Since the Taliban seized power in August of 2021, they have widely integrated their interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.
Their ability to assume power in Afghanistan occurred after negotiations with the United States, who had American forces in the country to assure civil and foreign peace. The US-Taliban deal included that the Taliban were committed to national peace talks – which were never followed through on.
Afghan officials were very concerned for their government after the United States pulled back on assistance. By April 2021, President Joe Biden announced that all American forces would be leaving Afghanistan by September 11. The Taliban took ten days to sweep the country and by the August 15, they were at the Capital of Kabul and asserted their dominance by overthrowing the government.
Taliban takeover and women’s place in Afghan society
Their implementation of power has led to several changes for women including banning girls from middle and high school, eliminating many positions of employment for women, and ordering women to wear head-to-toe clothing in public places.
In addition to these rules, they have also banned women from both parks and gyms. The Taliban’s interpretation and thus, integration of strict regulations have therefore, already demonstrated great amounts of gender inequalities and have restricted the freedoms of girls and women in Afghanistan.
Women’s education in Afghanistan
The Taliban’s most recent decision to ban women from post-secondary education further pushes the agenda to eliminate women’s roles in public society, which ties back to their first time in power when they evoked rules that girls could not receive formal education. In response to this, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur to Afghanistan spoke saying that it was “… a new low further violating the right to equal education and deepens the erasure of women from Afghan society.”
Reactions by women who were given the news that they would no longer be allowed to go to their universities was met with great distress. A business student at a private university in Kabul, Shaista noted what occurred when she found out the news: “… we went to university, the Taliban were at the gate and told us, ‘you are not allowed to enter the university until further notice’…everyone was crying.”
The banning of women’s access to post-secondary education was defended by the minister of higher education in the Taliban government, Nida Mohammad Nadim. He noted that the ban was necessary for various reasons including that it prevents the mixing of genders in universities, that women fail to adhere to dress codes, and that the subjects being taught at universities violate the principles of Islam.
Specifically, he explained that “… we [the Taliban] told girls to have proper hijab, but they didn’t, and they wore dresses like they are going to a wedding ceremony.”
He adds that, “… girls were studying agriculture and engineering, but this didn’t match Afghan culture. Girls should learn, but not in areas that go against Islam and Afghan honor.” The justifications have been heavily criticised as acting merely as a reflection of the Taliban’s interpretations of Islam to accomplish their own agenda of separating girls and women from public spheres.
Nadim did note that work was being done to fix those issues and that universities would eventually reopen to women once they were resolved. However, the Taliban has previously promised the same for girls’ access to high school education, stating that they would be accepted back into classes once the “technical issues” with uniforms and transportation were fixed. Yet, girls are still not allowed in classrooms.
The violation of women’s rights is notable and contributes to the international and domestic pressures urging the Taliban to reverse the ban. Specifically, the foreign ministers of the G-7 group of states which includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, and European Union, warned that “… gender persecution may amount to a crime against humanity” and that the “… Taliban policies designed to erase women from public life will have consequences for how our countries engage with the Taliban.”
G-7 foreign ministers have also personally, condemned the actions of the Taliban publicly such as Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, Melanie Joly. She wrote on Twitter, “The Taliban announced that they are suspending female students from attending universities, denying them the prospect of a better life. Equal access to all levels of education is a right to which every woman and every girl is entitled. We condemn this outrageous violation.”
In addition to the G-7 criticism, countries whose main religions are Islam, have also spoken up against the Taliban’s decision, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Foreign Minister of Turkey, Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke up stating that the ban was “… neither Islamic nor humane” and called on the Taliban to revoke their ban.
Cavusoglu does so by questioning the ban: “What harm is there in women’s education? What harm does it do to Afghanistan? Is there an Islamic explanation? On the contrary, our religion, Islam, is not against education, on the contrary, it encourages education and science.”
The Saudi Arabian foreign ministry expressed “astonishment and regret” regarding women’s denial for attending post-secondary education. They too experienced tight restrictions on women’s rights as women’s travel, employment and daily lives were highly regulated up until 2019. Along with other Islamic countries, they urged the Taliban to change their decision on the ban.
A march of about two dozen women occurred the following day on December 21, 2022, after the announcement. They protested the Taliban governments ban by chanting in Dari for both freedom and equality: “All or none. Don’t be afraid. We are together.”
Protestors from the Afghanistan Women’s Unity and Solidarity group said: “Today we come out on the streets of Kabul to raise our voices against the closure of the girls’ universities.”
One student at the protest told the BBC that the Taliban’s order contradicts “… the rights that Islam and Allah have given us.” This student was previously studying Sharia Islamic law before the ban occurred.
The protest was met with violent repercussions as a video obtained by The Associated Press demonstrates through an interview with a woman involved in the protest. She details that: “… the girls were beaten and whipped,” and adds that “they also brought military women with them, whipping the girls. We ran away, some girls were arrested. I don’t know what will happen.”
Courage in the face of an unjust society happens both collectively, but also through individual strength as 18-year-old Adela demonstrated through her solo protest in front of Kabul University on December 25, 2022.
She held a sign which read a powerful word on it in Arabic – iqra, or ‘read.’ This is particularly holding significance as Muslims believe this was the first word God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
Adela told the BBC Afghan service that “… God has given us the right to education. We need to be afraid of God, not the Taliban who want to take away our rights.” Adela was aware of the abuse that protestors are subjected to by the Taliban, but it did not sway her from standing in front of them and standing her ground.
Adela also advocates for men to stand in solidarity with women: “… there are very few men in Afghanistan who stand with us now. In Iran, men stand with their sisters and support women’s rights. If we also stand together for the right to education, we will be 100% successful.”
Not only post-secondary education at stake
Since the Taliban’s return, girls have been banned from school beyond the sixth grade. Even private education training centers were unable to continue. Teenage girls in the northeastern Takhar province spoke up about this noting that the Taliban forced them out of a private education center while telling them they no longer had any rights to study.
Zuhal, a 15-year-old student described that the girls were beaten during this incident whereas another student, Maryam – 19, said while crying: “This training center was our hope. What can these girls do? They were full of hope and coming here to learn. It is really a pity. [The Taliban] have taken all our hopes. They closed schools, universities, and the training center, which was very small.”
Like American Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “no country can thrive when half of its population is held back.” This quote serves as a reminder that individual and thus, collective educational rights can greatly support the larger society.