In the weeks since the Taliban’s December 2022 decree banning young women from attending university, Afghans have shown that they will not take this latest outrage lying down. Brave female students have launched a campaign of resistance, risking beatings, arrest, or worse, and their male counterparts, including many professors, have shown solidarity by walking out of their exams.
As much as the Taliban tries to crush girls’ and women’s rights, they are unlikely to achieve a final ‘victory’. Afghan girls and women enjoyed a right to education in the years prior to the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, and now neither intimidation nor prison sentences will silence them. They have experienced what it is to be free, and they will not accept the alternative.
The Taliban have already been warned that if they exclude women from work performed by NGOs providing food and health care, these organizations will have no choice but to leave the country — a message reinforced this week by United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed. But another way to effect change is to threaten the Taliban regime with the full force of international law. The Taliban’s brutal and inhumane treatment of women and girls warrants investigation by an international tribunal. The regime is clearly in breach of the international conventions dealing with children’s and women’s rights to which it has agreed. No other country in the world bars women and girls from receiving an education, and no other country has such draconian forms of state-led gender persecution.
I have spoken to many Afghan students in my capacity as UN Special Envoy for Global Education, and words cannot capture the frustration they feel. The world’s poorest and most vulnerable children know that they are now shouldering the heaviest burden in the global fight against one of the greatest injustices of all — the denial of girls’ and women’s rights. Afghan girls have been denied access to schools, banned from public spaces, prevented from traveling without a male escort, and forced to wear burqas that cover them from head to toe.
The university clampdown has been in the offing for some time. After the Taliban takeover in 2021, universities introduced gender-segregated classrooms and entrances, and declared that female students could be taught only by women professors or old men. Then, in October 2022, the Taliban issued sweeping restrictions on the subjects that women were permitted to study. Veterinary science, engineering, economics, journalism, and agriculture were all deemed off limits.
But the authorities have been sending mixed signals, which suggests that the regime is not united behind the new restrictions. For example, while thousands of girls and women were allowed to sit for university entrance exams three months ago, that decision was soon followed by one barring them from matriculating. This likely speaks to a tension between the religious leadership and an education ministry that would prefer to see girls in the classroom rather than sitting at home.
Divisions within the regime are also reflected in the unevenness of policy implementation. In some parts of the country, education is continuing underground or in home schools, with little resistance from the authorities, and in other areas, girls are still allowed to attend regular schools, in open defiance of the Taliban’s injunctions. One can also infer internal fissures from the ban on women NGO workers, a policy that the minister of public health claims does not apply to the health sector.
These examples all suggest that the authorities are not legislating from a position of strength. Rather, they are acting out of fear of women’s empowerment. After all, there is no other credible justification for such policies. Islam encourages education, and all of Afghanistan’s neighbors offer schooling for girls. They understand that girls’ education is not only in line with Islamic teaching but also essential to economic prosperity.
Moreover, Afghanistan itself has a history of benefiting from girls’ education. The country’s own past shows that if the Taliban continue down the road of repression, Afghans will have only half the doctors, nurses, and teachers they need. And if half of Afghanistan’s human capital has been squandered, the economy, which desperately needs to be rebuilt, will remain among the worst-performing in the world.
During my many pre-2021 visits to Afghan schools where girls were being taught, I saw firsthand that there was widespread enthusiasm for universal education, both in rural areas as well as the cities. The Taliban’s many bans fly in the face of fundamental human aspirations. People everywhere want more freedom, not less.
The Taliban’s policy on girls’ and women’s education represents neither the real Afghanistan nor the true Islam. It is urgent that the international community, and especially the Muslim world, come together to support young Afghan women as they stand up for their rights.
Gordon Brown, a former prime minister of the United Kingdom, is Chair of Education Cannot Wait’s High-Level Steering Group.
Yasmine Sherif is Director of Education Cannot Wait.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.