Welcome to another episode of the “At Sheesha” Podcast. Today, we are honored to have Ms. Marjan Mateen with us. Ms. Mateen is the former Deputy Minister of Education of Afghanistan in Educational Curriculum Development and Teacher Training, as well as the First Lady’s advisor at the Presidential Palace.
During this interview, Ms. Mateen will share her inspiring journey as a woman activist in Afghanistan. She currently resides in the state of Maryland, United States and works with an international organization on projects related to Afghanistan. Ms. Mateen considers her role in confronting the Taliban’s misogynistic policies as one of her most important responsibilities as a women’s rights and human rights activist in Afghanistan.
A sketch of a life
Sheesha Media: Ms. Mateen, thank you for joining us on our podcast. To start, can you please tell us a bit about your personal life, including where and when you were born, and a bit about your family? Additionally, could you share some information about your upbringing and the characteristics that have shaped your personality and helped you to develop as a person in society?
Marjan Mateen: Hello, and welcome to the audience of Sheesha Media. I hope I can speak clearly and briefly about myself. Although it can be difficult to talk about oneself, I will do my best to provide information that will help your audience get to know me better.
I am a child of immigrants. I was born in Peshawar while my parents lived in Pakistan as immigrants. When the Taliban regime fell in 2001, my family was still in Pakistan. I was around nine years old when we returned to Afghanistan.
My father had a deep love for Afghanistan, and it was clear that we would return to our home country one day. He couldn’t stay away from it for too long. Even though my mother was in Pakistan with four young teenage daughters and two sons, my father kept going back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan because of his stationary business.
When the Taliban regime collapsed in 2001 and Afghanistan became secure again, we had high hopes for the future. One of the things we were looking forward to was the opportunity for girls to receive an education. I remember my father came to Pakistan, and after consulting with my mother and elder brother, he decided that we should return to Afghanistan. I remember the night we were supposed to leave for home. It was a memorable night, and we were all overjoyed and happy to be going back.
When we returned to Afghanistan, I started school in the fourth grade at “Zarghona” high school in Qala-e-Fathullah, Kabul, and graduated later. At the time, positive changes were happening, and people’s views on girls’ education had improved. However, many families were still hesitant to send their daughters to school. But my family, especially my parents, always supported our education. We stayed in Pakistan for many years because of our studies.
I was in 10th grade when my mother learned about scholarships for Afghan girls to study outside of Afghanistan. I was among the eligible students with good grades and was recommended for a scholarship by the school. Although my father and elder brother were concerned about me going abroad alone, my mother was supportive. She was a strong-willed person who supported me a lot throughout my academic journey, including helping me study English in addition to my school studies so that I could study abroad.
At the same time that I was studying English, I was also accepted into a psychology program at one of the public universities in Afghanistan. My mother was a forward-thinking person, and given the uncertainty about whether I would receive the Indian scholarship or not, she insisted that I should study psychology at the Afghan University where I was accepted.
My family members were not entirely in favor of me studying abroad, so my mother suggested I study psychology. She told me that if all the family members agreed for me to study overseas, I could leave the Afghan university and go to India; otherwise, I should continue my studies in psychology.
I remember the days when I was attending university and also applying for a scholarship in India. I have to admit that until the last moment, I was not sure if I would be able to go to India. My father and brother were worried about me going alone, so when my Indian scholarship was confirmed, my mother and younger brother also came to India with me. My mother and younger brother were only supposed to be in India temporarily. Still, due to an unexpected incident where all of our money and valuable items were stolen, they ended up staying in India.
It’s worth mentioning that both my parents come from educated families in Kabul. My father is originally from Logar province, but he was born in Kabul. My mother is also from Kabul. Both of my parents were educated, with my mother being a teacher and my father working as a teacher before changing his profession.
My father was a professional athlete who loved playing basketball. He was passionate about sports and Afghanistan. He had such a strong love for Afghanistan that he did not like to leave and still did not like to leave Afghanistan. My mother was the head teacher of a public school, but for me to study in India, she made sacrifices and left her job.
Both of my parents made many sacrifices for us. My mother took on the responsibility of raising her two young children abroad and came to India with us, and my father endured loneliness and years of being away from us in Kabul.
Despite all these sacrifices, my parents always hoped we would return to Afghanistan and work there after completing our studies. I studied in India for five years and received my BA in Psychology and Political Science from Punjab University and my MA in International Politics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
In 2015, I was around 22 or 23 years old when I returned to Afghanistan. At that time, there were many job opportunities in government and international organizations, but I wanted to teach at universities. I knew that teaching at an Afghan university would not be easy because I had been away from Afghanistan for many years, and I was not familiar with the teaching language used in the country. But I loved this job. I had spent my entire university life in India, so it was natural that I would not be like a traditional instructor in Afghan universities.
When I first entered the classroom for teaching, most of the students were older than me, which can be a common challenge for a young person, especially a young Afghan woman, in an Afghan context. However, I focused only on my dreams and didn’t care about anything else. Since I was a child, I had dreamed of teaching at the university and becoming an instructor, mainly because my parents were teachers. I remember when I was a child, during school holidays, I used to pretend to be a teacher as a way of expressing my passion and love for teaching. I would grade my homework and give myself “well done” and “checked” verdicts out of enthusiasm.
I taught at the university for some time and was selected as the Academic Vice-Chancellor of the University of Afghanistan in 2017. Being the Vice-Chancellor was a new and fruitful experience for me. I had recently returned from India and was excited to interact and communicate with my students and colleagues. I wanted to share my educational experiences with them, teach them, and learn from them. I didn’t like to repeat the stereotyped behavior in the university, where the professor is expected to be serious, have a strict policy, and control the class. I was trained in a different environment where there was no use of force. I liked to be friendly with my students, but the culture in Afghan universities did not allow for friendly interaction between a professor and students. Additionally, being young was a big challenge that limited me. However, I adopted a method that kept the atmosphere of the class friendly while maintaining politeness and mutual respect.
Advisor to the First Lady’s Office
Sheesha Media: What occurred after that? What were the reasons for you to leave your position at the university and as a teacher?
Marjan Mateen: In 2017, when I was teaching at the university, I was offered an opportunity to work in the office of the first lady. I had just returned to Afghanistan and had no political or party affiliations regarding family. I was hesitant about whether to work in government or not because I have always maintained my intellectual independence, and I wanted the young generation to be independent of the structures of parties and political factions due to the bitter experiences of the past. I didn’t want to be labeled as political, so I didn’t take the position in the first lady’s office. The position was related to administrative cooperation, and I felt I was more effective in the university than as an executive officer.
Later, I was offered the opportunity to work in the first lady’s office again. This time, I was curious to learn about her office, actions, and policies. When people were complaining about the government more frequently, I decided to become an advisor to the first lady in the education and youth department. My findings showed that in the first lady’s office, most of the responsibilities were non-executive, and efforts were made to solve youth and women’s problems as a priority. The office of the first lady could be a communication bridge between the people and the government, where efforts were made to solve the problems of people and women and provide facilities for those who are outside the government body.
After researching the first lady’s office, I became interested in working there. Since my work was related to education and youth, I felt I would be effective in this position. I consulted with my family and colleagues at the university, and everyone’s opinion was optimistic about this job opportunity. I enjoyed working with the young generation to make a positive change in their lives and work, even if the change was small. I felt that I was more effective in this way, and it gave me satisfaction.
The first three months of working in the first lady’s office were a probationary period for both the office to evaluate my qualifications and for me to test myself in that position to see if I could be effective or not. After three months, I felt good because I was more in contact with the people and could act as a bridge between the people, the youth, and the government. Although there were no executive tasks in the first lady’s office, we could communicate with government institutions. This was good for me because while helping these institutions, I could also increase my capacity and abilities.
Our work focused on integrating youth institutions. Gradually, by holding programs inside the Presidential Palace, we tried to attract young people to come and closely monitor our work. At that time, job opportunities were favorable for the young generation, and the president wanted youth to play a significant role in government offices. That’s why youth were present in all departments. I tried to give the younger generation access to the president and other government offices.
In the education sector, my responsibilities were limited to petitioning. In education and higher education, I communicated people’s problems to the relevant institutions and tried to resolve them.
By resolving people’s problems in the education sector, I felt effective. My efforts also allowed me to become a member of the Supreme Council of Education, Culture, and Human Capital, which was chaired by the president. My membership in that council was limited to petitioning and not more since I didn’t have an executive role. I remember that in meetings about the education curriculum, I had my specialized views. At that time, the revision of the education curriculum had started. Based on prior research, I knew what the plan of the Ministry of Education was and what they wanted to do to change the education curriculum.
It was important for us that the educational curriculum while being inclusive, should be aimed at empowering the students. We had moved past the stage where only the text needed to be corrected, instead, we should have focused on the curriculum helping to empower the students. We wanted school students to work on their abilities other than memorizing lessons. We regularly shared our opinions with the Ministry of Education. Whether the ministry considered our propositions or not is another matter, but we, from the office of the first lady, tried to ensure that necessary changes and reforms in the educational curriculum were implemented.
The major concern I had was that non-governmental organizations, civil society, activists, and education experts did not have a role in the structure of the Ministry of Education, development, and formulation of policies and major decisions of the ministry. On the other hand, it was clear to us that the Ministry of Education did not have the necessary expertise for technical work in terms of human resources. Our proposal to the Ministry of Education was to try to involve civil society activists and experts who work independently in various sections of education to participate in the work and programs of the Ministry of Education. But eventually, this process faced multiple challenges.
Laws and regulations were used as an excuse for the majority of experts outside the Ministry of Education not to influence the big decisions of the Ministry. Officials at the Ministry of Education claimed that those outside the government were not legally responsible for contributing. Despite many obstacles, I continued my efforts until the leadership of the Ministry of Education changed and Mr. “Mirwais Balkhi” became the Minister of Education. Not that I have a problem with others, but I must admit that Mr. Balkhi was the only Education Minister who was familiar with the alphabet of education and had expertise. He had the ability and tact to manage the significant issues and challenges of education in the Ministry of Education.
Mr. Balkhi suggested to me that I should go to the Ministry of Education and use my abilities there. A proposal that put me in a dilemma. In the office of the First Lady, my responsibilities were non-executive, and I had a relatively more manageable task. This comes as my work and signature were not a guarantee to change the fate of a child in a far corner of the country. However, in the Ministry of Education, it was the opposite. In the Education Ministry, I could have an executive responsibility through which I could pave the way for women to participate in the key roles and decision-making of the education sector.
Following Parents’ Road Map
Sheesha Media: Could you please elaborate on what happened next in your career? What were the reasons behind your departure from your teaching position at the university? Additionally, we would like to hear more about the impact of having an educated and enlightened family background on your personal and professional development. Could you share with us the role that your parents played in shaping your success and that of your family members?
Marjan Mateen: As a child grows from childhood to adolescence, they may not fully understand the impact their parents have on their personality, character, thoughts, and behavior. However, as they mature, they realize the crucial role their parents played in shaping their individuality. Reflecting on my personal experience, both as a student and now as a mother, I can see how the way of thinking and views of my parents have influenced the development of my character. As a parent, I strive to provide the same guidance and support for my children that my parents provided for me.
During adolescence and young adulthood, individuals may struggle to accept guidance and instructions from their parents, such as rules around studying, bedtimes, and media consumption. However, as one grows older, one comes to understand and appreciate the wisdom behind these guidelines and the positive impact they have on one’s life. Through the lens of maturity, it becomes clear that one’s parents were right, and the sacrifices and compassion they showed ultimately led to happiness and fulfillment. The position and place an individual finds themselves in as an adult is often a result of the guidance and support provided by their parents during their formative years.
In my family, my parents had distinct roles but equally important. My mother was independent, and my father respected that. They were a model of true partnership in marriage, something that is not always common in Afghan families. They both played equal roles in shaping our family’s future and raising us. From education to raising children, they instilled in us the value of honesty and taught us the importance of equality in a relationship. They showed that in a marriage, both partners could have an equal say and make decisions together, which is how they managed their lives.
I vividly remember my mother’s stance on marriage proposals for my sisters. She always made it a priority that they are financially and professionally independent. Being a teacher, she believed that her daughters should also have the opportunity to study and work. She made it clear that even if there were no jobs available, they should at least be able to work as teachers instead of being confined to staying at home. This was a core value for her, and she ensured this was upheld in her daughters’ lives.
My character is formed by the sacrifices of my parents. My mother lost her official duty because of me, and my father endured five years of loneliness and distance from us in Kabul. That’s why I owe everything I have to my parents.
My parents have made significant sacrifices for me, greatly influencing my character. My mother lost her job because of me, and my father spent five years away from us, living alone in Kabul. Because of these sacrifices, I owe everything I have to my parents. Their love, guidance, and sacrifices have shaped me into the person I am today. I am forever grateful for their sacrifices for my family and me.
When I was offered a job at the Ministry of Education by Mirwais Balkhi, I turned to my father for advice. He emphasized that now that I was leaving the private sector, my time, energy, dedication, and knowledge should be dedicated to serving the people. He reminded me that my actions and decisions are intertwined with the fate of the people, and I should always strive to work for their benefit. He also advised me to remain honorable and honest in my actions and not to be swayed by potential financial gains from the government. He reminded me that people’s destiny depends on the integrity and honesty of those in positions of authority.
My father was an exceptional advisor, and I often sought his counsel when faced with any problem. His words always provided me with valuable guidance and helped me navigate through difficult situations. He was a great source of wisdom and support for me throughout my life.
Currently, I am living in the United States and have not been working for the past year due to having a small child. My mother frequently reminds me that I did not study and work hard to become a housewife and stay at home. She believes I should be active, useful, and financially and intellectually independent. She encourages me to use my abilities and knowledge and reminds me that I have a long journey ahead of me. Even though I am grown up, married, and have worked, my parents still feel a sense of responsibility for me and my life, and they want me to achieve my full potential.
Reforms in the Educational Curriculum of the Ministry of Education
Sheesha Media: What was your experience like working at the Ministry of Education as the Deputy Minister? Can you discuss any notable differences in Afghanistan’ educational methods, procedures, and curriculum from when you were a student to when you became a decision-maker in the field?
Marjan Mateen: One of the key concerns that I had during my career working in the Ministry of Education was the need to bring about reforms in the curriculum and teaching methods. As a product of this educational system, I had years of experience studying within it. This gave me a unique perspective and understanding of the system’s strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, my age and education abroad did not prevent me from speaking out and offering my insights into the country’s educational system and curriculum.
During my time as a student, there were some notable changes made to school textbooks in terms of content and format. However, when it comes to teaching methods, they remained pretty traditional and did not evolve much from a scientific perspective.
One of my strengths was the short period between my schooling and my employment in the ministry. This gave me a better understanding of the current curriculum and the needs of students. Unlike many other employees in the ministry, who were from previous generations and had not studied the current curriculum, I had a more recent and relevant experience. This gave me an advantage in making solid arguments and advocating for necessary changes. I understood how young people absorb the material in books, which was important in my role as the head of curriculum and teacher training in the Ministry of Education.
In my work at the Ministry of Education, I emphasized the importance of aligning teaching materials and methods to ensure students develop their technical and scientific abilities. As a student myself, I experienced the education system that encouraged students to memorize class contents rather than to improve their abilities. I recall, for example, my Dari Literature class in high school, where the teacher would interpret a poem for us, and we would simply take notes on its meaning rather than actively learning and engaging with it. Even though my family spoke Dari, Dari Literature was the most challenging subject for me due to the inappropriate teaching method used in school. I remember spending hours writing and memorizing the whole meaning of Persian poems from the grade 12 book but only understanding a small fraction of it.
These were the problems that I had personally encountered and experienced as a student, which motivated me to work toward reform in the Ministry of Education. I believe that the educational curriculum should evolve in step with advancements in science and technology. I sought to go beyond the status quo because the needs and concerns of future generations will be different from those of today, just as the needs and concerns of my age were different from those of previous generations. In my time, there was no internet, television was not as widely available as it is now, and access to technology was much more limited. These changes in society and technology require a shift in how we educate our youth.
My personal experience and observing the children in my family who had access to modern technology and information led me to think about the importance of finding the right educational approach that connects the past, present, and future. We always kept this in mind when developing educational programs and plans, constantly thinking about the needs of the future and even the next twenty years. Our goal was to ensure that the education system evolves in line with the changes in society and technology and to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to succeed in the future.
I was in 8th grade when I was incorrectly graded on a chemistry exam, even though I had provided correct answers. I raised the issue, and asked for my exam paper to be reviewed, but the instructor became extremely upset, and it escalated to the board of the Ministry of Education. In the end, it was proven that the instructor was wrong, but the incident created a grudge towards me, and he treated me poorly during the final exams. This experience reinforced my belief that there needs to be a rethinking of reforms in teacher training. It is essential to establish clear guidelines on how teachers should treat and interact with their students. It is worth noting that this is not a generalization of all Afghan teachers, as I also had some excellent teachers who were my role models while teaching at the university level.
Our schools and universities should be familiar with modern and effective methods of education and training, and strive to bring about reforms and upgrades to our educational system and curriculum. These changes should be practical and have a clear vision for the future. It is essential to know what skills and abilities an Afghan child should possess upon graduating from school, as well as what abilities teachers should have. A teacher’s role is more important than a textbook because no matter how good a book is, it is useless if the teacher cannot teach it effectively.
In the past, the main focus was on editing and ensuring the scientific content of books was accurate. Still, I argued that if teachers do not have the necessary skills to teach and explain the material effectively, simply correcting spelling mistakes in the books would not solve the problem. I aimed to shift the views within the Ministry of Education and government leadership, to also focus on improving the level of science and teaching methods of our teachers, in addition to revising the books.
Political Obstacles on the way of Educational Curriculum Reform
Sheesha Media: Ms. Mateen, can you tell us about your experiences working at the Ministry of Education as the Deputy Minister? How did the methods, procedures, and curriculum of education in Afghanistan change from when you were a student to when you became a decision-maker in the ministry? How successful were you in upgrading the educational system to meet international standards and how does it compare to the education systems of neighboring countries such as Iran, Pakistan, India, and Turkey?
Marjan Mateen: I understand that this may be a difficult question for you to answer. The improvements and reforms within the Ministry of Education are influenced by both internal and external factors. As someone responsible for the Ministry, my main focus was on enhancing the knowledge and skills of teachers and updating textbooks, which are both long-term and ongoing processes that cannot be fully achieved within a short period of time.
The goals and objectives that we set for ourselves during my tenure as head of a department in the Ministry of Education were ambitious and required a significant amount of time and resources to achieve. During my time at the Ministry, I came to realize that it was not possible to make significant changes to the educational system in a short period of time. My focus was on establishing principles and regulations to eliminate actions driven by personal interests in the national educational curriculum. Unfortunately, in many major decisions made within the Ministry of Education, personal interests were prioritized, and this was particularly evident in the development of the national educational curriculum.
Our approach had to be gradual, as we needed to establish a solid foundation for the educational curriculum and create a lasting impact for the future. Despite the limited time available, I strived to establish a framework, regulations, and a professional and impartial working method within the Ministry, which would minimize the influence of personal interests in the decision-making process.
Developing an educational curriculum is a challenging task for any country, as it involves balancing various factors such as national identity, cultural and traditional values, and scientific and technical subjects, all while adhering to established standards. It requires a thorough understanding of the country’s unique needs and a careful consideration of all perspectives to create an effective and comprehensive curriculum.
In subjects such as humanities and social sciences, I encountered instances where personal interests were evident in the materials used for teaching. For example, history lesson were tailored to certain perspectives, geography books provided a biased view of Afghanistan, the region, and the world. Similarly, the language and literature taught in schools were also influenced by personal interests. This is a serious problem and it was important to address this to ensure that the students are exposed to an unbiased and accurate curriculum.
When we became aware of these issues, we made efforts to eliminate bias and favoritism from the Ministry of Education. I recall a meeting where new textbooks were being reviewed, and one of the writers had included an example of a working woman. The writer had described how a woman can balance her responsibilities at work and home, but this example was met with objection by one of the colleagues present at the meeting. He argued that the majority of Afghan women are uneducated and stay-at-home mothers, and this example does not accurately represent the country’s women and should not be included in the textbook. This is a clear example of how personal bias can affect the educational curriculum and it was important to address this issue.
I opposed this viewpoint and argued that it is not fair to label a certain segment of society as illiterate. People acquire their knowledge and skills from various experiences throughout their lives. There are women who work, are well-educated, and are active members of society. Therefore, it is important that the school textbooks accurately represent all segments of society and not perpetuate stereotypes or biases.
This example illustrates the extent to which personal biases and discrimination can influence the decision-making and curriculum development within the Ministry of Education. It’s important to be aware of these issues and to take steps to prevent them from impacting the education system negatively.
The standards and principles that I wanted to implement were not supported by many within the Ministry. This made progress towards changes and reforms slow. I was aware that many viewed me as young and inexperienced, having studied abroad, which led to resistance to my proposals. This structural resistance made it difficult to implement the desired changes and reforms.
Faced with the dogmatism and difficulties within the Ministry, I attempted to establish a mechanism at the leadership level to allow for input from experts outside the Ministry of Education, anyone with necessary expertise in the education sector. A committee was formed to gather the opinions of all educational experts. I remember that individuals such as Mr. Royesh, Ms. Freshta Karim, Mr. Dalili, etc. were invited to represent civil society and participate in decisions related to the educational curriculum. This was done to ensure that the curriculum was developed with input from a diverse group of experts and to minimize the influence of personal biases and interests.
Our belief was that the perspectives and views of the people on education should be heard and taken into consideration. We were in the process of creating regulations to ensure that the opinions of experts would be incorporated into the educational curriculum. These regulations had been drafted and were on the verge of being finalized when the Minister of Education was replaced and I also left the Ministry. Unfortunately, we were unable to implement these regulations and put them into action due to the changes in leadership.
During my tenure at the Ministry of Education, I observed that the textbooks had many spelling and grammatical errors. I made efforts to correct these mistakes and sent the corrected versions for printing. However, due to the lengthy procurement process and bureaucratic barriers, the books were not printed while I was still at the Ministry. Nonetheless, it was an important accomplishment that these books were eventually published, it was a step forward towards providing quality education to the students.
Sheesha Media: Excellent, what happened next?
Marjan Mateen: Unfortunately, all the plans and reforms that we had intended to implement in the Ministry of Education remained on paper and were not implemented. Given the current system, I do not believe that any of these provisions will be read or put into practice.
Sheesha Media: You were in the Ministry of Education when Mr. Mirwais Balkhi undertook a series of reforms under the title of Afghanistan’s Decade of Education. Can you share your perspective on the education reform efforts led by Mr. Mirwais Balkhi in the Ministry of Education? How do these efforts compare to your other experiences working to reform the education system in Afghanistan?
Marjan Mateen: One of the key traits of Mr. Balkhi was that he actively sought out and considered the opinions of others, and carefully reviewed all programs and documents related to policy and reform prepared by the Ministry of Education. Many of the Ministry’s deputies and officials did not have the time to thoroughly study these policies due to their busy schedules, but Mr. Balkhi made a point to review everything. He provided guidance and direction to his colleagues on what needed to be worked on. He not only studied all the reform plans, but also compared different models and provided his own insights. He would often ask for the opinions of all members of the leadership of the ministry, and ultimately, he would finalize an effective and well-considered plan.
Mr. Balkhi was instrumental in many reform programs, such as the “Decade of Education,” which were developed with input from all members of the Ministry. His leadership style was inclusive, and he made sure that all opinions were heard, and if they were good, they were implemented. This approach enabled him to bring about many reforms in the education structure of the country in a relatively short period of time. For instance, the grading system that existed in classes and among students was changed, as “failure” and “probation” were removed, because these terms had a negative impact on students’ motivation.
During Mr. Balkhi’s tenure, the tradition of students welcoming government officials and parliament members was stopped, and measures were taken to address common forms of violence in schools, particularly violence committed by teachers. The management of schools was also investigated, and strict action was taken against corrupt managers who took bribes from teachers. These efforts demonstrate the commitment of Mr. Balkhi to improve education in the country and create a safer and more conducive learning environment for students.
During Mr. Balkhi’s tenure as Minister of Education, many reforms were made and the Ministry underwent a significant revitalization. However, these efforts came to a halt after Mr. Balkhi’s departure from the Ministry. This is a common problem with government departments in Afghanistan, which tend to be focused on individuals rather than systems. When one person, such as Mr. Balkhi, works hard with their team to implement a good plan, progress is often halted when a new person is appointed to the position. The new Minister halted all of Mr. Balkhi’s work and implemented their own plans, rather than building upon the progress made by the previous administration.
Sheesha Media: Do you mean the new Minister prioritized personal interests in their decision making and actions within the government?
Marjan Mateen: This resulted in a sort of competition among officials, where the new Minister did not give priority to the plans, policies, and reforms of the previous Minister and staff and instead focused on implementing their own plans. This lack of continuity and focus on individual rather than systemic change is a common issue in government departments in Afghanistan. I had hoped that not only in the Ministry of Education, but in most government departments, reforms and positive change would be more stable. Unfortunately, this was not the case, as officials were driven by their own interests, and there was no established and durable system in place to sustain progress.
Sheesha Media: You mentioned that during Mr. Balkhi’s tenure as Minister of Education, the concept of failure and probation for students in most schools was eliminated.
Marjan Mateen: Not just in most schools, but in all schools across Afghanistan.
Sheesha Media: This is similar to other countries, where students are not given a failing grade and are instead encouraged to pursue their desired fields of study. After 21 or 22 years since the implementation of the new education system in Afghanistan, what do you believe were the main challenges facing the country’s education system?
Marjan Mateen: While it is commonly said that institutions or systems drive progress, I believe that it is the people within those institutions who ultimately determine success or failure. The role of efficient and expert human resources is crucial in any organization. Effective management and decision-making are also important factors. The Afghan Ministry of Education has faced a significant challenge in that it has always been highly politicized, in terms of its structure, quality, and daily operations. The individuals appointed to lead the Ministry have often had political goals and have focused on appointments at the leadership level, vice presidents, and departments, rather than working to improve education. Many of these appointments have been based on personal, ethnic, and positional preferences, rather than qualifications and expertise.
I must stress that the Ministry of Education had a fundamentally flawed foundation. An institution can only be successful when it has stability in leadership, and unfortunately, our Ministry of Education has never had this stability at its leadership level. Whoever came to this ministry, has been looking for the political goals of his own party and group for one or two years and left. This lack of stability in leadership has been a major obstacle to the progress of the Ministry and the overall development of education in the country.
The root cause of the challenges and failures that have plagued the Ministry of Education from the past until now is the leadership of the institution. The Ministry of Education was one of the largest Ministries in the country, with a large number of teachers as well as many employees in the administrative departments. The Ministry had six Vice-Chancellors, and the allocation of these positions was based on a quota system, where each ethnic group was represented in the leadership of the Ministry. This led to the appointment of individuals to these positions based on ethnicity rather than qualifications and expertise, resulting in a lack of professionalism and expertise in the leadership of the Ministry.
I believe that this is a significant reason for the failure of the Ministry, as it has never had stability in leadership. I have observed that the Minister and Deputy Minister often belonged to different political factions and had a poor working relationship with each other, leading to a lack of cohesion and cooperation within the Ministry. This further compounded the lack of stability and ultimately hindered the ability of the Ministry to achieve its goals and improve the education system in the country.
Seizure of Curriculum Reform by Officials of the Ministry of Education
Sheesha Media: Another question I have is regarding your close relationship with the First Lady and the President during your tenure at the Ministry of Education. Did this network have any influence on your reform plans within the Ministry?
Marjan Mateen: I had previously collaborated with the First Lady, so it was understandable for the public to assume that I was appointed to the Ministry of Education through her influence. However, the reality was that Mr. Balkhi knew of my qualifications and had witnessed my professional abilities. At a time when many were advocating for a woman to hold leadership within the Ministry of Education, he personally asked me to take on the role. Prior to my appointment, there had not been a woman in a leadership position within the Ministry of Education.
For the First Lady, my appointment at the Ministry of Education was challenging as it required the deactivation of the Education and Youth department within her office.
alkhi, many believed that it was a result of the First Lady’s influence. While it was true that I had the support of both the First Lady and the President, as they had thoroughly studied my qualifications and personality before my appointment, I faced many challenges and obstacles within the Ministry. The president himself was involved in the selection process for key positions, and this was the case with my appointment as well. Despite the support of the First Lady and the President, I faced many difficulties in my role as the Minister of Education.
During my tenure as Minister of Education, I faced many challenges and obstacles in attempting to reform the educational curriculum. Despite my dedication to the curriculum development program, there was a great deal of pressure to make changes as quickly as possible. Criticism from various sources such as the media, civil society organizations, and human rights institutions increased as time went on. Everyone, including the President, wanted to see changes to the curriculum implemented as soon as possible, but few understood the complexity of the task and the nuances that needed to be taken into consideration when compiling a new curriculum. Changing and reforming the educational curriculum of a country is not a task that can be completed overnight. The reason why we have not had a successful curriculum in the past is due to the lack of long-term planning and the pressure for every new minister to make immediate changes to the curriculum. At the time, the criticism was often directed at the textbooks and the need for them to be changed as soon as possible.
Upgrading the educational curriculum from primary school to high school is a challenging task. The pressure on the employees within the Ministry tasked with making changes to the curriculum was extremely high, with demands for them to write two pages of a textbook a day. This emphasis on quantity over quality made it difficult to create a comprehensive and well-designed curriculum. The pressure to change the curriculum as soon as possible rather than focusing on the quality of the final product was a major issue that made the task more difficult.
The task of changing the educational curriculum was a significant challenge for us, even more so given the short time frame in which it had to be done. When we discussed the matter with our international colleagues, they also acknowledged that changing an educational curriculum is a time-consuming and difficult process, and it is not possible to write more than a hundred textbooks in a single year. The unrealistic expectations and the pressure to produce a large number of textbooks in a short time made it difficult to achieve the goal of creating a comprehensive, well-designed curriculum.
We consulted with both domestic and foreign experts in an effort to modify and change the educational system, and set a timeframe for the changes. While the time allocated was not sufficient or appropriate to fully upgrade the curriculum, the President accepted it and ordered everyone to cooperate with the curriculum reform program. However, individuals within the Ministry who saw my presence as a threat to their interests ultimately succeeded in stopping the curriculum reform program, despite it having the President’s approval. Despite our best efforts and the support of experts, the pressure of interests and politics hindered the success of the curriculum reform program.
After that setback, I had to begin the process anew. I had to fight to be given the opportunity to do quality work. I faced numerous controversies and problems, and my efforts were often politicized. My youth and gender were also factors that made it more difficult for me to succeed. The issues with the Afghan administration were that decisions and appointments were not based on merit and expertise but on personal connections and networks. If I wanted my work to progress smoothly, I would have to form alliances with various individuals, which was not possible for me to do.
Within the government, it was necessary to be a part of internal networks and teams, otherwise, no matter how well-educated and qualified you were, it would not matter. There would always be someone who would try to create problems and obstacles for your plans, even if you had the support of the President and the First Lady. Without being a part of the internal networks and teams, it would be hard to overcome the obstacles and push forward with your plans.
Financial Corruption Accusations against the First lady
Sheesha Media: Unfortunately, this is a common reality in Afghanistan, where individuals who genuinely want to work for the betterment of the people are often hindered by obstacles created by others. This results in the lives of millions of people being affected.
Returning to your previous role in the office of the First Lady, can you share your experience working with her? Was your perception of her the same or different from reality? Additionally, the First Lady has been accused of financial corruption, can you share your thoughts on these accusations? And how close did you come to achieving your goals while working with her?
Marjan Mateen: It is beneficial that these questions are being asked now, as if they were asked while I was working with the First Lady, I would have been accused of bias despite my answers. Prior to starting my work with her, I had never been to the First Lady’s office, and had no prior knowledge or opinions about her. I have a practice of not forming judgments about individuals until I have the opportunity to get to know them closely.
To be honest, when I first began my work with the First Lady, I learned a great deal from her. I was able to learn about management and leadership styles from her. She was highly educated and experienced, having worked with international institutions, and her management style was an example for me to follow. Unlike what is typical in government offices, she was dedicated and hardworking, always coming in to the office and promptly taking care of tasks, responding to emails and requests in a timely manner. It was quite surprising and impressive to see.
She was attentive to even the smallest requests from the public, and would promptly appoint someone to address those issues. She was always open to hearing people’s concerns and incorporating their desires into our decisions, particularly when it came to programs for women and youth. This was something that stood out to me. She also made efforts to support capable individuals who may not have had a lot of experience working with the government. Her goal was to utilize the talents and skills of these capable people to benefit both the government and the public.
Sheesha Media: What about the financial corruption accusations?
Marjan Mateen: One of the most significant financial allegations against the First Lady was related to the ‘Promote Project.’ Recently, I came across an interesting tweet by a political elder, who pointed out how quickly people make accusations without taking the time to fully understand the situation. As someone who has worked in the First Lady’s office, I am aware of the reality behind these accusations. The Promote project was entirely an American-funded and implemented project. Anyone who wishes to investigate this issue accurately should look into the specifics of the project, including its funding sources and implementation. It is important to look into the facts and not jump to conclusions.
The ‘Promote Project’ was an exclusive initiative of the United States, specifically “USAID.” The organization held two opening ceremonies for this project, and the First Lady was present to inaugurate the project in one of them, and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah was invited to inaugurate the project in the other ceremony. The First Lady’s role in the project was limited to the inauguration only, the entire project was implemented by the Americans, and neither the First Lady’s office nor the Afghan government had any authority over it. At the time, we received numerous job requests from people wanting to be a part of the project, but we responded to all of them that they should reach out to the “USAID” office for employment opportunities.
When the ‘Promote Project’ failed, its authorities decided to use the remaining funds to provide scholarships for Afghan girls and its management was given to another institution. However, when the girls went to India, they reported issues with their accommodation, food, and other matters. I brought this complaint to the attention of the First Lady, who was very upset and we even wrote an official letter of complaint to the responsible organization. This is all the involvement the First Lady’s office had with the ‘Promote Project’ and she had no role in its management or funding.
The second accusation was regarding Moraa University, which was similar to the Promote Project case. Moraa was the first university in Afghanistan for women that had good facilities and a great atmosphere. The First Lady was invited to inaugurate the university and the head of the university was Dr. Aziz Amir. The First Lady’s role with this university was limited to the inauguration ceremony only, she had no involvement in its management or funding.
Other accusations such as building a church inside the presidential palace were also baseless and untrue. I believe that, apart from political issues, the rest of the accusations were similar to the era of Amanullah Khan, when people would look for weak points in the leaders’ wives to use against them. It seemed like every day, a new accusation would be made. It is important to investigate and verify the information before spreading false accusations.
Perhaps the problem was a lack of communication from the relevant departments, leading to a lack of understanding about the First Lady and resulting in negative publicity. I am sharing my personal observations of the First Lady, who I had the opportunity to work closely with. The First Lady was a very humble person who did not seek luxury and did not work for personal gain. Despite claims that the budget of her office was high, the entire budget was dedicated to the salary of the employees in her office, as determined by government laws and regulations. The First Lady herself did not receive a salary and was a volunteer. I worked there for two years and can attest that the office had no budget and no other privileges. These are my personal experiences from working in the First Lady’s office.
Sheesha Media: You left the First Lady’s office before the Taliban took power. Can you tell me why you decided to leave?
Marjan Mateen: As I previously mentioned, after I left the First Lady’s office to work at the Ministry of Education, my official partnership with her came to an end, but our relationship as colleagues remained intact. Our relationship was not affected by my departure from her office, but my official involvement in her initiatives and projects came to a halt.
A picture of the Taliban Government
Sheesha Media: Unfortunately, the current Taliban government has created significant challenges for the entire country, particularly for women, who are now prohibited from working in various sectors, including education. This is a devastating and painful situation. Can you share your memories and experiences of the Taliban regime?
Marjan Mateen: During the previous Taliban regime, as I mentioned earlier, my family and I were immigrants in Pakistan, but we would travel back and forth to Afghanistan. At that time, I was around six or seven years old. I remember that even young girls were not allowed to go outside and play. The situation was dire, and violence was prevalent. I personally witnessed this. My family members who lived in Kabul during that time were subjected to physical abuse. The girls in my family were whipped multiple times by the Taliban for not wearing their hijab properly. It was a difficult and oppressive time for women and girls.
My memories of the Taliban from my childhood are dark and terrifying. I remember when we would visit Kabul, I would be afraid of encountering the Taliban on the streets and in pickup trucks. It was a time when there was little access to education and schools were closed.
At that time, one of the reasons why my family and I did not return to Afghanistan from Pakistan, apart from the Taliban’s terror, was the lack of access to education in the country. The Taliban have not changed in comparison to their earlier regime, and any progress that has been made in Afghanistan is due to the positive changes in society and the people, not the Taliban. When the peace process was ongoing, the Taliban pretended to be supportive of girls’ education to appease the international community and gain support for their return to power. They claimed to have changed and not be the same as before, but time has proven that this is not the case. What can one expect from a group of people who have lived in the mountains for so long? The Taliban have used the issue of women as a tool for their own benefit, both during peace talks and now.
Sheesha Media: From where do you think the Taliban’s ideology and beliefs originate? Why is there a consistent opposition to women in their ideology?
Marjan Mateen: Oppressing and denying rights to women is the ideology and political stance of the Taliban and it is a fundamental aspect of their belief system that cannot be changed. Some people argue that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban, and it is for the international community to distinguish between them, but I believe that the Taliban do not align with the universally accepted values of humanity, such as women’s education and empowerment, and the will of the people. Many people, including prominent religious scholars like Sheikh Al-Azhar, have criticized the Taliban’s decision to exclude girls and women from education, study, and work. This clearly shows that the Taliban do not represent religion or the people of Afghanistan.
I remember when we organized the National Consensus of Afghan Women for Peace, I traveled to 14 provinces across the country, including the remote province of Nuristan. No one expected that women from Nuristan would demand education for girls in an official assembly, but it happened and it showed us that families and people across Afghanistan want girls to be educated. This demonstrated that regardless of where they live and their background, Afghan women and girls want access to education.
I want to reiterate that the Taliban have not changed and do not represent the Afghan people. Experience has shown that Afghan men and women want their daughters to have access to education. In my opinion, the Taliban’s decision to deny education to Afghan women has no legitimacy from a national, social, cultural, or religious perspective and it will ultimately lead to failure.
Sheesha Media: The recent decisions of the Taliban have also surprised the international community, despite their efforts to advocate for the Taliban’s return to power and the belief that the group had undergone changes. What is your perception of the Taliban’s recent actions?
Marjan Mateen: The actions and decisions of the Taliban are not surprising to me and those who are familiar with Afghanistan and the Taliban’s history. In my opinion, this issue should be surprising for those who worked to bring the Taliban back to power and played a role in the peace process. I and others like me knew that the Taliban had not changed. Afghan women protested against the peace process since the talks led by Mr. Khalilzad began. We said that the Taliban should not be allowed to return to power. Women protested and expressed their concerns, but their voices were not heard.
The recent decision made by the Taliban was not new to me and I was not surprised in the least because I knew that this is the nature of the Taliban’s government. I already knew that their return to power would bring about deprivation, hunger, death, and violence in Afghanistan.
Sheesha Media: Do you believe there is a connection between the views and ideology of the Taliban and the patriarchal culture in Afghanistan? Are the Taliban’s misogyny policies partly the result of the culture and beliefs of Afghan society?
Marjan Mateen: I have previously stated that these decisions and policies demonstrate that the Taliban are disconnected from society and have no interest in incorporating the views and needs of the people into their decisions. If the Taliban truly knew and understood the Afghan people, they would not make such archaic and oppressive decisions. The problem is that the Taliban exist in their own isolated world. The current protests in Afghanistan show that the people do not support the Taliban and their decisions. However, the Taliban, who are out of touch with the people, fail to realize that society has changed and is no longer the same as it was during their rule. In reality, the Taliban use women as a tool to maintain power within their group and to exert pressure on the international community.
Sheesha Media: As a final question, as a woman, a mother, and a women’s rights activist, what plan or program do you believe can provide hope to the people of Afghanistan and help to improve the situation for women in the country?
Marjan Mateen: It is true that the Taliban, now that they are in power, are a part of Afghanistan’ current reality. But they still represent a minority. We are not in the era of 20 or 30 years ago when we were unable to change a government. I do not encourage anyone to put their lives at risk or resort to violent acts against the oppressive policies of the Taliban. But, these peaceful protests can also weaken the foundations of the Taliban’s regime.
In my opinion, those who oppose the Taliban’s policies constitute the majority, and they have the power to bring about change. They should not easily surrender to a minority group. The Taliban may hold power now, but we should not underestimate our own power either. It is true that after the fall of the republic, much was destroyed and people were scattered. However, we must strive for a better future and not give up hope. Those who have left Afghanistan did so not by choice but were forced to flee for survival. They all wish to return and wherever they are, they are just migrants.
“We must protect Afghanistan through unity and solidarity. This is our strength. Throughout history, unity has protected our country from various threats, not just the Taliban. It is true that after the fall of the republic, our hopes and dreams for building a prosperous and just country were shattered, but Afghanistan still stands. This gives us hope for the future.
Sheesha Media: Thank you for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us, Ms. Mateen. We wish you continued success and good health.
Marjan Mateen: I hope that my words have been well-received and that people have found them informative. I have been away from the media for some time, so I appreciate the opportunity to speak again. Thank you for having me.