Banned from schools, Afghan girls face bleak future

Activists and former government officials tell Al Majalla they worry about dwindling opportunities for women under Taliban rule

Since the Taliban came to power in August 2021, speculation had been rife that women’s rights would be curtailed. That fear came true in December 2022, when girls’ education was officially banned
Miriam Martincic
Since the Taliban came to power in August 2021, speculation had been rife that women’s rights would be curtailed. That fear came true in December 2022, when girls’ education was officially banned

Banned from schools, Afghan girls face bleak future

Kabul: Wearing headscarves and face masks, young women in black would, until recently, walk towards the entrance of the Kabul University campus where armed Taliban fighters stood guard, watching warily. They could attend classes here every other day, while the remaining days were reserved for men.

When university entrance exams started in early October, many young Afghan women were told that they could no longer sign up for the classes they had hoped for. In some regions, they were barred from studying journalism, while, in others, they were told that engineering was now off limits.

“They want women to only be able to study in the medical, education, and Islamic law fields,” one female political activist told Al Majalla at the time.

“Restricting women to the fields of medical science and education was intended so that they could treat other women in hospitals and clinics and raise children in an Islamic manner,” she said.

“That’s all. They don’t want women to be able to do anything else.”

A few days after a total ban on women attending universities and private educational centres was announced on 20 December, photos circulated online of an Afghan woman outside Kabul University, which she was no longer allowed to enter, defiantly holding up a sign with a single word in Arabic on it: ‘iqra’, the imperative for ‘read’.

According to Islam, this was the first word revealed to Prophet Muhammad by God. Seeking knowledge is considered a duty incumbent upon all Muslims.

Higher Education Minister Nida Mohammad Nadim was quoted by The Guardian as saying that his government would not change its mind on girls’ access to education “even if they drop an atomic bomb on us.”

The Taliban have also recently ordered women to stop working for non-governmental organisations, a move that “will force the UNHCR to temporarily stop critical activities in support of Afghan people, especially women and children,” UN refugee agency head Filippo Grandi said in a statement following the news.

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This picture taken on December 25, 2022 shows student Marwa protesting alone against the ban on women's higher education, outside the Kabul University as members of Taliban stand guard in Kabul

Since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, public sector schooling for teenage girls has been curtailed beyond Grade 6, although those already enrolled at university had been permitted to continue their education.

Taliban officials have demanded special segregated buildings for women, claiming that conditions are not ripe for girls to study in a proper environment beyond the age of 13.

Such measures, among others, have triggered multiple protests against the Taliban, whose leaders are accused of curbing women’s freedoms throughout Afghanistan.

In late October, photos and videos went viral showing women being beaten at the gates of a university in the northeastern province of Badakhshan.

Multiple protests have been held since then, but media restrictions and concerns that anyone caught recording them could be arrested have resulted in limited available information.

In Kabul’s private Khatam al-Nabyeen Islamic University, young women in chadors were seen scuttling between classes in late October. It was a sight more common to neighbouring Iran than Afghanistan.

The university was founded in 2007 by a well-known Afghan Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Asef Mohseni, who had close ties to the clerical establishment in Iran.

Many saw it as a vehicle to spread Iranian influence in the country.

In 2015, the university administration had allowed the author of this article to speak to some of its women students — a privilege withdrawn in 2022, when we were told that journalists were no longer allowed on campus.

Dwindling opportunities

Former government officials who chose to stay in Kabul after the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) took power last year told Al Majalla that they were frustrated with the steadily dwindling opportunities for their daughters.

One man said that he was sending his daughter to a private art school, which was still open as of late 2022 but which has now been ordered shut down.

Another said his daughter was taking online classes from a teacher who goes to the school building every day and films herself writing on the blackboard but is not allowed to have female students physically in the room with her.

He noted that internet access is now limited and often poor, even in the capital, and so is regular electricity, making internet-based education no longer a viable option for many students.

Al Majalla spoke with people from all walks of life, and none seemed convinced of any valid reason to prevent girls from going to school beyond Grade 6.

Many saw it as part of a long-standing unspoken strategy of the Taliban to make Afghan women invisible, forgotten, and unemployed on account of lack of skill and education, rendering them entirely dependent on male members of their families.

Many see curbing girls' education as part of a long-standing unspoken strategy of the Taliban to make Afghan women invisible, forgotten, and unemployed on account of lack of skill and education, rendering them entirely dependent on male members of their families. 

One female activist told the magazine that she had returned to her home province from Kabul, worried that some of her relatives would end up dead. 
Before the fall of Kabul in August 2021, her brother had been assassinated by the Taliban. Her father had been a Muslim cleric and had moved the family to Kandahar shortly after she was born, claiming that his daughter's education was only possible in a more advanced and open city.  
During the trip, the female activist narrowly escaped arrest by a large group of Taliban fighters after travelling to a remote district in her home province in an attempt to understand how she could help alleviate their suffering.  
Travelling to these areas had been more complicated before last year, she noted, since "only the cities were under control of the government," while the Taliban were in control of the rest of the province for years prior to their capture of Kabul. 
Her upbringing in, and contact with, both rural and urban areas of the country had made the activist keenly aware of how few opportunities there were for girls to be educated — especially in, but not limited to, rural areas — even before the Taliban.  
"We had one high school in the provincial capital and another one in a different part of the province," she said.  
However, in the areas under Taliban control no high schools had been built or were operating where girls could get anything beyond primary school education. 
And there were "never any universities" for women in the entire province, she added.  
"The only thing women can do if they want to study is attend an institute to learn how to be a midwife and the course only lasts a few months," she said. 
Her dream was to get a master's degree in business administration, but she now sees no chance of that in the Afghanistan of today.  
She is currently unemployed after losing her job when the Taliban took over the country and stays home most of the time, every day. 
Confined to homes 
Similar cases are found throughout the country, as women are being forced to return to the seclusion of their homes.  
"Most of them have been unemployed for over a year," said one university-educated government employee working in a province southeast of the capital Kabul.  
She had continued to receive some sort of salary for the past year but had been denied access to her place of employment in government offices.  
"When the new year starts, they are going to eliminate all these positions," she said, adding that she will be left with no job and no salary.  
Another woman, belonging to an ethnic minority, told Al Majalla: "At first, we were afraid of them (the Taliban). We didn't know what to expect. It has, in some way, become normal now," adding that the 'morality' police still scare them. 

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In this picture taken on December 23, 2022, Marwa (L), a student reads a book with her sister at their home in Kabul.

This entity had existed during the Taliban's previous rule between 1996 and 2001 and was, according to Human Rights Watch, "a notorious symbol of arbitrary abuses, particularly against women and girls." 
After overrunning the state in mid-summer 2021, the Taliban immediately abolished the Women's Affairs Ministry, which had been established in late 2001, handing over its premises to so-called morality police.  
Bad conditions denied 
On his part, a young man working at the IEA's education department denied that conditions were as bad as they seemed for Afghan women.  
He claimed that, since the emirate took power, "We have been building schools and trying to grant them [Afghan girls] some access" to at least primary schooling.  
He noted that he had personally made sure that 15 girls in one district were allowed access to education.  
"We have done a lot. We are trying to make education for girls accessible, but we don't have the resources and facilities needed for online schooling," he continued.   
Other setbacks include irregular internet access and multiple societal issues that affect whether Afghan girls have access to education.  
"We have problems, not only [here] but throughout the country. We have a lot of harmful traditions across the country, like dowries," he said.  
"Underage marriages and forced marriages are still happening across Afghanistan," greatly affecting girls' schooling, he pointed out. 
"Life in the villages is a lot better than what it used to be," he claimed, stressing that the Taliban had expanded schooling in rural communities and given young girls living there the right to a basic primary-level education.  
"We think that [teenage] girls should have access to education but there are a few people who think that this is not helpful," he explained.  
Extremists opposed to girls' education were a minority nevertheless, he added, both in urban centres and rural communities.  
"Not only religious people but also people in remote villages in the countryside believe their girls should go to school," he said, reiterating that, in the past, there had been some villages where, due to conflict, girls did not have access to education "while now they do."  
Further criticising policies of the pre-Taliban era, he said: "Under the republic, there were some places where no investment was made in girls' education."  
Some prominent Taliban leaders have also criticised the decision to keep girls from attending high schools, either implicitly or explicitly. 
Deputy Foreign Minister and former head of the Taliban Political Office in Doha, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai, made reference to this in a televised speech on 25 September 2022, stating: "Education is obligatory for both men and women, without any discrimination. None of the religious scholars present here can deny this obligation. No one can offer a justification based on [Islamic] sharia for opposing [women's right to education]."  
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told an international gathering of Islamic scholars in Turkey on 17 October that: "Males are educated from Grade 1 to Grade 12, and the girls also attend schools up to Grade 6, but from Grade 7 to Grade 12, the schools are stopped." 

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Afghan female students take entrance exams at Kabul University in Kabul on October 13, 2022.

He continued: "They are not stopped because we do not want education. We are preparing their principles, curriculum, educational places, and transportation, to make sure that people are mentally prepared for their daughters to be educated, that their hijab is observed, and that what they learn is valid, because our past curriculum was made by America."  
When asked whether the Taliban would abide by its promises, the female activist told Al Majalla that this could only be achieved if international pressure was applied on the new rulers of Kabul.  
Otherwise, "under the current leaders, I do not think that teenage girls will ever get the chance for an education," she said. 
**Due to credible reports of Afghans losing their jobs and being harassed for having spoken out against the IEA's policies toward women and girls, the names of those interviewed for this article are being withheld for their personal security, upon their request. ** 

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