Afghan Women’s Education Under the Taliban

written by On January 9, 2023 in Middle East, Student Blogs, WIIS Blog, Women

By Claire Pamerleau, University of Pittsburgh WIIS Chapter 

Human agency is slipping out of Afghan women’s hands and into the Taliban’s as the group tightens their grip on women’s social, political, and financial freedoms. This devastating reversal of progress has affected even the youngest generation of Afghan women, as girls’ education is yet another casualty in the war on women’s rights under the Taliban.

Afghan girls in grades seven and above have been unable to go to class for more than nine months—most girls’ schools have been closed since the Taliban’s takeover in August of 2021.[1] The considerable advancements in women and girls’ education made in the 20 years since the Taliban’s first rule have thus been undone in one fell swoop. For perspective, in

2001, less than one million Afghan children were in school, and none of them were girls. By 2020, the number of children in school grew to approximately 10 million, with girls representing 40% of these students.[2] Now, after such progress and effort, millions of children will be robbed of an education by the Taliban.[3]

What makes this affront to women’s rights even more devastating for Afghan girls, though, is the disappointing trajectory of inconsistent messages that raised female students’ expectations. The Taliban had promised to allow women to study at schools and universities even before their takeover in 2021.[4] Senior Taliban leader Zabihullah Mujahid stated on January 15, 2022 that classes for all girls would  commence by March 21, the beginning of the new school year in the North.[5] Expectations crumbled when the Taliban broke its promise and sent tens of thousands of  adolescent girls home from school the same day classes were meant to reopen. The education ministry had planned on reopening schools for girls (contingent on the requirements that secondary school girls must be taught by women and in separate buildings than men), but higher levels of Taliban leadership canceled the plan and declared girls’ schools to remain closed until future notice.[6]

This sudden reversal of policy demonstrates the internal divisions within the Taliban leadership. The Taliban’s extremist and reformist factions have been unable to come to an agreement on whether women “should” study, as reported by US special envoy for Afghan women Rina Amiri.[7] While the extremist faction supports “original Taliban ideology” and rejects the education and employment of women, the reformist faction consists of many members who are themselves educated and have daughters who are attending school. These reformists therefore recognize the benefits of education and support “a different future” for Afghanistan.[8]

Divisions persist even months after the decision to close girls’ schools. In early June, the reformist line of Taliban thinking was emphasized by Deputy Minister of Education Sheikh Ahmad Shahidkhail, who argued that allowing access to education for “men, women, children and the elderly” is key to building a developing society.[9] Less than a month later, though, Kabul’s grand national assembly of over 4,000 clerics, religious scholars, and tribal leaders  failed to address girls’ education, only suggesting that attention be given to religious and modern  education.[10] The all-male assembly closed on July 2 after discussing multiple pressing issues and supporting the supreme leader while dancing around the question of whether to reopen schools for girls.[11]

While Taliban-backed news has claimed that girls’ school closures are congruent with “Sharia and Afghan tradition and culture,” many Afghans reject that idea.[12] As stated by one  female student, the Taliban’s education policy is “unjust” because “Almighty God said in the  Koran that education is mandatory for men and women.”[13] The female students of a Baghlan province religious school echo this sentiment: they have called on the Islamic Emirate (the Taliban’s governing body) and July’s grand assembly to reopen schools, saying both male and female Muslims “[have] the right to education.”[14] In fact, even official Taliban documents “endorse the principle of education for all.”[15]

The devastation that the closing of women and girls’ educational institutions has caused is evident in testimonies from female Afghan students. “Why shouldn’t we go to school? What  crime have we committed” one female student cried.[16] Another woman, a university student two months away from graduating, described herself as “cheerful” when attending university but is now “weeping at home every morning” as she and fellow Afghan women “[mourn] their  identities”[17] One 24-year-old woman, an agricultural engineer, pushed against her family for her education yet was “the happiest when [she] was going to school.” She later taught agricultural processing and distribution skills to women of different villages, but she must now abandon her teaching opportunity and marry a Talib relative. She laments that her “achievements, aspirations, and dreams are multiplied by zero.”[18]

Indeed, Afghan women and girls are not only losing the opportunity to learn, but also to teach. One woman who formerly taught karate to girls and religious subjects to boys remembers the anxiety that she and her colleagues felt when the Taliban allowed male students and teachers to return to school but remained silent about women. These teachers worried about their livelihoods and providing for their families. This woman decided to protest with her colleagues and draft a resolution for the “rights to study and work,” but she later fled the country for her safety.[19] In another instance, three teachers were fired based on an alleged 10 months of absenteeism, yet their students claim it had only been three months—the time since the new school year started in March after the Taliban took over.[20] Removing women from their  teaching positions is stripping them of their livelihoods, and it is only making it harder for female students to obtain an education, as women can no longer be taught by men.

What’s more, as the Taliban restricts access to women and girls’ education, it is increasing access to religious education. The Taliban has turned dozens of secular public schools, universities, and training centers into Islamic seminaries called madrasahs. This plan will leave a devastating trail of students and teachers without education, jobs, and resources. For example, converting the prestigious Abdul Hai Habibi High School into a

seminary left its 6,000 students and 130 teachers empty-handed and resulted in the loss of access to its modern library, computers, and science labs.[21] But this is only one high school. The Taliban are hoping to create a “vast network” of madrasahs as part of their overall education plan for Afghanistan. They aim to erase “modern secular education” and generate more Taliban members, as the word “Taliban” itself signifies “students of madrasahs.” This is eerily close to the Taliban’s plan from the 1990’s whereby radical madrasahs “promoted militant ideologies.”[22]

On top of everything, many of the secular schools that are still open are in very poor condition. The department of education for the Nuristan province reported that 70% of its schools are without buildings and must rely on tents.[23] Many classes lack materials like pens and paper in addition to any protection from the heat or rain. Furthermore, some students are risking their safety just to get to school due to poor road maintenance and great distances between villages and schools. One girl asked for help from the government because she and her classmates must climb a mountain with a damaged road to reach their school, and they are “afraid of falling.”[24] Thus, not only are Afghan girls unable to attend class after sixth grade, but for many, their education up until that point is significantly compromised by insufficient resources.

There is some cause for hope, though. Due to a combination of “pressure from parents” and agreements made with UNICEF, some girls’ schools remain open in certain parts of Afghanistan. Despite the lack of publicity, evidence suggests Kabul’s schools and universities are functioning and allowing girls and women to attend.[25] One educational center near Kabul was established for female students and teachers for grades one through twelve and teaches girls in subjects from computers to tailoring. The center provides schooling for around 300 girls, and the enrollment has “surged” since the Islamic Emirate’s establishment, according to one of the center’s teachers.[26] Additionally, the Nimroz province’s education department announced in May that it would “reinstate” the nearly 200 female teachers that lost their jobs during the Taliban’s takeover in August, sending these teachers to “schools in need.”[27]

Afghan women and girl’s education could also eventually improve as the international community applies “pressure tactics.”[28] The US canceled the talks on “key economic issues” with the Taliban after the group abandoned its promise to reopen girls’ schools in March. As Hamad Bin Khalifa University Professor Steven Wright remarked, the Taliban is at a “turning point” whereby they can enact “gradual change” and choose the “path of engagement [with the international community],” or they can instead choose the “path of isolation.”[29] But the Afghan people cannot afford to be subjected to the latter path. Afghanistan is experiencing a humanitarian crisis; the UN reports that “95% of the population is not eating enough food,” with about 58% facing “acute hunger.”[30] Consequently, there is reason to hope that the Taliban could eventually loosen restrictions if put under pressure.

The strategy of applying this pressure, however, is delicate. If all humanitarian aid is revoked, the people of Afghanistan—and the women and girls trapped at home, unable to learn and teach—will suffer.[31] To make sure the Afghan people receive aid while still maintaining economic pressure on the Taliban, the US can funnel its aid through the UN humanitarian organizations that can better relieve the Afghan people.[32]

As the Taliban’s rule advances, the women and girls of Afghanistan are facing more years without proper access to education. Education is not only a human right, but also the starting point for the formation of identities, passions, and careers. Afghan children are deprived of access to safe schools and educational materials, and their opportunities for secular education are being forcefully replaced by Taliban-controlled religious ones. Then, once girls reach the age of adolescence, they are deprived of any access to education unless they are fortunate enough to live in an area where certain centers are still operating. Now, Afghanistan is the world’s only country where secondary school girls are denied an education by their government.[33]

The Taliban has kept female teachers and students in a tortuous cycle of waiting and disappointment through its false promises and silence for too long. Justifications based on Afghan or Muslim tradition are patently untrue, and they act solely as lazy excuses for the Taliban. There are factions within the group that will allow for girls’ schooling, and both sides are desperate for economic relief. If the international community can continue to apply pressure tactics and donate through humanitarian organizations, then the divisions of the Taliban can be taken advantage of, and the women of Afghanistan can be given a chance to learn.

 

Notes

[1] Walizada, Toba, “Top UNHCR Official Voices Concerns over Closed Girls’ Schools,” TOLOnews, June 15, 2022, https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-178492; “Taliban Says All Afghan Girls Will Be Back in School by March,” Al Jazeera, January 17, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/1/17/taliban-says-will-open-all schools-for-girls-across-country.

[2] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open. There Is No Alternative,” Nature News, March 28, 2022, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-00877-y.

[3] Eqbal, Saqalain, “UN: Millions of Children Under the Taliban Rule Have Been Deprived of Education,” The Khaama Press News Agency, June 14, 2022, https://www.khaama.com/un-millions-of-children-under-the-taliban-rule-have been-deprived-of-education-57483/.

[4] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[5] Ibid; “Taliban Says All Afghan Girls Will Be Back in School by March, Al Jazeera, January 17, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/1/17/taliban-says-will-open-all schools-for-girls-across-country.

[6] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[7] Eqbal, Saqalain, “UN: As the Weather Warms, ISIS and the Resistance Front Increase Their Attacks on the Taliban,” The Khaama Press News Agency, June 4, 2022, https://www.khaama.com/un-as-the-weather-warms-isis-and-the resistance-front-increase-their-attacks-on-the-taliban458409/.

[8] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[9] “Dep. Minister Calls Education ‘Vital’ for Everyone,” TOLOnews, June 7, 2022, https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-178372.

[10] “Tightly Controlled Afghan Assembly Closes with Call for Nations to Recognize Taliban Government,” Gandhara, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 2, 2022, https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-taliban-jirga-ends/31926224.html.

[11] Ahmadi, Arif. “Taliban Grand Meeting Did Not Lead to Breakthrough: HRW.” The Khaama Press News Agency, July 4, 2022, https://www.khaama.com/taliban-grand-meeting-did-not-lead-to-breakthrough-hrw/.

[12] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[13] Walizada, “Top UNHCR Official Voices Concerns.”

[14] “Religious School Students in Baghlan Call to Reopen Girls’ Schools,” TOLOnews, July 3, 2022, https://tolonews.com/index.php/afghanistan-178761.

[15] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] “‘I Went Out and Shouted for Freedom,’” The Fuller Project, September 30, 2021, https://fullerproject.org/story/afghanistan-taliban-ends-education-for-women and-girls/.

[18] Omar, Nargis, “’Being Imprisoned at Home Is What Awaits Me’.” The Fuller Project, September 30, 2021, https://fullerproject.org/story/being-imprisoned-at home-is-what-awaits-me/.

[19] Etemadi, Fatima, “‘Since the Taliban took over, I have lost almost everything,’” The Fuller Project, November 2, 2021, https://fullerproject.org/story/taliban hazaras-women-protest-migrant/.

[20] “Questions Raised About Firing of 3 Female Professors,” TOLOnews, June 5, 2022, https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-178330.

[21] Siddique, Abubakar, “’War on Education’: Taliban Converting Secular Schools into Religious Seminaries,” Gandhara, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 25, 2022, https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/taliban-secular-schools-converted-madrasahs education/31914672.html.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ghorzang, Sadaqat, “70% Of Nuristan Schools Lack Buildings,” TOLOnews, June 27, 2022, https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/provincial-178670.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[26] Walizada, “Top UNHCR Official Voices Concerns.”

[27] “Female Teachers Called Back to Nimroz Schools,” TOLOnews, May 6, 2022, https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-177890.

[28] Mohnblatt, Debbie, “US Drops Economic Talks After Taliban Bans Girls’ Schooling.  Millions Face Hunger as Islamists Seek International Aid, Recognition,” Jerusalem Post, Mar 29, 2022, http://pitt.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/us-drops economic-talks-after-taliban-bans-girls/docview/2645499321/se-2.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[32] Mohnblatt, “US Drops Economic Talks.”

[33] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x