Taliban U-turn leaves Afghan girls shut out of school
Afghan schoolgirls clutch UNICEF textbooks as school materials are distributed to students in Kabul, March 25, 2002. REUTERS/Jim Hollander
What’s the context?
A Taliban decree banning women from attending university has triggered an international backlash
LONDON - Afghan women and girls are turning to underground schools and online university courses run by foreign institutions as the Taliban widen their ban on education.
A decree in December barring women from Afghan universities has drawn worldwide condemnation and sparked protests across the country as the Taliban authorities continue to curtail freedoms.
Most girls' high schools have remained shut since the hardline Islamist movement's return to power in August 2021.
Rights groups fear the administration could also exclude girls from primary schools when they reopen in March after a long winter break.
Afghanistan is the only country in the world that bars girls from education.
The Taliban, which banned girls from school in a draconian 1996 to 2001 rule, had at first promised a more modern face.
But the administration has rapidly imposed many of the same harsh restrictions, reversing two decades of internationally-backed efforts to educate and empower Afghan girls and women.
Why did the Taliban bar girls from school?
The Taliban are divided between hardliners who oppose girls' education and those who want schools to reopen.
The administration has repeatedly stipulated girls must be taught in accordance with Islamic law, without specifying exactly what that means.
Last year, the government said it was drawing up a plan to reopen high schools, but this has not materialised.
The curriculum, school uniforms, girls' transport to schools and gender segregation are among contentious issues.
What's behind the Taliban's university ban?
Reasons cited for the ban included inappropriate dress, lack of gender segregation, and women studying traditionally male subjects such as agriculture and engineering.
Acting Higher Education Minister Nida Mohammad Nadim said female students were turning up as if dressed for a wedding - a comment that one source said may refer to some wearing bright colours under the head-to-toe coverings enforced by the Taliban.
Some lecturers have quit their posts in protest at the ban.
In Nangarhar University in eastern Afghanistan, male students also walked out of exams in solidarity.
Many Muslim countries and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have criticised the education ban as un-Islamic.
The Taliban-led administration calls the measure temporary, but has told other countries not to interfere.
What about primary schools?
The Taliban reopened primary schools for all shortly after seizing control, but only let boys attend secondary school.
The authorities eventually announced older girls could return to school in March 2022, but in a last-minute U-turn, abruptly sent them home on the first day of term.
Despite the ban, some girls' high schools stayed open - albeit quietly - but it is not clear if they will reopen when the new academic year starts in the spring.
Fears that the ban might be extended to primary schools have been stoked by the winter closure of girls' private tutoring centres.
The administration has not said anything about shutting girls' primary schools and teachers are still being paid.
Do Afghans support girls education?
Some 87% are in favour, according to a 2019 survey by the Asia Foundation, an international development organisation.
School attendance rose rapidly after U.S.-led forces ousted the previous Taliban administration in 2001, with more than 3.6 million girls enrolled by 2018. The increase in girls in secondary education was particularly marked.
University attendance also soared, with tens of thousands of women studying everything from medicine to law to journalism.
In 2015, Kabul University even launched a master's degree in gender and women's studies.
But the country still has one of the biggest education gender gaps.
- Girls accounted for 60% of the 3.7 million Afghan children out of school before the Taliban took over, according to the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.
- Only 37% of teenage girls can read and write, compared to 66% of boys, according to Human Rights Watch.
- Government data before the Taliban takeover suggested a third of girls were wed by the age of 18 and nearly 9% by 15.
Are closed classrooms the only obstacle?
Aid agencies say the economic crisis has forced girls to drop out of school. With the Taliban barring women from most jobs, some families also see less reason to educate girls.
A Taliban rule requiring a male chaperone for any female outside the house is a further obstacle.
Another barrier is a long-standing shortage of female teachers, with just one in three teachers a woman in 2016 and far fewer in some remote provinces. The Taliban oppose mixed education.
Education experts say the curriculum for girls has focused increasingly on religious education and there have been discussions about removing maths and English altogether.
What impact will the ban have?
Closing girls' schools will encourage more child marriage and fuel child labour, according to women's rights experts.
Girls say it also impacts their mental health.
Unlike their mothers, many have grown up with education and aspirations, know their rights and feel more connected to the outside world through social media and the internet.
The international community says Afghanistan cannot prosper if half the population is excluded from education and work, and that bans only encourage a continuing exodus of the educated.
Can older girls and women still access education?
Individuals and organisations are running "underground schools" at private homes, while institutes outside the country are offering girls and women free online courses.
But poor connectivity, poverty and language barriers put these options out of reach for most.
University of the People (UoP), a U.S.-based teaching organisation, said it had received more than 15,000 applications from women in Afghanistan since 2021, a third of them since Dec 20 when the university ban was announced.
But limited funding restricts the number of scholarships; UoP expects 2,000 women to enrol this term.
Digital learning platform FutureLearn is also providing free access to hundreds of short courses on behalf of dozens of universities and institutes, many in Britain.
Scholars at Risk, which protects academic freedom, has called for more scholarships and opportunities for Afghan women.
However, the difficulty of obtaining passports and visas and a rule banning Afghan women from travelling without a chaperone would make it near impossible for most to attend foreign universities unless they had already left the country.
In January, Germany announced it would support about 5,000 Afghan women to study in Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, saying this could also help them rebuild their homeland when conditions allow.
This story was updated on Jan 18 following the Taliban's December ban on women attending university.
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