International Day of Education

In light of the International Day of Education (24 January), it is timely to reflect on the recent ban on women attending university, the limitations for girls in secondary schools, and the restriction on women
educators in Afghanistan. UNESCO dedicates its fifth edition of the International Day to all the girls and women in Afghanistan, who have been denied their right to learn, study and teach. Director-General Ms. Audrey Azoulay states,

“The Organization condemns this serious attack on human dignity and on the fundamental right to education. With these persistent threats towards the advancement of education and careers… the future is seemingly bleak. To many, the threat towards education has been imminent, yet many still held hope onto the Taliban’s earlier statements reassuring the public of them upholding human rights obligations”.

After a 20-year war and the collapse of the Western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban took back power in August of 2021. With many fearing and questioning this ‘new’ regime, the Taliban promised they would abide to various human rights obligations, specifically reassuring that, “our sisters and our men have the same rights,” and that they were “committed to the rights of women” within the context of their interpretation of Islamic mandates”. Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the Minister of Higher Education, also promised, “the people of Afghanistan will continue their higher education in the light of sharia law in safety without being in a mixed male and female

However, these were empty promises, as the Taliban first showcased their power by gradually impeding on these rights a month into power. In September 2021, women were only permitted in universities that adhered to gender-segregated classrooms with strict dress code rules, and were
only taught by professors of the same sex or older men. And the threat to education did not stop there: in March 2022, all girls’ secondary schools were shut down, with the students being instructed to stay home till further notice. This restriction was then bolstered by the Minister of Higher Education’s announcement that women’s education would be suspended in December – “no PhD or master’s degree is valuable today. You see that the Mullahs and Taliban that are in power have no PhD, masters or even a high school degree, but they are the greatest of all”.

The Taliban insists that these measures are backed up by their interpretation of Islamic teachings, yet we have seen several leaders from Muslim-majority countries condemn their actions. The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed their astonishment and regret of the Taliban’s backtracking on their initial statement, compelling them to “reverse this decision, which is astonishing in all Islamic countries” and give “Afghan women their full legitimate rights, foremost of which is the right to education, which contributes to supporting security, stability, development and prosperity for Afghanistan”. Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also urged the end of the ban and expressed their concern and disappointment towards the regime. The UAE representative for the UN declared the Taliban’s actions aimed to erase women and girls from public life, further stating that the ban would “violate fundamental human rights, contravene the teachings of Islam, and must be swiftly
reversed”. The Secretary-General for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation believes that these bans and restrictions will ruin the government’s already failing credibility, but most importantly deny girls and women access to their fundamental rights.

It is important to remember that before the Taliban’s takeover in 1996, Afghanistan benefitted from an inclusive education system, where women and girls took up 50% of Kabul University’s population (both individually within student and teacher populations), as well as 70% of the country’s
schoolteachers, 50% of civilian government workers, and 40% of doctors. With the enrolment of girls drastically increasing from 100,000 (2000) to over 3.5 million in recent years, many fear these numbers will severely dwindle with the new bans and restrictions.

The Taliban has a history of impeding on human rights. It is pertinent that not only are their actions scrutinised and condemned, but most importantly as a global community that we strive and actively contribute to protecting the rights of these girls and women, many of whom have only endured hardship and strife.