This past Tuesday was a black day for Afghan women. On this day, the Taliban issued a decree shutting university education to them for an indefinite period of time. The ban came as a massive blow to one of their fundamental human rights to pursue higher education in their own homeland.
Defying the ban, some courageous women, however, went to their universities the next day but only to be resisted by heavily armed troops who have taken over their campuses across Afghanistan. By issuing this order which has been roundly condemned by various quarters, the Taliban further isolated them from the international community.
The Taliban’s latest move in Afghanistan came less than three months after thousands of women sat for university entrance exams across the country, many aspiring to choose their desired field of education and career in life. After the Taliban takeover in August last year, universities were forced to introduce gender-based separate classrooms and entrances for men and women. Women were also ordered to be taught by only female or elderly male professors.
Afghanistan has now become the lone country in the world that has completely banned Afghan girls and women from education above sixth grade. No other country on this planet, not even in the Muslim and Arab world, has ever taken this kind of harsh measure denying half of its entire population their fundamental human rights. Education is a basic right of every individual. But sadly the Taliban do not recognize it.
Since their takeover in August last year, the Taliban have taken one after another harsh action against Afghan girls and women virtually removing them from public life in Afghanistan. First, they banned them from work places, then they banned them from school and now they banned them from university. They have also put travel restrictions on them. The Afghan women are also banned from parks and public washrooms and baths in their country.
The attack on Tuesday, December 20, 2022 on women’s right to higher education sparked swift reactions from the international community for obvious reasons. The Taliban have been targeting Afghan girls and women right since their takeover as if they are their No. 1 enemy. ‘Education is a fundamental human right. A door closed to women’s education is a door closed to the future of Afghanistan”, said Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN secretary general’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan.
The Taliban have already kept Afghan girls out of school even though they promised that they would never interfere with their education. All Afghan girls from grade 7 to 12 have been staying home since September 18 last year. These girls have no idea whether or not they will be able to go back to school ever again in the future, because education for girls is not important to the Taliban. And also for the Taliban, a promise made is not a promise kept.
Noorullah Munir, the former education minister of Afghanistan recently made a ridiculous claim that the parents do not want their daughters to go to school. No Afghan parents believed him. So, his comment drew sharp responses from many Afghan parents who have school-going girls. They rather urged the Taliban to immediately reopen girls’ schools in the country. These parents are saying that they have been waiting to send their daughters to school for more than one year now.
The denial of education to Afghan girls also sparked a chorus of criticisms against the Taliban regime previously. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was shocked by the Taliban’s decision to deprive Afghan girls of their fundamental human right. In a remark on the ban of education for the Afghan school girls from September 18 last year, Guterres said: “A year of lost knowledge and opportunity that they will never get back. The girls belong in school. The Taliban must let them back in.”
The United Nations Assistanice Mission in Afghanistan was more shocked and also outraged for the continued closure of schools of Afghan girls. “It was a tragic, shameful and entirely avoidable anniversary”, said Markus Potzel, the deputy head of mission in reference to the one year Afghan girls’ ban from the school. The ongoing exclusion of girls from high school has no credible justification and has no parallel anywhere in the world. It is profoundly damaging to a generation of girls and to the future of Afghanistan itself.
According to an estimate of the UN mission in Afghanistan, more than one million girls were barred from attending high school over the past year. In a statement, the mission expressed its profound frustration over the denial of education to Afghan girls and said it violated their most fundamental right. “It also increases the risk of marginalization, violence, exploitation and abuse against Afghan girls”, the mission said, reiterating the UN call for the country’s ‘de facto authorities’ to take urgent measures to reopen high schools for all in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s former President Hamid Karzai was also disturbed by the closure of girls’ school in his country. So, he too strongly criticized the Taliban regime for banning Afghan girls from education. Describing access to education as one of the most fundamental human rights, Karzai demanded reopening of schools for girls across Afghanistan and urged the Islamic emirate to provide education to the youth. Karzai was absolutely right. Education is central to everything. No country can achieve any success in any field without education.
Islam has never prohibited women from learning and acquiring knowledge. This religion has strongly encouraged the pursuit of knowledge for both men and women. Prominent Islamic scholars around the world say that education is a divine command for both men and women. Based on the teachings of the Quran as well as the authentic Hadith, women just like men are obligated to increase their knowledge and pursue it. Then why have the Taliban been acting against the teachings of Islam even though they claim themselves as strong believers? No one has any definitive answer.
Onward for Afghan Women, an initiative of the Washington-based Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security says that the girls’ right to education is a fundamental right of mind and intellect which are central to the faith of Islam. “Education of girls is central to their faith because it increases their knowledge, teaches them how to use their intellect, furnishes them with critical reflection skills and makes them better Muslims and better members of their communities. It allows girls and women to make use of the gifts Allah has given them”, says the organization.
It also says that there are many benefits of educating girls. It contributes to stronger economies and alleviates poverty. Economic development and reducing poverty require countries to benefit from the talents, skills and productivity of all their citizens, both men and women. Reducing the gender gap and educating girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) will help reduce the skills gap, increase employment and productivity of women and reduce occupational segregation. Educating girls also leads to healthier and happier families, because educated women make better and more informed decisions for the wellbeing of their children.
If the Taliban don’t want to, they don’t have to follow the model of the Western countries. They can just follow the policy of their neighbor Pakistan and 56 other Arab and Muslim states on education of girls and women. Over one million Afghan girls have already lost more than one year of their life. They should not lose any more time just staying home. This cannot be a policy of any responsible government. The girls should be allowed to immediately go back to their schools and the women to their universities in Afghanistan.
The writer is a Toronto-based journalist who also writes for the Toronto Sun as a guest columnist.