The ban on women’s education isn’t a consequence of the U.S. withdrawal. It has a decades-long history.
Days after losing her younger sister in a bomb attack at the Kabul school the two girls attended, Farzanah Asghari cried silently by the 15-year-old’s grave.
Farzanah, who attended high school with three of her sisters in western Kabul, was also caught up in the blast, but she’s among the women determined to return when the school reopens after the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
The restriction of human rights has been a key feature of the education policy of the Taliban, who are preparing to rule Afghanistan again after two decades. But will girls have to leave school in Afghanistan?
Three months were enough for the extremist group to begin an advance that Afghan forces couldn’t contain, and they now control the capital Kabul, ready to proclaim a new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
According to a June 30 report by Human Rights Watch, “While in power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban’s rights record was characterized by systematic violations against women and girls.”
Cruel corporal punishments were also recorded, including executions, and extreme suppression of freedom of religion, expression, and education, the document says.
Since the U.S.-led military defeat of the government in late 2001, the Taliban insurgency has not recognized the legitimacy of the Afghan government or the 2004 constitution.
Twenty years later, they took advantage of the formal withdrawal of the United States, which began on May 1 of this year.
As of mid-2020, Taliban forces controlled or had significant influence in many provinces and districts of Afghanistan. In these areas, residents abided by a parallel set of government laws and Taliban-imposed regulations.
But the ban on women’s education isn’t a consequence of the U.S. withdrawal. It has a decades-long history.
Girls over the age of 12 stopped attending classes three years ago in two rural districts.
According to The New York Times, as many as 6,000 girls were expelled from school overnight.
In Taliban-controlled districts, all but the youngest girls, with a few exceptions, were not in school.
UNICEF reports that Afghanistan’s education system has been devastated by more than three decades of sustained conflict.
For many of the country’s children, completing primary school remains a distant dream, especially in rural areas and for girls.
That report –prior to the withdrawal of U.S. troops– notes that in the poorest and most remote areas of the country, enrollment levels vary widely, and girls still don’t have the same access.
“An estimated 3.7 million children are out-of-school in Afghanistan, of which 60% are girls.”
In February 2021, according to the Counterterrorism Mission Center (CTMC), one of the Taliban’s deputy leaders, Mullah Baradar, reiterated that the Taliban were “committed to maintaining and guaranteeing all the rights granted to women by Islamic law” through an Open Letter to the People of the United States of America.
Human Rights Watch reports that Taliban officials have sanctioned and strengthened rigid social controls in communities in the most diverse or urbanized areas.
Women don’t play any active role within the organized structures of the Taliban.
There are no women on its negotiating team, and there are no reports on the active participation of women in the parallel administration of the Taliban, let alone on the front line.
Last year’s Human Rights Watch report suggests that girls will remain uneducated, that they’ll be subject to the ups and downs of the rules determined by each Taliban leader.
There’s resistance to girls’ education in many rural communities in Afghanistan.
“Taliban district and provincial officials also determine implementation of policies in the areas they control. Their inconsistent approach to girls’ schools reflects the differing views of provincial Taliban commanders, their standing in the Taliban military command hierarchy, and their relationship with local communities.”
A year ago, for example, local demand for education in some districts had convinced or compelled Taliban authorities to take a more flexible approach.
In Kunduz districts, Taliban officials had allowed primary schools for girls to operate and, in some cases, allowed girls and young women to travel to government-controlled areas to attend secondary schools and university.
In other places, such as districts of Helmand province, also controlled by the Taliban, there were no functioning primary schools for girls, let alone secondary schools.
Some of these rural districts had no functioning girls’ schools even when under government control.
In a statement on August 17 of this year, UNICEF states that “Afghanistan has, for many years, been one of the worst places on earth to be a child. In the past few weeks, it has got worse.” (Reuters)
A burqa-clad Afghan woman walks in an old bazaar in Kabul on March 4, 2009. (Photo: Reuters / Ahmad Masood)