Such an indispensable, fundamental right as the right to education being put on hold for half the population exemplifies how much the internal tug of war between competing Taliban factions can harm Afghanistan. Indeed, these most recent limitations on women’s participation in Afghan society are just the latest consequences of the regrettable competition between those in the Taliban who know “where the shoe pinches” and have reflected on the complexities of 20 years of conflict and those who are removed from the realities of the people and cannot see past perceived ideological gains.
For now, members of the latter group appear to be winning. But keeping the country on their chosen path will lead not to a prosperous and strong Afghanistan but to increasing internal strife, continued isolation and eventual collapse of the state.
Afghanistan’s minister of higher education, Nida Mohammad Nadim, tried to defend the edict banning women from universities by pointing to supposed logistical issues, such as limitations to gender segregation on campuses and claims that women do not adhere to the Taliban’s desired dress code while attending classes. The excuses he presented were similar to those offered for the March edict closing down girls secondary schools, but this time he also managed to insult Afghan women and their families across the country by suggesting they are acting “improperly” when seeking education and employment outside their homes.
In March, the authorities had said the secondary schools will remain closed only until “a plan was drawn up in accordance with Islamic law and Afghan culture”. Almost a year later, there is still no sign that there are any policies being put in place to address the issue. This apparent lack of interest in finding a way to reopen secondary schools, coupled with the most recent edict putting further limits on opportunities for female education, has caused people around the country to start questioning the sincerity of the Taliban’s stated concerns and considerations over women’s education.
It is not only Afghans affected by these policies who are starting to question the government’s stance on women’s education. There is also discontent among some high-ranking Taliban officials as those working in relevant ministries found themselves unable to offer anything to people demanding answers and solutions. As these excuses, delays and disappointments continue, an entire generation of children have already been deprived of a whole year of education. This is a loss very difficult, if not impossible, to make up. Excuses could have been made if the Taliban leadership had closed schools but was actively working towards a solution. But putting these bans in place without even attempting to circumvent any – real or imagined – obstacles to women’s education is indefensible.
Taliban leaders in Kandahar and Kabul should reflect on the following three points as they judge the value of girls education and determine the role women can play in making Afghanistan a safe, stable and prosperous nation.
First, contrary to claims that it is part of a “Western agenda” imposed on Afghanistan, women’s right to an education is enshrined in Islam.
The first verse of the Quran that angel Gabriel revealed to Prophet Muhammad PBUH began with the word “read”:
“Read! In the name of your Lord who created: He created man from a clinging form. Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by [means of] the pen, who taught man what he did not know.”
It is paradoxical for the Taliban government to say it is working towards fulfilling the divine call and building a truly Islamic country while simultaneously institutionalising the shackles of illiteracy and ignorance across the nation.
Second, education of women and their participation in the economy is a prerequisite to successful societal development. Those behind the edicts against women’s education should reflect on the impact their decisions will have on the achievement of the broader objective of nation building following 40 years of war. The Taliban’s leaders appear to view complete gender segregation as the recipe for a well-functioning and truly Islamic system. But can they build such a society without educating women? How are they planning to ensure women are cared for by female doctors, for example, if they do not allow girls to go to school and receive a proper education? If women are best served by women, how will they receive quality service from undereducated women, if they are served at all?
Without educated women in the workforce, all 40 million Afghans will have to rely on the male labour force for their development and prosperity, and it does not exceed 8 to 9 percent of the population. Can this minority successfully sustain and develop an entire country devastated by years of war on its own? The Taliban’s myopic attempt to build a gender-segregated society without building the needed labour force to sustain it is equivalent to throwing Afghanistan into the hands of “external” forces because eventually the government will be left with no option other than to import all kinds of workers from abroad merely to keep the country’s head above water.
Third, making a political football out of women’s education will have political, diplomatic and economic consequences well beyond what the government appears to be anticipating. It will further hinder the Taliban government’s already limited prospects for gaining recognition from the international community and working with other nations to better the living conditions of the Afghan people. These anti-education edicts, which are not fully supported by either the people or by the Taliban leadership, undermine and overshadow everything the government achieved in its first year in power and present to the world an image of confused governance and split authority.
These edicts also undermine the efforts of those working towards more constructive and open dialogue between the Taliban and the international community and ensure that Afghanistan will remain isolated and in crisis for the foreseeable future. This is an outcome that should be anathema to the Taliban government because it means Afghanistan will remain dependent on the goodwill and aid of its neighbours and other global powers.
It is imperative for Taliban leaders to rethink their decisions that will undoubtedly harm Afghan women and thus the Afghan nation. Women not only constitute an indispensable part of the Afghan workforce, but they are also the hands that rock the cradle in which the future of Afghanistan rests.
Sultan Barakat is a professor in Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at Qatar Foundation’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University and an Honorary Professor of the University of York