Author: Wardah Rehman
ADV Editors: Sanet Solomon and Jia Kim
The notification of the indefinite ban on women’s education beyond grade six was released in December. 2022, months into the Taliban’s rule. Small demonstrations by women around Kabul were soon shut down, and Taliban policemen raided schools to ensure their closure. The Higher Education Minister defended the suspension based on women’s non-adherence to Islamic conduct in academic institutions. In another statement, he compared academic institutions to prostitution centres, asserting that women are not allowed by religion to attain any kind of education. (PBS, 2022) On similar grounds, the Taliban also banned women from working in NGOs1 a day later. (United Nations, 2022) Speculations built about the Taliban’s assurances on August 15 tend to shatter as days pass by. Whether the regime reverses the decision remains to be seen; however, Afghan women have struggled and suffered throughout the state’s history.
Women at war
According to the UN Women’s country representative in Afghanistan, “every passing day since the Taliban took power has brought a deterioration in their rights, condition, and social and political status.” (United Nations, 2022)
The struggles of Afghan women continue even in the post-war era, with steady violations of their rights and oppression by the Taliban. Another UN report explicitly declared the Taliban’s actions against women to be crimes against humanity. Since its return to power in August 2021, the regime has renounced its promise to guarantee women’s rights and not jeopardise the education of women. While the world was hoping to believe the Taliban’s promises of respecting human rights and freedom a second time, restrictions on women started to unfold, rolling back women’s efforts of two decades to become part of their society (Al Jazeera, 2022; United Nations, 2022)
– A month after the takeover, in September 2021, the authorities announced gender-segregated classrooms for universities, allowing teachers of the same gender or older men to teach. Following that, in March 2022, the Taliban completely banned secondary and high schools, eliciting protests from women but yielding no significant gains and a barbaric response. Most recently, the Ministry of Higher Education announced another “indefinite” bans on university education for women. (CNN, 2022) It is noteworthy that along with the formally announced ban on secondary and higher education, even primary schools are not open across the country due to a lack of access and tribal reluctance. The regime’s stance on the former ban was “temporary” and a pause to reform Western-inspired curricula. In contrast, the latter formal restriction reflects fundamentalism within the regime, clearly having no space for women. asserting the ban as being in the national interest and a move to preserve religious and cultural values.
Religion or Culture?
Neda Mohammad Nadim, who took charge as the higher education minister in October. argued that educating women clashed with Afghan and Islamic values. Unlike his predecessor, who was relatively moderate in that he was in favour of at least religious education and institutions (the madrasa), Nadim is one of the hardliners. However, the logic being applied by the Taliban holds no religious grounds. Certainly, the aim is to only diminish women’s presence in public spheres, or, in other words, cut down half of the population that might question the authoritative regime. In this way, Emirates is using religious justification for politics, despite the lack of evidence to support it (Siddique, 2022)
The Taliban’s interpretation of Shariah regarding women’s education and societal engagement has met universal condemnation, even from the Muslim world. Political leaders and Islamic scholars have explicitly denounced the Taliban’s posture towards women and girls’ education and employment rights as having no roots in religion or shariah law. (Al Jazeera, 2022) However, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the largest representative platform of the Muslim world, in Article 6, suggests the elimination of practices intended to impede women’s freedom, rights, and civic participation. Throughout the history of Islam, women have been encouraged to proactively participate and explicitly represent themselves in social and religious aspects of their lives, parallel to men. From an Islamic perspective, the attainment of education, irrespective of gender, remains crucial for human and societal development. Without knowledge, Islam argues, no human can reach the designated stage of intellect and character. The first Quranic revelation starts with the word “Iqra,” which means “Read!”, reflecting the emphasis Islam has placed on mankind to seek knowledge. Thus Islam advocates the pursuit of education and the acquisition of knowledge as a religious obligation for all Muslims, regardless of gender, status, or class. Similarly, contrary to the Taliban’s claim, Islam considers educated women to be essential for an inclusive and progressive society. (Rashid, 2010)
The treatment of women under the Taliban has ratcheted up restrictions on women’s and girls’ employment, education, public interactions, and other fundamental rights such as access to justice and mobility, with a vision to restore religious morality in society by targeting women. (BBC, 2022) However, the position of “Islamic values” is entangled with the power struggle within the already divided Taliban regime. The Taliban, since its inception as a rival faction, has been using religion as an instrument to assert its legitimacy while representing itself as a saviour, aimed to purify society from the evils of Western influence. The approach has shifted from securing women to securitizing women, whose freedom and civic participation, assumably, pose a threat to Afghan culture and larger Islamic values. (Vale at el., 2023) Such radical ideology-based rhetoric navigates state policy today and consequently reflects a failure to bring “moderation” and “pragmatism” within the authority. Women in Afghanistan are the first victims of a political and cultural system that Telesetsky refers to as “gender apartheid,” exhibiting systemic repression of women’s bodies, voices, and mobility. (Telesetsky, 1998) The increased pace is demonstrated by their imposition of Sharia law punishments, such as public executions, floggings, and extrajudicial killings. Henceforth, their Islamic claims remain void and unconvincing. Curbing women’s access to education has no religious justification but an extremist ideological agenda. Most significantly, the patriarchal mindset of governance that prevails within the regime propels the continued domination and unilateral control over women and other minorities. This displays a clear contradiction between the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam and the religion’s true teachings.
Reformists versus hardliners
Another notable speculation about the ban decision was the lack of absolute agreement within the regime. There is a divide within the Taliban leadership: the hardliners from the south, who are conservatives, are making decisions while the eastern reformists, who signed the Doha Pact, have been side-lined. (BBC, 2022) Despite the unpopularity of the decision within the leadership and criticism around the globe, it is to be noted that the Taliban have coercively enforced their vision. Also, the so-called moderate, reformist Taliban are so passive that they have failed to exert pressure on the Emir to prevent the ban. The international community, particularly the Islamic world, holds significant responsibility, in this case, to pressurize the regime intellectually and continue communication to counter the Taliban’s claims and interpretation of Shariah. It could be in the form of formal and informal messaging, at state and factional levels.
With global attention shifting to emerging geopolitical peripheries, Afghan women appear to be abandoned by the world. Failing to exert pressure on the regime, the international community lacks much leverage against the Taliban to make them “moderates,” other than imposing economic sanctions and the threat of releasing assets. Given the scenario, disengagement is the policy that is largely being applied. For instance, NGOs suspending work in Afghanistan post-decision will only deteriorate women’s well-being. The international community is required to keep negotiating with and supporting Afghan society. Negotiations should focus on offering alternative sources of income as well as addressing the underlying factors of conflict, such as poverty and access to education. The regional actors are highly required to make wider, collective, and more convincing efforts to imply practical pressure on the regime in Kabul.
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Wardah Rehman, is an undergraduate of International Relations at Fatima Jinnah Women
University, Pakistan. Having a keen interest in south Asian politics and strategic affairs.