Afghan Taliban's Ban on Women's Education

The Taliban government in Afghanistan invited the disappointment of human rights observers and governments worldwide by introducing a university ban on Afghan women until further notice. While the March ban on girls above sixth grade has been lifted on the condition of a uniform compliant with Sharia and Afghan customs, the prohibition for university education has caused widespread reservations. Having a history of poor treatment of women, the Afghan Taliban, after regaining power in 2021, had stated that it would respect the rights of the female segment of society.

The higher education institutions, since the takeover of the Taliban, were already working with strict rules for women. University entrances and lecture halls were gender-segregated, and only lady professors or old male instructors were allowed to teach women. The latest bar was imposed late on 20 December 2022 in the form of a letter to higher education institutions from the Taliban’s education ministry.

Neda Mohammad Nadeem, Afghan Minister of Higher Education, defended the decision by stating that it was taken following the evaluation of the university curriculum. Besides, female students “were dressing like they were going to a wedding,” he jibbed. He concluded that female students were prohibited from the premises of universities till “a suitable environment” was ensured. During his interview with RTA, a Taliban-controlled channel, the minister maintained that the instructions issued by the Taliban regime in this regard were not being followed for 16 months, hence the complete ban on women’s entry into universities. He added that the kind of subjects women were studying, like engineering and agriculture, “didn’t match Afghan culture. Girls should learn, but not in areas that go against Islam and Afghan honour. (sic)”

The rationale for suspending women’s education has received criticism as only a depiction of how the Taliban interpret “Islam” and “Afghan honour” as a means to attain their perceived goal of removing women from public life. The regression has caused resentment locally and invited widespread denunciation from the masses. Afghan women are actively protesting for their basic right to education. Not only that, social media users uploaded videos showing male university students in Afghanistan walking out of exams as an act of protest while their female fellows barred from entering the lecture halls cheered.

Though the higher education institutions persevered during the strict gender-segregation policies of the Taliban rule, suspending the education of women altogether is not operationally viable for private universities in the long run.

Reportedly, more than 60 Afghan academics have resigned from their jobs individually. However, they have categorically declared the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education as the reason for quitting their positions. Speaking on the matter with The Guardian, Abdul Raqib Ekleel, a lecturer at the Kabul Polytechnic University, maintained that all professors delivered the same lectures two times a week, first for the male students and followed by a similar class for the female students. Notwithstanding the efforts, the Taliban banned women from entering the universities.

Apart from the domestic backlash, the reaction from Muslim countries is also not forthcoming. Muslim states, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, called upon the Taliban administration to review their decision to ban university education for women. Egypt’s prominent Al-Azhar University, in an official statement, highlighted that the ban “contradicts with Islamic Sharia…”. Such restrictions are not only against Islamic values but also against Afghanistan’s national interest.

Besides, the bar on women entering universities is seen as a violation of women’s rights, inciting much international pressure upon the Taliban to annul the ban. The UN’s Special Rapporteur to Afghanistan attributed the action as “a new low, further violating the right to equal education and deepening the erasure of women from Afghan society. (sic)” Similarly, the Group of Seven (G7) wealthy nations strongly denounced the Taliban’s decision. G7 attributed the action as a part of a systemic policy, given other similar measures taken by the Afghan government. On behalf of the G7, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock iterated that Afghanistan is a party to the Rome Statute, under which “gender persecution may amount to a crime against humanity”.

The US has also warned the Taliban regime of future repercussions if the university ban on women students is not reversed. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained that the ruling government in Afghanistan would not be able to better its ties with the remaining world if the country kept denying women their basic rights.

Creator of the Afghanistan Security Institute, Irfan Yar, opined that fresh restrictions on female education and work would lead to a “more chaotic situation with more darkness and ignorance”. He added that though some view the latest regulations as more strategic than faith-based, they are more likely to reflect the Taliban’s understanding of “Islamic law”.

However, interestingly, the Taliban ruling elite, including the Health Minister, Deputy Foreign Minister, and spokesman, have sent their daughters to study abroad. Besides, while girl education is denied above the sixth grade in Afghanistan, daughters of various top Taliban leaders are reported to be teaching in schools in Peshawar, Karachi and Doha. Such personal and public moves discrepancies make the Taliban’s policies even more questionable.

As per the estimates of the association of private universities in Afghanistan, about 35 per cent of students enrolled in around 140 private educational institutions are female. If the current suspension of women’s education persists any longer, numerous private universities might have to shut down due to the decline in the total number of students. On the other hand, enrollment of Afghan women in online university programs worldwide has increased. Similarly, universities in other Muslim countries have further opened the gates to Afghan women. Women students fleeing Afghanistan are also being offered merit scholarships for education in foreign universities.

Nevertheless, the prolonged ban is also not financially sustainable for the country’s higher education infrastructure, apart from harming women’s participation in public life. Though the higher education institutions persevered during the strict gender-segregation policies of the Taliban rule, suspending the education of women altogether is not operationally viable for private universities in the long run. Thus, the restrictions will have grave and long-term implications for the higher education sector of Afghanistan, as universities will not be able to continue operations with such an open-ended ban. Although the international community has been open in showing its disapproval of the ban, further individual state sanctions might be an impetus for the Taliban government to repeal the restrictions at the earliest before irreversible damage is done.

Fareha Iqtidar Khan

Fareha Iqtidar Khan is Associate Editor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She is also Visiting Faculty at the International Islamic University, Islamabad.

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