Two years after the Taliban banned girls from school beyond sixth grade, Afghanistan is the only country in the world with restrictions on female education. Now, the rights of Afghan women and children would be on the agenda of the UN General Assembly this week in New York.
According to the UN children’s agency, more than 1 million girls are affected by the ban, although it estimates 5 million were out of school before the Taliban takeover due to a lack of facilities and other reasons.
The ban triggered global condemnation and remains the Taliban’s biggest obstacle to gaining recognition as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.
However, the Taliban defied the backlash and went further, excluding women and girls from higher education, public spaces like parks and most jobs.
The Taliban stopped girls’ education beyond sixth grade because they said it did not comply with their interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah. They did not stop it for boys. In the past two years, they have shown no signs of progress in creating the conditions they say are needed for girls to return to class.
Their perspective on girls’ education partly comes from a specific school of 19th century Islamic thought and partly from rural areas where tribalism is entrenched, regional expert Hassan Abbas said.
“The ones who went on to develop the [Taliban] movement opted for ideas that are restrictive, orthodox to the extreme and tribal,” said Abbas, who writes extensively about the Taliban.
The Taliban leadership believes women should not participate in anything social or public and should especially be kept away from education, said Abbas.
The Taliban also stopped girls’ education when they ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
There is a consensus among clerics outside Afghanistan that Islam places equal emphasis on female and male education.
“The Taliban have no basis or evidence to claim the contrary,” Abbas said.
However, pleas from individual countries and groups, like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, have failed to sway the Taliban.
Syed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban frontline commander, said the insurgents espoused an Islamic system the day they entered Kabul in August 2021.
“They also gave Afghans and the outside world the idea that there would be an Islamic system in the country,” said Agha. “There is currently no [other] Islamic system in the world. The efforts of the international community are ongoing to implement democracy in Islamic countries and turn them away from the Islamic system.”
Roza Otunbayeva, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ special representative for Afghanistan and UN mission head in Afghanistan, said one of the obvious impacts of an education ban is the lack of training of aspiring healthcare professionals.
Female medical students had their studies halted after the Taliban edict banning higher education for women in December last year. Afghan women work in hospitals and clinics — healthcare is one of the few sectors open to them — but the pipeline of qualified people would dry up. Afghan women cannot see male doctors, so children would also lose out on medical attention if women are their primary carers.
“Looking into the future and a scenario where nothing changes, where will the female doctors, midwives, gynecologists, or nurses come from?” Otunbayeva said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “In a strictly gender segregated society, how will Afghan women be able to get the most basic healthcare services if there are no female professionals to treat them?”
The high-school ban is not just about girls’ rights. It is a worsening crisis for all Afghans.
Tens of thousands of teachers have lost their jobs. Support staff are also unemployed. Private institutions and businesses that benefited financially from girls’ education have been hit. Afghanistan has a shattered economy and people’s incomes are plummeting. Excluding women from the job market hurts the country’s GDP to the cost of billions of dollars, UNICEF said.
There are other consequences for the general population, like public health and child protection.
According to UN data, birthrates are higher among Afghan girls aged 15 to 19 who do not have secondary or higher education. A woman’s education can also determine if her children have basic immunization and if her daughters are married by the age of 18. The lack of women’s education is among the major drivers of deprivation, the UN said.
Aid groups said girls are at increased risk of child labor and child marriage because they are not at school, amid the growing hardships faced by families.
Countries that have a relationship with the Taliban could make an impact.
However, they have different priorities, reducing the prospects of a united front on girls’ education.
There is a bigger likelihood of pressure coming from within Afghanistan.
While Afghans are concerned about the loss of girls’ education, they have more immediate worries like earning money, putting food on the table, keeping a roof over their heads, and surviving droughts and harsh winters.
Public opinion is much more relevant and influential today than it was during Taliban rule in the 90s, said Abbas. “Internal pressure from ordinary Afghans is going to ultimately push Kandahar in the corner and make a difference.”
However, it could take years for the ban’s consequences to hit Afghan men and trigger a groundswell of unrest. Right now, it only affects girls and it is mostly women who have protested the slew of restrictions.
Agha said Afghans would support the ban if the end goal is to enforce hijab, the Islamic headscarf, and finish gender mixing.
However, they will not if it is simply to end girls’ education outright.
“I think only the nation can lead the way,” he said.
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