In the shadows

January 15, 2023

Afghan girls face an uncertain future after Taliban ban higher education

In the shadows


mena Wahdat, 22, is among thousands of Afghan girls who were not allowed to attend their universities after the Taliban imposed a ban on women’s education.

“Even after the Taliban came to power, we stayed there, hoping to complete our education at Kabul University. There were financial issues as my father had lost his job after the Taliban took Kabul. We were so close to completing our degrees. After the ban, my family decided to leave the country. They realised that the Taliban will not let girls resume university education any time soon,” she told The News on Sunday.

Amena Wahdat, like many Afghan refugees, is now living in Peshawar, waiting for a chance to reach some Western country.

The Taliban’s approach towards girls’ education has been a subject for analysis for decades. Finding the answer to ‘why they do it’ is as important as the demand for women’s education is legitimate and necessary.

The Taliban say they want to rule under a shariah system. But there are clear Islamic injunctions and a lot of historical precedent regarding women’s rights, including the right education. Why would there be so many madrassas around the world for women – some under the supervision of religious governments - if Islam didn’t allow women’s education? It is important to understand the mindset of the Taliban regarding the ban on women’s education.

Afghanistan and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan are dominated by a tribal culture. Until a few decades ago, women’s education was looked down upon even in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Some men too considered school education ‘immoral’ due to propaganda in Pashtun society by some clerics who wanted to get more and more recruits for their seminaries. The situation improved after the Khudai Khidmatgar movement, led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as Bacha Khan, launched awareness campaigns, urging education for both men and women.

However, in one form or the other, education for women is still an uncomfortable topic in the Pashtun society, especially among poor families with strong religious tendencies. The main reason for this is poverty and lack of employment opportunities for women, particularly in rural areas. In these areas, the families tend to marry the girls off at an early age. This trend is more pronounced in Afghanistan, where many girls are married off against money. A majority of the current Taliban leaders belong to these Pashtun-dominated areas.

Another important reason is the difference between religious and modern education. In the Taliban’s view, modern education is an offshoot of the Western culture, which has nothing to do with education. You will find a common saying in Afghanistan’s religious circles: “Education is for the Hereafter. Religious education for children opens the way to heaven for parents.” This is the reason why some areas have an abundance of religious seminaries for girls but not many schools and colleges.

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Thousands of girls left their university education in Afghanistan and are now living in exile. Most of the schools for Afghan refugees set up in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been closed.

Even before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, women’s education was not given much importance. During war, 3.7 million boys and girls were deprived of education. Sixty percent of the number were girls. Now, 1.2 million girl students have been refused education after the Taliban imposed a ban on women’s education.

In the pre-Taliban Afghanistan, there were some good institutions for women’s education in Kabul and northern Afghanistan, especially Balkh and Herat. In most other areas, particularly Kandahar, Helmand, Paktia, Khost and Kunar, opportunities for women to receive education and gain employment were limited, rather scarce. Some misconceptions about Afghanistan in the West are due to a lack of understanding of ground realities. For example, it has been said that the Taliban introduced the burqa in Afghanistan. The fact is that in the past 20 years, the use of the burqa was quite common, particularly outside of Kabul. However, it was not forced on women. The Taliban are currently allowing girls in some part of Afghanistan to attend schools up to the sixth standard.

The hundreds of thousands of girls who have moved to Pakistan also face problems. Most of them are currently living in Peshawar, Quetta, Karachi and Islamabad. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has yet to announce a policy or strategy with regard to the current wave of Afghan refugees entering Pakistan. Thousands of girls who have left their university education in Afghanistan and are now living in Pakistan have an uncertain future. There were once schools for refugees in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Most of those have been closed down. According to a report issued before the Taliban takeover, there were more than 400,000 out-of-school Afghan children. At the post-primary level, at least 895,000 children were reported to be out of school, and 47 percent of them had never attended school. Besides a political settlement, the world has to arrange for education for the Afghan refugees, particularly for Afghan girls living in Pakistan.

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The first task is to organise a regular discussion on women’s education in Kabul, because holding meetings and issuing statements outside of Afghanistan will not change the situation. In Kabul and in the north, where there were already large populations of women in schools and colleges, the education of women should be resumed. In Pashtun areas, tribal elders should raise their voice for women’s education. Pakistan and Iran should make provision of visas to Afghans conditional on women’s education. China’s recent agreements with the Kabul regime can also be used to pressure the Taliban to allow women education. The international community should also try to persuade the Taliban to change their stance on the issue.

A long-term policy will be needed to change the way tribal society thinks about women. Long country-wide discussions should be held to raise awareness in the tribal society to support women’s rights. Families educating girls should be provided incentives. Women should also be provided equal opportunities for employment and business.

The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer

In the shadows