime, an estimated 900,000 students were in school, and few if any were girls. By 2021, up to 3.5 million girls were enrolled in classes and between 65,000 and 75,000 women gained government-paid teaching jobs, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

Yet this was an uneven success story. The biggest increases in girls’ attendance were in urban areas, and many girls in more conservative rural areas still stayed home. A 2017 Human Rights Watch report stated that “according to even the most optimistic statistics,” only about half of Afghan girls were in school that year.  And in five provinces that were Taliban strongholds, more than 85 percent of girls between the ages of 7 and 17 were not in school, according to a 2017 United Nations study that same year. 

These struggles, as early as 2006, prompted the U.S. Agency for International Development to fund community-based schools in homes or other locations outside of traditional classrooms. This money flowed through contractors, providing teacher training, educational materials and other support. 

Despite the frigid relations between the U.S. and the Taliban, U.S. AID has continued to stay engaged in education in Afghanistan. Agency grants included money to create five software apps – viewed by more than 2 million students – that offer video training in math, biology, physics, geology and chemistry. 

U.S. AID disclosed that $40 million went to UNICEF to assist with education, but declined to provide a list of other recipients “to protect the safety and security of our staff and partners” and Afghans who benefit from this support, according to a statement to Crosscut.


Continuing education at home

PARSA’s budget, which has been funded largely through donations and grants, does not receive any money from the U.S. AID. In 2021, the latest year in which IRS filings were available, PARSA reported $1.77 million in spending, according to a tax document.

This year, as the organization seeks to expand home schools, PARSA is trying to avoid any conflict with the Taliban, whose enforcement of education rules has been uneven. In some provinces, local Taliban officials have allowed some girls to return to secondary school even as the Kandahar leadership calls – at least for now – for them to be excluded.

“We are trying to be respectful of the decree,” said Mark Ward,  PARSA’s board chairperson who from 2019 to 2021 served as Afghanistan country director for the International Medical Corps. “We are enabling them to keep up their education, the best they can, at home. We are not encouraging them to go to school.”

The volunteer network of PARSA-supported scoutmasters has taken a lead role in starting the home schools in the provinces.

“The majority of our students are females, and the majority of our teachers right now are female scoutmasters,” said Muslim Walizada, who manages PARSA’s scout program. Some of the classes are hosted by the scoutmasters in their homes, while others are in the homes of students. In addition to the traditional curriculum, the schools also offer classes to help students deal with stress.

At the PARSA campus in Kabul, the Taliban’s December decree created a dilemma for the future of leadership classes for some 45 teenage boys and more than 60 girls. The Taliban still allowed boys to come to PARSA, but Gustavson questioned whether that would be fair to the girls now forced to stay away.

Gustavson decided to put that question to the youth in an unusual online session as boys came to PARSA and joined a big February Zoom chat with the girls. It was an emotional, at times tearful, meeting. The boys expressed their sadness at the girls’ absence from PARSA.  The girls encouraged the boys to resume classes even if they could not join them.

“It was very great for me. I feel blessed and I feel respect,” said Maqbola, as she recalled that day. “I was part of this decision.”

The boys then opted to return to the PARSA training classes.

“This was the greatest conference that I had ever seen. Because everyone, the boys and girls were listening to each other,” said Almas, one of the teenage boys who participated in the meeting. “It is a hard situation that girls are not allowed to go to the schools. … This situation is not going to last forever. Today’s youth … are the future decision-makers.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Hal Bernton

Hal Bernton

Hal Bernton is a journalist, who previously worked for The Seattle Times for 23 years. Find him on Twitter @hbernton.