Afghanistan: The only country that bans girls’ education

Women and teachers demonstrate inside a private school to demand their rights and equal education for women and girls, during a gathering for National Teachers Day, at a private school in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, 5 October, 2021. (Keystone/ AP Photo/Ahmad Halabisaz)

Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque and university, earlier this month joined a growing number of high-profile appeals for the Taliban to restore women’s rights in Afghanistan and grant all girls access to education.

In a message posted on Twitter on 11 October, he said: “Islam liberated women from ignorant customs that robbed them of their rights and saw them as imperfect human beings that lack free will.”

“On the International Day of the Girl, we call for all necessary measures to guarantee girls and young women their Islamically protected rights to education and dignity,” he added.

Since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August, girls have been banned from returning to secondary school and are still anxiously waiting to hear whether they will be allowed to go back to the classroom.

According to Al-Jazeera, a spokesperson for the country’s Ministry of Interior Affairs last week signalled that girls will be allowed to return soon. However, no further details confirming this statement have been disclosed and it is not yet clear when or under which conditions schools will be reopened.

Out-of-school. The ban is the latest blow to the country’s education system that has been devastated by more than three decades of sustained conflict.

Although access to education and enrollment has improved dramatically since 2001, UNICEF estimates that as many 3.7 million children were still out of school in Afghanistan in 2018 and that 60 per cent of them are girls.

Girls are significantly less likely to attend school than boys across all ages but the barriers to education increase when girls reach adolescence, driven by multiple social and cultural obstacles.

“The underlying reasons for low girls’ enrolment are insecurity and traditional norms and practices related to girls’ and women’s role in the society,” UNICEF says in its report.

“Other reasons can be explained in part by a lack of female teachers, especially in rural schools. Certain sociocultural factors and traditional beliefs also undermine girls’ education. Girls continue to marry very young – 17 per cent before their 15th birthday.”

The latest actions by the Taliban threaten to reverse the progress of the last two decades, with Afghanistan now the only nation in the world that forbids girls’ education, according to an open letter written by 2014 Nobel peace prize laureate and activist Malala Yousafzai in September urging the Taliban to revoke the ban.

Ghosts of the past. In the two months since the return of the Taliban, the regime has backtracked on its promises to uphold the rights of women and girls after its all-male cabinet banned women from most roles outside the education and healthcare sectors and closed down the women’s affairs ministry.

Many fear that these moves signal an inevitable return of the regime of the 1990s, when the Taliban severely restricted girls' and women's rights.

Wagma, a mother of three children, living in Kabul, is worried that her two daughters will suffer a similar fate to her and be unable to complete their education.

“When the Taliban first took power, I was in the 12th grade and I was preparing to go to university. I loved engineering but they took the right of education from us. Finally, after two years, I got married, and my wishes were never fulfilled.”

“Now, I'm very upset to see my daughters cannot go to school,” she adds.  “Both girls are talented. Manigha wants to be a diplomat and my little girl Marzia loves journalism. Every night when they sleep, I slowly go into their room, caress their innocent faces and cry.”

A return to the classroom. Addressing the Security Council last Thursday,  UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said: “In Afghanistan, girls and women are seeing a rapid reversal of the rights they achieved in recent decades, including their right to a seat in the classroom.”

He urged the international community to “fight back” in defense of the rights of women and girls. “We will not stop until girls can go back to school, and women can return to their jobs and participate in public life."

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The calls came as Russia hosted high profile talks on Afghanistan involving senior representatives of the Taliban, calling for an “inclusive government” that includes all ethnic groups and political forces to ensure stability.

The Moscow talks, supported by 10 other nations, called for an international donor conference to be arranged under the auspices of the UN to help mitigate the country’s worsening humanitarian crisis and shore up the collapsing economy.

About 80 per cent of Afghanistan’s economy is informal and dominated by women, according to the UN.

“Without them, there is no way the Afghan economy and society will recover,” Guterres told the Security Council, reiterating his appeal to the Taliban to keep their promises to women and girls.