School's out: Taliban sends Afghanistan back to the dark ages with female education ban

Afghan women and girls take part in a protest in front of the Ministry of Education in Kabul on March 26, 2022
6 min read
01 April, 2022
Seven months after seizing control of Afghanistan, the Taliban have betrayed their promise to allow women to attend school. The decision has sparked fear among female activists who state the move will only encourage new forms of repression.

It has now been one week since the Taliban rescinded its promise to finally reopen secondary schools for teenage girls in Afghanistan and there are no signs their Islamic Emirate is any closer to living up to its months-long promise of allowing all Afghans to resume their education.

The response to the group’s March 23 backpedalling was swift. The governments of Qatar, Turkey and global bodies like the European Union and the United Nations Security Council were quick to express their dismay at the Taliban’s sudden reversal on a pledge they themselves had been touting in the media and during meetings with foreign dignitaries.

Abdullah Khenjani, a former deputy in the State Ministry for Peace, one of the several bodies created by the previous government to negotiate with the then Taliban insurgency, says the Islamic Emirate’s failure to live up to its own word may be a sign of the Taliban’s growing impatience with the international community.

 "The international community must unite with one strong voice to let the Taliban know that the footage of adolescent girls crying after being turned away from their classrooms has not gone unnoticed"

“The Taliban feel like they are out of options with the West, so they are going to test the absolute limits of the Western donors,” Khenjani said in reference to the unwillingness of foreign capitals to formally recognise the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

Khenjani, who was part of several face-to-face meetings between the former Islamic Republic and the Taliban’s representatives in Doha, says the group’s current actions show that they have no qualms using the lives of the Afghan people as a way of scaring the international community into taking actions that benefit them. 

“The Taliban want to be rewarded for the bad behaviour,” Khenjani said of the dangerous game he believes the group is playing.

Days after the Taliban staged a cruel U-turn on allowing Afghan girls back to school, many women feel like they have been imprisoned [Getty Images]
Days after the Taliban staged a cruel U-turn on allowing Afghan girls back to school, many women feel like they have been imprisoned [Getty Images]

Echoing sentiments expressed by women and girls in Afghanistan over the last week, Khenjani says the international community must unite with one strong voice to let the Taliban know that the footage of adolescent girls crying after being turned away from their classrooms has not gone unnoticed and that the world expects a change in policy.

However, he is not hopeful that the world is able to band together and force the Taliban to change their ways, because he says the international community has so far failed to properly communicate its thresholds for human rights and freedoms.

Others, however, are doubtful the Taliban’s top leadership, hidden away somewhere in the Southern province of Kandahar, would listen to any message or threat from the outside world.

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Haroun Rahimi, a former Professor of Law at the American University of Afghanistan, says that there has been pressure placed on the Taliban, but the leadership has so far been unresponsive.

Rahimi’s statement is in reference to sanctions, aid cutbacks and the withholding of billions in assets belonging to the Afghan Central Bank, that led to massive cash shortages, increased unemployment, inflation and currency devaluations since the Taliban came to power on August 15.

International leaders have repeatedly pointed to the rights of women and girls as a priority for them, something they see as key to any continued engagement with the Islamic Emirate.

In fact, Washington immediately called off a series of planned meetings with Taliban officials that were set to take place on the sidelines of a conference in Doha last weekend once it became clear that teenage girls would not be allowed back in school anytime soon.

"Their [The Taliban's] insistence on the validity of their own interpretations of Islam and Afghan culture will make it difficult for anyone to convince the Taliban that their actions are in fact un-Islamic"

The World Bank also suspended four projects worth $600 million in response to the delay in restarting secondary school for teenage girls. Activists, analysts and ex-government officials all decried the World Bank’s decision, saying it will further hurt an already suffering civilian population, not the Taliban leadership.  

However, Rahimi says the Taliban are unlikely to be swayed by the economic setbacks the Afghan people have faced since former President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and they took power, “They think piety alone will suffice, and that things will work out and take care of themselves.

“What is most important to the leadership is ideological purity, they see everything through that lens,” said Rahimi. This insistence on the validity of their own interpretations of Islam and Afghan culture will make it difficult for anyone to convince the Taliban that their actions are in fact un-Islamic.

Though Abu Dhabi, Doha and Ankara all expressed their dismay at the continuation of a policy that keeps millions of adolescent girls from studying, Rahimi says the Taliban’s leadership is unlikely to be fazed by such statements, “They don’t see these countries as independent Muslim states. To the Taliban’s leadership, each of these countries is beholden to the United States and the West in general.”

This hesitancy to listen to other Muslim-majority nations, said Rahimi, is part of a larger trend within the Taliban, who see everyone who is not one of them “as a foreigner or an outsider.”

The group even seemed to be unmoved by a fatwa issued by religious clerics in the Western province of Herat which declared that the education of girls is permissible in Islam.

Perspectives

Commentators and analysts saw this development as especially telling of the Taliban’s singular, insular mindset as Herat has been home to some of the most conservative religious leaders, whose speeches and sermons command audiences of thousands.

Rahimi says this narrow view will greatly impact the ability of anyone outside the group’s inner circle to change the Taliban’s thinking, “They have very specific thoughts based on extremely specific philosophies that they base all of their actions.”

But based on the reaction to last week’s events, it’s clear that the Taliban’s vision is not in line with the Afghan people.

Patricia Gossman, Associate Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, says the Taliban has to listen to Afghans inside Afghanistan.

“It will be critical for the Taliban to heed those Afghan communities, elders, and members of their own ranks who have long been calling for girls' education, including through secondary and higher levels.”

Ali M Latifi is a Kabul-based freelance journalist. He has reported from Afghanistan, Qatar, Turkey, Greece and Washington, DC.

Follow him on Twitter: @alibomaye