The Taliban are taking away women’s right to learn. The world can’t afford to stay silent

The Guardian
22 Dec 2022

In Afghanistan, girls may be banned from primary school. Other Muslim nations hold the key to upholding their rights

Afghan girls at a private institute in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 9 November 2022.
Afghan girls at a private institute in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 9 November 2022. Photograph: EPA

This week, the Taliban made a bombshell announcement that they will ban women from attending university or teaching in Afghanistan. It is a decision that has done more in a single day to entrench discrimination against women and girls and set back their empowerment than any other single policy decision I can remember.

Since the Taliban returned to power, girls have been banned from attending secondary school. Now they are being banned from primary school. Thousands of female government workers have been told to stay at home. Other recent rulings prevent women from travelling without a male relative or attending mosques or religious seminaries. Last month, girls and women were banned from entering public places, including parks.

The rest of the world cannot now stay silent in the illusory hope that these bans are temporary. It is time to take the Taliban on – and it is the Muslim nations across the world that follow Islamic law to uphold the education of women and girls, and believe it central to Islamic teaching, that are in the best position to lead the charge. Muslim countries hold the key to restoring women’s and girls’ rights in Afghanistan.

In the two days since the Taliban’s university ban, we have already heard some welcome voices. Qatar’s ministry of foreign affairs, which has been a mediator between the Taliban and the west, immediately condemned the actions and expressed “concern and disappointment” as it urged Afghanistan to end its ban. The Saudi foreign ministry expressed “surprise” and “regret”, and called on the government to reverse the decision. It was, it said, “contrary to giving Afghan women their full legitimate rights, foremost of which is the right to education, which contributes to supporting security, stability, development and prosperity in Afghanistan”.

After the UAE representative to the UN labelled the move an attempt to secure nothing less than the “the erasure of women from public life”, an official UAE statement said the decision not only “violates fundamental rights”, but “the teachings of Islam, and must be quickly resolved”.

And it is these demands for Islamic law to be upheld that could secure a reversal of the policy. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), alongside the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), is in a position to use its platform to demand that Afghanistan’s de facto authorities end this assault on women’s rights.

Unity on this issue is possible because religious teaching upholds girls’ right to education. “Iqra”, meaning to read, is the first word of the Qu’ran. And the rest of the Muslim world follows mainstream Islamic teaching that promotes girls’ education. Indeed, “the seeking of knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim”, states Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 74, one of the six canonical teachings in Sunni Islam, which emphasises the deep commitment to learning – by men and women – across the Arab world.

Owing to its own strong commitment to providing education to all girls, women’s university enrolment in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, has increased from 2% in 1970 to 39% in 2018. And in Saudi Arabia, half of university-age women attend university – a higher female enrolment rate than in Mexico, China, Brazil and India. Every country in the Muslim world, except the Taliban-run Afghanistan, is publicly committed to the UN sustainable development goal number four: that every child is ensured access to “inclusive and equitable quality education” by 2030.

The case for reversing the multiple bans becomes even stronger and more urgent when one recalls that Afghanistan itself has enjoyed long periods when girls’ education flourished. Before the Taliban’s 1996 takeover, 60% of Kabul University teachers (and half its students) were women. Afghan women constituted 70% of the country’s schoolteachers, 50% of civilian government workers (and 70% of the 130,000 civil servants in Kabul), and 40% of doctors. In this century alone – up until a year ago – the number of Afghan girls enrolled in school had increased from just 100,000 in 2000 to more than 3.5 million, and female literacy had doubled.

In the long run, repression will fail. You cannot uneducate millions of Afghan girls who learned in the years before 2021 to write, read and think independently. You cannot forever oppress girls and women who have known what it was like to be free. This is why the international community will enjoy widespread public support as it tackles one of the gravest and most indefensible injustices of our generation.

We know the multiple bans were a decision of the Taliban spiritual leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, based in Kandahar, whose followers insisted on these sanctions at a recent a meeting of Taliban officials and policing authorities. He is the real stumbling block to change. Led by our Muslim friends, the world must now plead with him, reminding him of the Islamic texts that justify education for all. It is by mounting all possible pressure through the IOC and the GCC, with the backing of the worldwide women’s movement, that we will ensure girls and women in Afghanistan are finally guaranteed their human rights. This is a fight to the finish. For the sake of girls and women everywhere, it has to be won.

  • Gordon Brown is the United Nations special envoy for global education and the former UK prime minister
The Taliban are taking away women’s right to learn. The world can’t afford to stay silent