Taliban’s broken promises leave Afghan schoolgirls and women in despair
DUBAI: Every day Nasima, 16, and Shakila, 17, eagerly await news that their school in Kabul, Lameha-e-Shaheed, will reopen so they can resume their studies. It has been a month now since the Taliban abruptly closed secondary schools for girls, reversing an earlier decision to grant women more freedom and access to education.
On the morning of March 23, more than a million girls in Nasima and Shakila’s age group showed up at their schools across Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban took power in August of last year, only to be refused the doors.
“Under the direction of the leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, schools for women from the sixth grade are closed until further notice,” read a report by the pro-Taliban news agency. Bakhtar.
Although many Afghans were appalled by the news, those familiar with the Taliban’s puritanical views and erratic policies during their rule from 1996 to 2001 were not at all surprised.
Creeping ultra-conservatism is evident in new rules that prohibit women without a hijab or male chaperon from traveling long distances, the dismissal of women from jobs and positions of influence, and, most importantly, the U-turn in the policy of March 23 education.
“They kept telling us that they would reopen the schools and let everyone go back,” Lina Farzam, a primary school teacher in Kabul, told Arab News.
“Although we never believed the Taliban had changed, we had hope. We don’t know why the world trusted them and gave them another chance.
The reversal of secondary education, which reportedly took place after a secret meeting of the group’s leadership in Kandahar, suggests that the ultraconservative wing still retains control over the regime’s ideological trajectory.
“What’s so cruel about it is the fact that they announced girls could go back to school and then backtracked,” Farzam said. “Imagine these girls happily getting ready for school the night before and waiting to go back to class.”
Girls of primary school age in Afghanistan are allowed to attend school up to grade six. Women are also allowed to attend university, although they are subject to strict gender segregation rules and only if they follow a strictly enforced dress code.
Following the US-led coalition’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, the resurgent Taliban insisted they had changed their ways and would allow women and girls to continue studying as they did. had done so under the UN-recognized government.
At a press conference in Kabul on August 18, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid promised that the new government would respect women’s rights.
“The truth is that the Taliban’s views on women’s rights, human rights and individual freedoms have not changed in the past 20 years,” 30-year-old university professor Nilofar Akrami told Arab News. who teaches women at Kabul University.
“The Taliban are as brutal as they were in the 1990s, and when it comes to women, they’ve gotten worse. Unfortunately, they learned to wear a good mask to fool the world.
“They always think that women should stay at home and that women who leave home to study or work are bad, and they will corrupt society.”
For Akrami, any hope of empowering women in Afghanistan has long been dashed. “As a woman who started her career in college to make a difference in the lives of women, I am sorry that my dreams and the dreams of hundreds of women like me have been shattered since the Taliban came to power. “, she said.
Asma Faraz, who previously worked at the Afghan Embassy in Washington DC, is also disheartened to see the freedoms and opportunities of the past 20 years snatched away.
“My boss was an ambassador,” she told Arab News, referring to Roya Rahmani, the first Afghan woman to be her country’s top diplomat to the United States. “As a woman, I was so proud to see another come into the room and see how much everyone respected her.
“Women can also be ambassadors, women can be parliamentarians, women can be journalists and doctors. But now in Kabul, women and girls will see that women cannot go to school and can only get married, and their mothers only work at home.
Taliban leaders have sought to justify their ban on secondary education for Afghan girls by citing religious principles – a view that Islamic scholars and civil society dispute.
“I am troubled because there is no justification for denying girls an education,” Daisy Khan, founder of the New York-based Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality, told Arab News. .
“In Islam, the pursuit of knowledge is an obligation for all Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad made no distinction between the education of boys and that of girls. He said: ‘The best of you is he who gives a good education to his children.’
Mixed messages between high-ranking officials could point to a schism within the Taliban ranks between the hardliners based in the movement’s stronghold in Kandahar and more moderate officials managing affairs from the capital.
Hibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme leader of the Islamic Emirate, has reportedly ignored repeated calls, even from many clerics, to reverse the decision on girls’ secondary education.
“People keep talking about Hibatullah, but no one has seen him or knows where he is in Kandahar,” Faraz said. “Maybe he lives in a village where people don’t allow their daughters to go to school and he doesn’t know what life is like outside the village.
“If we want to give the Taliban a chance, that’s fine, give them a chance, but they can’t rule over everyone and bring what they think is right from their villages to the cities and the capital where people used to go to school and work.
Contrary to views emanating from the Kandahar camp, a senior official recently told NPR that the Taliban had not changed course on girls’ education but simply needed more time to decide on appropriate school uniforms.
“There is no question of banning girls from going to school,” Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s designated permanent ambassador to the UN, told the media. “It is only a technical matter to decide the shape of the school uniform for girls. We hope that the uniform issue will be resolved and finalized as soon as possible.
Eager to see the case resolved quickly and the rights of Afghan women and girls preserved, US education activists traveled to Kabul in late March to meet with Taliban officials.
“As the world’s attention has turned to the crisis in Ukraine, it is extremely important that we do not forget what is happening in Afghanistan, a country which is currently living through one of the worst years in its history.” , said Masuda Sultan, an Afghan-American entrepreneur. and human rights defender, who was part of the delegation, told Arab News.
“The continued economic strangulation of this nation may lead to consequences that will be far more costly to resolve if not addressed immediately.”
Indeed, unless the Taliban shows a willingness to relax its hardline approach, especially on women’s rights issues, the regime is unlikely to have access to billions of dollars in aid, loans and frozen assets that the United States desperately needs, IMF and World Bank.
In addition, keeping women unemployed costs Afghanistan up to $1 billion, or 5% of gross domestic product, according to the UN. As The Economist noted in a recent article, “In the midst of an economic crisis, the country can ill afford the loss.”
For Farzam and his students in Kabul, the outcome of the apparent ideological struggle within the Taliban leadership will ultimately decide their fate, and perhaps even the fate of millions of Afghans in dire need of economic aid. .
“The girls are now sad because they cannot continue their studies,” she told Arab News. “They are eagerly awaiting the reopening of their schools.”