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Two years on, Taliban's war on girls' education continues

'An Islamic right': Two years on, the Taliban's war on girl's education continues
7 min read
29 August, 2023
In-depth: Two years into Taliban rule, girls in Afghanistan are turning to religious schools as their only option. With one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, banning girls' education puts the future of the entire country at risk.

On the second anniversary of the Taliban’s rule, there were speculations that the de facto government would announce the reopening of schools and universities for girls in Afghanistan. But that hasn’t happened.

Shortly after they came to power in August 2021, the Taliban suspended secondary education for girls over the age of 12. The ban on girls' education has resulted in about 1.1 million girls and young women not having access to formal education.

In December 2022, university education for women was suspended until further notice, affecting more than 100,000 girl students attending public and private universities across the country.

Since then, Afghanistan has remained the only country in the world to put a ban on girls’ access to education.

The United States and its allies have invested billions of dollars over the past 20 years to improve girls' access to education, but all of that has come to naught since the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan two years ago, on 30 August 2021, leaving the country in chaos and paving the way for Taliban takeover.

The reduction in international aid that followed the military withdrawal led to the suspension of thousands of development projects, including in the education sector, and plunged the country into crisis.

Lacking any other options, some female students in Kabul and other cities have now turned to religious schools as the only way to continue getting an education.

The Taliban has allowed girls' religious schools to remain open and teach girls up to grade 14. Afghanistan's official school system consists of public schools that educate students up to grade 12 and religious schools that also offer two years of college education.

Rahima, a female teacher at Kabul's Bibi Ayesha Siddiqa religious school, said several public school students were admitted to her school this year.

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"More than 100 girl students came to our school this year from other schools. All of them are grade seven and above students, who are not allowed to go to public schools due to restrictions on formal education for girls. We had to create three classes instead of one, like normal years, for the new admissions," she told New Arab.

“Many families say it is better to send their daughters to a religious school than to keep them at home doing nothing. But we won’t be able to accept a lot of students with the current capacity of our schools,” she added. 

Bashir Ahmad, a PhD scholar and a lecturer of religious studies in Kabul, explained that the long-term effect on society of preventing girls from studying a wide variety of subjects would be detrimental.

“Islam doesn’t restrict women to getting only religious education. While attaining necessary religious education is an obligation of every man and woman, it’s also compulsory for men and women to receive education in other fields such as medicine, education and others,” he told The New Arab.

Currently, 80% of school-aged Afghan girls and young women do not attend school due to the restrictions on education enforced by the Taliban. [Getty]

“With schools closed for girls, we are moving towards darkness every day. A whole part of the society is deprived of their human and Islamic right.”

Nasima, a 14-year-old student, who joined Bibi Ayesha Seddiqa school this year after she completed grade six at a public school, said her dream of becoming a computer science engineer is fading away.

“I wanted to complete school and study computer science but it seems I have to forget about my dream because schools and universities will not reopen anytime soon. We lost hope and we are helpless,” she said sorrowfully.

“I am attending a religious school now. I am happy that I can go to my new school but I won’t be able to learn as many subjects as I would do in my other school. I miss my own school and my classmates and friends,” she told The New Arab.

“Many of my classmates either left the country with their families or are staying at home. We already forgot most of what we studied in our school,” Nasima said.

Dr Palwasha Ahad, an Afghan-American psychologist and advocate of girls' education, believes all efforts and focus should be on opening girls' schools because any alternatives to building an all-inclusive K-12 nationwide education programme will be to the detriment of the country's future.

"Afghanistan consistently ranks as one of the lowest in terms of literacy and quality of education. There is no future for the country without educating both genders. Education for children helps nurture critical thinking, and emotional intelligence and acts as a buffer against mental illness," Dr Ahad told The New Arab.

"Investment should be made in a nationwide education program for all genders. Without it, the country is doomed to repeat the mistakes of its past," she added.

According to Afghanistan’s ministry of education, a total of 36,203 new students were accepted to religious schools across the country, among them were 12,308 girls. With this, the total number of students studying in 1,142 government-run religious schools reaches 330,950, with a total of 94,462 girls and young women.

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Girls education is probably the only major issue that has caused a division within the Taliban. For the first time, a decree by the supreme leader of the group was publicly challenged by members of the group and caused public display of discontent.

Some senior Taliban officials, including the Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, criticised the ban on girls education and repeatedly expressed support to reopening girls’ schools in public gatherings and media appearances.

In his most recent appearance on 23 August, Stanikzai told a conference at the Afghanistan Sciences Academy in Kabul that the government has to provide education for all.

“The Quran and the Sharia allow women to study, and the first verse of the Quran also refers to reading. It is the duty of rulers to provide education and work for women,” he said while speaking at the conference.

With no other options for education, many girls in Afghanistan have started to attend religious schools, though there is not enough space for all to attend. [Getty]

The Taliban government said from the beginning of its rule in 2021 that the suspension of girls education would be “temporary” and “a logical solution” would be sought soon.

In March 2022, the Taliban announced the reopening of girls schools in Kabul and some other major cities, causing a short moment of joy and celebration. But a few hours after the girls entered their classes, they were asked to leave again. Since then, girls' schools have remained shut.

The religious leadership within the Taliban, including the supreme leader himself, are reportedly against girls getting modern or “worldly” education because, in their view, it’s optional and not mandatory on women to get worldly education. They have even suggested limiting the number of modern subjects within boys’ schools.

Although voices among the group who support girls’ education are prominent, this has not translated into a strong influence on decision making because allowing girls’ education could cause divisions within the group and may harm the group’s “unity”.

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Religious studies lecturer Bashir Ahmad emphasises that both religious and worldly education are mandatory on men and women.

“Every field of education that is necessary for the society and can empower the Muslim nation also known as the Ummah is mandatory. Both men and women have a responsibility in strengthening society. That is possible only if they receive proper education.”

For the Taliban, pressure is mounting from outside and within. In the international arena, the group is struggling with diplomatic pressure and isolation, much of which is focused on allowing girls to study and work as a precondition for international recognition. 

Within the country, the Taliban is facing a crisis of legitimacy, and continues to lose support for its escalating crackdown on women and girls two years on.

Modaser Islami is an Afghan journalist and writer.

Follow him on Twitter: @mmodaser