More than two years after the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan, yet another war is raging in the Central Asian country. Yet while the one-sided fight launched by the Islamist group is aimed at Afghan women, the entire nation is emerging as the biggest loser.
On 21 December last year, Afghanistan’s de facto rulers ordered public and private universities to shut their doors to female students. The ban, which was effective immediately, sparked despair in young students and outrage amongst the international community.
Three days later, the Taliban banned women from working in local and international aid agencies. Months earlier, in March, the Taliban had also banned girls from attending secondary school.
Today Afghanistan is the only country in the world to deny women and girls the right to attend schools and universities. UNESCO estimates that 80% of school-age Afghan girls and women — about 2.5 million — are now out of school.
Click the right arrow to view the timeline.
Sources: Amnesty International, Central Asia Institute, Voice of America, Onward for Afghan Women, Council for Foreign Relations
When the Taliban took over Kabul in a sweeping military blitzkrieg in August 2021, it had promised a moderate rule and respect for all human rights. But the hard-lined Islamists have continued to renege on all their promises. Within two years, they have rolled back all civil rights and liberties enjoyed by women in particular before the fall of the Ghani government.
Under the renewed Taliban rule, Afghan women and girls now have to endure numerous restrictions, among which are being excluded from government jobs or being paid a fraction of their salary to stay at home. They are also barred from traveling without a mahram (male chaperone) and must adhere to strict dress codes when venturing outside their homes. In November last year, their mobility was further restricted when women were prohibited from accessing gyms, public baths, parks, and fairs.
For most Afghan women, they are now more or less in an open-air prison. The latest series of blows on some of their most important rights, however, will affect the rest of the country as well.
Some major aid organizations have already suspended operations following the ban on women personnel in non-profit groups. While enabling their female staff to earn much-needed income, these organizations had also been reaching thousands of Afghan families and helping them in various aspects, such as providing healthcare, food, and literacy and work training.
The ban on female education is bound to have an even more serious impact, however.
“Denying women access to education will have economic repercussions,” says Pashtana Durrani, executive director of the non-profit organization LEARN. “The country’s economy is already collapsing; so are the healthcare and education sectors, because more than 50 percent of their workforce are women. By not employing women, they are creating more poverty, especially for houses led by women.”
Education as investment
Her assessment is not without basis. A few months after the Taliban banned girls from attending secondary school, UNICEF released new analysis that said the move translated into Afghanistan losing at least US$5.4 billion in terms of the girls’ potential contribution to the country’s economy.
“UNICEF’s estimates do not take into account the non-financial impacts of denying girls access to education, such as upcoming shortages of female teachers, doctors and nurses, the ensuing impact on decreasing attendance for girls in primary school and increasing health costs related to adolescent pregnancy,” an official press release on the U.N. agency’s analysis stressed. “The estimates also do not account for the broader benefits of education, including overall educational attainment, reduced child marriage, and reduced infant mortality.”
A 2018 World Bank study: “(Educating) girls has implications not only for individuals and households, but also for nations and the world. By raising standards of living through higher earnings and lower population growth, educating girls would lead to reductions in poverty. Furthermore, since girls and women from lower socio-economic backgrounds are the most affected by low levels of educational attainment, educating girls would also contribute to boosting shared prosperity, defined as achieving higher rates of income growth for the bottom 40 percent of the population in terms of socio-economic conditions.”
The Taliban’s suspension of women’s education has been condemned not only by the civil-society community in Afghanistan, but also by other countries, including Muslim nations like Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, which have described the decision as “un-Islamic.”
UNESCO has urged the Taliban to reverse the ban and give “immediate and non-negotiable access to education” to all the girls and women in Afghanistan.
“Everyone has the right to education,” said the U.N. agency. “Everybody. But in Afghanistan, girls and women have been deprived of this fundamental right.”
“I can’t even imagine that in 21st century, other countries are making technological advancement, but we are not even allowed to educate ourselves,” says Marwa, a 22-year-old from Ghazni province. “They have taken away our basic human right. In other Muslim countries, they allow women to work and study. But we can’t even go outside the house safely.”
A computer engineering student at Kabul Polytechnic University, Marwa first saw the news on social media, but dismissed it as mere rumor. She and many other female students later realized it was true when armed Taliban soldiers at the university gates barred them from going through.
“My sister and cousin didn’t take the news too seriously and left home to go to university for their exam,” recalls Marwa, who hasn’t given up her dreams of becoming a software engineer. “But they were denied entry.”
“We knew that this would happen one day,” she says, “but with each passing day, it feels like a heavy stone has been placed on our chests and we can’t breathe anymore.”
“Everything is an order”
Obaidullah Wardak, a former assistant professor of mathematics at Kabul University, says that even though the Taliban claim to have brought with them a proper system, no one really knows what that is.
“When they opened the university after six months of coming to power, the first thing they did was separate men and women,” reveals Wardak. “After sometime, they gave us another order that male faculty members can only teach male students and vice versa. Women were asked to wear hijab (head covering), men were asked to wear traditional clothing.”
He says that the students, teachers, and the university staff are warned of severe repercussions if they stand against the Taliban directives.
“For them, everything is an order,” says Wardak, who was among the 80 or so educators across Afghanistan who resigned from their posts in protest of the ban on university education for women. “They don’t have an official rule according to which they act. Even though we faced many challenges in accommodating their demands, we did everything. Yet, they closed the universities for girls and no one is giving any clarification as to why.”
Repeated requests from the Asia Democracy Chronicles for comment from the Ministry of Higher Education went unanswered. Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen, however, has been quoted by other media outlets as saying that “it is not a permanent ban on women’s education, it has been postponed until a conducive environment is created for their education.”
(The ban on females attending university had been announced through a letter issued by the Ministry of Higher Education and tweeted by the ministry’s spokesperson, ZiaullahHashimi. In part, the letter said that university education for females was being “suspended until further notice.”)
Higher Education Minister Neda Mohammad Nadeem meanwhile said in an interview on state television that the ban was imposed because women students did not follow the Islamic instructions, including what to wear or traveling with a mahram.
“Unfortunately after the passing of 14 months, the instructions of the Ministry of Higher Education of the Islamic Emirate regarding the education of women were not implemented,” Nadeem said. “They were dressing like they were going to a wedding. Those girls who were coming to universities from home were also not following instructions on hijab.”
Observers say, though, that women’s rights had sparked internal debates among Taliban higher-ups and the rank and file. While the moderates are opposed to the ban on girls and women getting education beyond sixth grade, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, is said to be against the principles of modern education, especially for women and girls.
That the ban was imposed despite the misgivings of many other Taliban leaders is believed to be an assertion of Akhundzada’s authority. So far, there are no signs that it will be lifted soon, and there are even fears that girls may be barred from getting primary education as well.
LEARN’s Durrani believes that the increasing condemnation from the international community will just roll off the backs of the Taliban. She points out, “If they really cared, why would they ban university education in the first place? I feel like Taliban are more about seeking attention, who want to be in the news all the time. That is why they continue to do this. Because this is the only coverage we get.”●
Kanika Gupta is a journalist based in New Delhi, India and works out of Kashmir and Afghanistan. She reports on human rights from conflict regions.