On March 23, the first day of the school year in Afghanistan, eager female students arriving for class found closed gates and armed Taliban guards. Despite the de facto authorities’ assurances only days earlier that schools would reopen for girls above sixth grade, they had barred girls from further education. “I was overjoyed at the prospect of continuing my studies and seeing classmates and teachers after seven months,” a middle school student from a remote province in southeast Afghanistan said. “In my dawn prayer, I praised Allah for answering my prayers to continue my studies … I walked to school as fast as I could, only to be turned away at gunpoint. The sadness and despair were overwhelming.”

A small group of women rally in support of women’s education, outside a girls high school in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 30, 2021. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)
A small group of women rally in support of women’s education, outside a girls high school in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 30, 2021. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

The school closures would seem to answer the question on everyone’s mind since the Taliban seized control of the country last summer: “Have the Taliban really changed?” The oft-repeated answer by some in the international community was a resounding “yes.” Certainly, the Taliban said so, as did international apologists after meeting with the former insurgents behind closed doors. Skeptics of that line have been criticized for failing to accept the group’s promises about human rights. Now we have some proof from the Taliban themselves that their pledges to follow Islamic law and Afghan traditions are hollow.

The Taliban’s messaging around girls’ education has lacked cohesion from the moment the group took power. Many of their declarations have been simply contradictory, indicating division within the Taliban leadership and a lack of consensus on national policies.

In August 2021, for example, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, minister of higher education, told AFP, "The people of Afghanistan will continue their higher education in the light of Sharia law in safety without being in a mixed male and female environment.” Similarly, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said the new regime was "committed to the rights of women" within the context of its strict interpretation of Islamic mandates. "Our sisters and our men have the same rights," Mujahid said.

In mid-September 2021, however, only boys were permitted to return to class and the status of girls went completely unaddressed. In December, acting Deputy Education Minister Abdul Hakim Hemat said in a BBC interview that girls would not be allowed to attend secondary school until a new education policy was approved. Officials advocating a "safe learning environment" for girls offered scant detail on what that would mean or when it might be arranged.

The Taliban’s newly appointed minister of education in September questioned the importance of education itself, saying, "No PhD or master's degree is valuable today. You see that the Mullahs and Taliban that are in power have no PhD, masters or even a high school degree, but they are the greatest of all."

Interpreting Sharia

These inconsistent messages underscore the Taliban regime’s lack of governance and transparency. It also allows Taliban elements and certain government entities around Afghanistan to make their own local policies based on their personal interpretation of Sharia. In most cases allowing local mullahs to apply their definition of Islam undermines women’s rights. In the case of the most recent education decision, however, it appears that the Taliban’s highest religious leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, imposed his conservative interpretation of Islam on the entire country.

The Taliban’s interpretations notwithstanding, in Islam, women, like men, are obligated to pursue knowledge. In the Quran, Allah orders both sexes to increase their knowledge and condemns those who are not learned. The Quran puts significant importance on acquiring knowledge, with more than 800 references to the word “ilm” (knowledge) and its derivations. It urges all people to think, ponder, reflect and obtain knowledge.

On March 28, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar said at a U.S. Institute of Peace event that restricting women from public positions or activities that prepare them for public roles is a major sin that carries “negative consequences on the Day of Judgement.” Such comments from the highest-ranking authority of Sunni Islam are another indicator of the Taliban’s misalignment with Islamic principles. Indeed, no Muslim country, except for the Taliban regime, has banned girls from getting an education.

Girls and Afghanistan’s Future

Restricting girls access to school is already causing harm. With young girls blocked from continuing their education, many families are already marrying off teenagers to shift their support to husbands. Women’s roles have been undermined and women are being deprived of their dignity, rights and status at home and in the society. If the ban on girls’ high school education becomes permanent, it would eventually exclude women from all sectors of the society under the cover of religion. The Taliban have allowed female teachers, nurses, doctors, and some civil servants to continue working. But without receiving higher education the pipeline of educated women to fill these jobs will run dry.

School girls interviewed for this article expressed anger, despair and a sense of flagrant gender discrimination.

“All winter I prepared for my final year in high school,” a student from Kabul told us. “I was overjoyed when I went back on March 23. After one class the principal said she had just been ordered to send the students home. She was in tears. We kept asking, ‘but why?’ Even before the Taliban took control our teachers were all women. We were fully covered according to what the Taliban call Islamic hijab. I felt the sky was falling. This is the story of our lives, the story of Afghan women’s lives.”

Thousands of such students are now uncertain if they will ever be able to pursue their educations and life dreams. Videos of schoolgirls tearfully returning home on March 23 circulated on social media platforms, reviving the question: What is the Taliban’s ideology, and has it changed?

Consequences for the Taliban

While schoolgirls In Kabul and other provinces publicly protested the closures and loudly questioned the purported logic behind them, the international community’s response was limited to statements of condemnation and cancellation of side meetings with the Taliban in Doha. Girls in Afghanistan are left waiting to see if there will be real consequences for the Taliban’s decision and whether the Taliban will take heed.

What can be done?

  • The international community must make Taliban’s recognition contingent on their track record on responsible and inclusive governance. Legitimizing the Taliban should be conditional and subject to positive change in Taliban’s behavior and policies.
  • A clear, firm and coordinated message should be given to the Taliban that if girls are not allowed access to equal and quality higher education, the international community will limit funding for the education sector.
  • Islamic scholars, leaders and influential figures must condemn the Taliban’s decision to ban secondary education for girls and engage with the Taliban to influence or reverse their destructive policies.
  • UN bodies, such as UNICEF and UNESCO must engage in dialogue with the Taliban authorities and ensure Muslim scholars from Afghanistan and other countries are present in the dialogues to make the Taliban understand the importance of girls' education in Islam.
  • To ensure that the Taliban’s recent policy does not significantly disrupt girls’ learning, international organizations present in Afghanistan must provide girls with the instructional materials needed to continue their studies in an equivalent manner as boys until the Taliban reopen schools for girls.

While more pressure must be brought to bear, the Taliban, too, will inevitably suffer from their misguided policy of suppressing girl’s academic development, particularly in their quest for donor assistance, international recognition and legitimacy. In international forums, the Taliban claim to have learned from past mistakes and moderated significantly from their earlier extreme policies. However, as the shutdown of girls’ schools shows, their actions are inconsistent with their promises. Seven months after their return to power, the regime appears determined to ignore the will of the Afghan people or even display flexibility. It is instead defaulting to a backward-looking mindset on the rights, roles and futures of women and girls.

Asma Ebadi is a program assistant for the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. 

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