On March 23, there was a sense of optimism in the air as celebrations of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, took place. After a seven-month suspension, millions of girls across Afghanistan were excited and ready to return to school for the beginning of the new school year, only to be sent home as schools shut their doors and armed Taliban guards prevented them from entering.
After two decades of fighting, these girls had been counting down the days when they would be able to resume their education.
For some, the last-minute U-turn was too much to handle. Tears turned to outrage, and a few days later dozens of female students protested near the Taliban's ministry of education in Kabul, calling on the government to reopen girls' secondary schools.
"Open the schools! Justice! Justice!" they chanted, and held banners that said "Education is our fundamental right, not a political plan."
Women in Afghanistan once again lost their freedom to work and their fundamental right to education, signalling that the days of repression are back since the Taliban seized power last August.
Since the Taliban took control of the county, they have enforced new mandates where women attending university must wear Islamic clothes and have ordered girls and young women to stay home away from schools and banned working, separating women and men from visiting parks.
History is cyclical; when the Taliban seized power in September 1996, the Supreme Council issued orders prohibiting women and girls from working outside the home, attending school and university, or leaving their homes unless accompanied by a mahram (husband, father, brother, or son). The Taliban's religious police meted out severe punishment for any infractions of the moral order.
Prior to the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996, 60% of Kabul University teachers were women, as were nearly half the students; women constituted 50% of civilian government workers (in Kabul, 70% of the 130,000 civil servants), 70% of the school teachers, and 40% of the doctors.
In reaction to the Taliban's last-minute U-turn on girls’ education, the international community has highlighted that they will remain committed to human rights in Afghanistan and have called on the Taliban to cope with the facts of time instead of investing resources in persecuting civilians.
A joint statement by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, and the European Union called for the decision to be reversed. "We call on the Taliban urgently to reverse this decision, which will have consequences far beyond its harm to Afghan girls," it stated.
These must be prerequisites for the international community's protracted engagement with the Taliban — and they cannot be granted to use girls' education as leverage to negotiate. Repercussions of the Taliban's decision should be swift and robust, but Afghan women and girls must not be the victims.
It is the time to move from statements to actions. The international community, specifically countries in the region and especially the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation OIC members, should further consolidate Afghan women's fundamental human rights, girls' education, and women's employment in their diplomatic and economic negotiations with the Taliban.
In response to international pressure, during the past eight months, the Taliban had promised to reopen the education doors to teenage girls. However, they have stepped back, arguing that girls' school uniforms are not Islamic, which is an untenable argument. The uniform — a black long tunics and pants and a white headscarf designed in keeping with Hanafi jurisprudence - are far from the problem.
Even Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, one of few provinces where school's have remained open since the Taliban seized power, was threatened with closure if they declined to comply with increasingly harsh dress codes.
"The requirements on the hijab are getting tougher day by day," said a teacher to Human Rights Watch regarding the mandatory Muslim headscarf. "They have spies to record and report.… If students or teachers don't follow their strict hijab rules, without any discussion they fire the teachers and expel the students."
Nevertheless, the Quran encourages both women and men to read, contemplate, and pursue education. The Prophet Muhammad encouraged education as a religious duty for males and females: "Seek education from the cradle to the grave."
Indeed, most Muslim women have the right to education and work. One in ten humans in the world is a Muslim woman: 800 million in total.
As per the World Bank report, "working women now represent 30% of the 450 million women in Muslim-majority economies. Labour force participation rates vary widely - 74% in Kazakhstan, 53% in Indonesia and Malaysia, 42% in the UAE, 33% in Turkey, 26% in Pakistan, and 21% in Saudi Arabia - but are growing faster for women than for men in nearly all Muslim-majority economies." Muslim women's merged incomes would make them the 16th most prosperous country, with total revenues at just under $1 trillion.
And across the Muslim world, girls are attending schools at increasing rates, with many going on to pursue higher education as well. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country, women's university enrolment has increased from 2% in 1970 to nearly 33% today. In Saudi Arabia, half of university-age women attend university, which is higher than in Mexico, China, Brazil, and India.
But nowhere has a war on women been witnessed so starkly as in Afghanistan. Flagrant abuses of Afghan women's most basic human rights in education, health, work, and civil and political participation have been widely documented. Muslim women clearly have an Islamic right to education.
The Taliban’s ban on schools for girls above 6th grade has made Afghanistan the only country on earth to prohibit girl’s education.
And is already causing damage. With teenage girls barred from continuing their education, many families are already marrying off young girls to pivot their support to husbands. Women's roles have been blunted, and women are deprived of their dignity, rights, and status at home and in society.
If the ban on girls' high school education becomes permanent, it would eventually exclude women from all sectors of society under the cover of religion. The Taliban have allowed female teachers, nurses, doctors, and some civil servants to continue working. Nevertheless, the road for women to fill these jobs will run empty without receiving an education.
What the Taliban did to Afghan teenage girls is a fatal scratch, and the outcome will be a disaster and will infect the whole country.
Mujtaba Haris is an Afghan researcher, journalist, and youth advocate. He spent 15 years working in major cities — Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-e Sharif — and rural areas — Logar province. He is an MBA graduate from Cumbria University, UK. He is a Global Peace award winner.
Follow him on Twitter: @mujtaba_haris
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