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The Challenge of Creating a Women-Friendly Architecture School in Afghanistan

Herat, the capital of the Timurid Dynasty (1370–1507 CE), is a city in western Afghanistan. Known as the pearl of Khorasan and popular for its magnificent Islamic architecture, the region has suffered immense destruction of its culture and traditional architecture due to decades of war, economic insecurity, and—just recently—another devastating earthquake. Islamic architecture’s cultural value has been imperiled by both natural and social disasters, which have undone years of progress in architecture and the profession here. 

My story begins in 2008, when, through a collaboration between the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut, and Herat University (and with aid of the World Bank and USAID), an effort was undertaken to strengthen the already-existing civil engineering program at Herat University and establish a new architecture program. As the Faculty of Engineering offered but one field of study at that time (civil engineering), the consensus among faculty and university leadership was that it was necessary to establish an architecture department to help train indigenous architects to support the quality of architecture in the city.

This development hoped to revolutionize the traditional model of architectural training. Until then, it is safe to argue, the Faculty of Engineering was an institution primarily for male students. Not only were all staff and faculty male, but the number of female students was miniscule. When I entered the college in 2004, there were about 15 women in a class of 140. Ten to 12 women were a year senior to me, and the third- and fourth-year classes together had fewer than four female students. It was difficult for many of us, and we sometimes suffered prejudice, even from members of the faculty. 

One of the main ideas behind the collaboration was to establish an architecture program in the Faculty of Engineering that would be more attractive to female students. The goal was to train female faculty members, who would then be role models for young women. In an effort to quickly establish this new department, a scholarship program was instituted for female students to pursue their master’s degrees. Two female students were selected to study at the University of Hartford, and fortunately I was one of them; the other was Homaira Fayez. Upon our return to Afghanistan, we would establish and run the new architecture program geared to women students.

It was a critical step to provide opportunities for women in Afghan society, who had just experienced seven years under the reign of the Taliban and had been in many ways “forgotten.” As lofty as the plan sounds, it was a big challenge for us to enter the scholarship program, graduate with our master’s, and then return home to establish and run the department in a male-dominated society, where the low status of women was still fresh in people’s minds. For example, it was not common for women, especially in 2008, to travel alone from Afghanistan to a Western country to study for advanced degrees. However, we successfully completed our studies at Hartford and returned to Herat with our degrees in 2010. The department was established with an allotment of facilities and equipment, including a design studio, a PC-Lab, and textbooks for teaching. We were ready to implement the new architecture curriculum, developed with the help of our colleagues at Hartford. 

Despite having space and tools, the first few years were not easy. Neither of us had experience teaching or running a program. The new initiative was also challenged by a deficiency of institutional trust and encouragement on the part of the university. For several years, we suffered from a dearth of faculty members, due to a lack of faculty lines available to the department. It was difficult to convince others outside the program that architectural education involves considerable studio time and space. At one point we were flooded with 60 new students, and had to divide the class into several sections so that studio space could be shared. For a while we were still the only two faculty members in the department, simultaneously managing the program as well as teaching many of the courses—and, in my case, in the midst of a maternity leave. We had to postpone one course and reschedule it during winter vacation so I could deliver my baby. There we all were: my students and me (with a newborn at home), in a studio with almost no heat. 

But we were determined, passionate, and committed to making architectural education for women a reality. We started as an undervalued and underrated department, but through the hard work of everyone we became not only one of the finest departments in the Faculty of Engineering but also in the university, with an assessment verified by reports from the Herat University Quality Assurance Committee. In 2018 our staff grew to five: one man and four women. A year later, we modified the curriculum in response to requirements in the job market. A 2019 department survey of architecture alumni revealed that many of our graduates found positions in architecture firms based on their qualifications. I’m proud to say we attracted many female students in engineering, with a high ratio of females to males compared with other departments in the faculty. 

We received aid from UNESCO to help us with the professional development of the staff in the conservation of historic sites and related teaching materials for our students. We represented the University in the Urban Management Commission of the Old City of Herat. We offered site visits to our students to historic monuments and began to hold regular exhibitions of student work to showcase their achievements and improve job opportunities. Our biggest architecture exhibition—one of the most visited exhibitions at the university—was in 2017 and attracted visitors from different sectors, including government officials and industry heads in Herat. We were truly building something important for women to take more leadership positions in architecture in Afghanistan. 


A group of fourth-year students on a historic site visit.
The 2017 architecture exhibition.

 The 2017 architecture exhibition.


In 2020, several faculty members and I enrolled in doctoral programs, and we resolved to start a master’s degree program at Herat upon our returns. I studied at the University of Technology Malaysia. However, in August 2021, the Taliban once again took over Afghanistan. I was in the midst of my doctoral research on neighborhoods in Herat at that time and had no choice but to flee. All five faculty members are now scattered across different countries. Last year, women were banned from universities throughout the country. Funding for my doctoral program ceased. Ironically, I received an email from the Higher Education Development Program, which allegedly exists to improve the relevance and quality of higher education in Afghanistan, saying that my scholarship fees would be paid only if I guaranteed my return to Afghanistan upon the completion of my doctorate. 

The closure of the universities and schools for women reminds me of one of my students, Fereshta, a joyful and courageous young lady, who would talk to me about how she supported her father and her family. I will never forget the excitement she had when she first learned to drive. Many girls had big dreams. How will these young ladies deal with the sudden closure of the universities? How are they going to feel when their brothers are able to pursue their dreams while they must stay at home? What are many of our female graduates doing now? What would be the effect of omitting women from educational institutions, especially architectural education in Herat? 

I had almost convinced myself that I could cope with the situation when another catastrophe hit the Herat province in October: Thousands of lives were lost when a series of four devastating earthquakes (magnitude 6.2–6.3) demolished and damaged buildings, including many historic monuments. Although the earthquake did not cause much damage to the physical structure of the Faculty of Engineering, the destruction of the academic structure of the architecture program is irreversible. The absence of all five faculty of the program, four of whom were women, is accompanied by the loss of expertise achieved through more than a decade of training and practice. In the city, according to local reports, the earthquakes caused severe damage to Qala e Ikhtyaruddin, Masjid-e-Jami, and the Minarets of the Gawharshad Musalla—the identity, pride, and cultural heritage of Herat. 

Four of Herat’s landmark minarets built in the 15th century by Gawhar Shad (a Persian queen) one of the most accomplished women patrons of architecture and the arts in the country’s long history.
The Jami Masjid, also known as the Great Mosque of Herat, whose foundations were laid in 1200, has undergone continuous modifications and renewal up to the present.


Once again, the architecture of the city was devastated, this time by natural means rather than political ones. Are we moving toward losing our sense of identity and belonging? Are we approaching the end of our architectural heritage and architectural education for women in Herat? I don’t know. We will have to wait, to see, and to hope.

Featured image: Mahsa Khatibi (l) and Homaira Fayez. All photos courtesy of the author. 


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