The Threat to Girls Education in Afghanistan

When the Taliban was beginning to take over Afghanistan, there were fears worldwide that it was the death of the short lived age of freedom for women. Now it seems that fear is starting to become a terrible reality for Afghan schoolgirls. 

In the 1990s, when the Taliban was first in power in Afghanistan, women had virtually no rights whatsoever. Not only were women forced to wear a burqa, but they had restricted healthcare, no education for girls, and little job access. It was also mandatory for women to have a male chaperone in public, which made getting resources near impossible for widows and their children. During the Taliban-free government of the 2000s, women were granted many freedoms with the expansion of health facilities, millions of girls enrolling in schools, and almost a third of parliament members being women. 

As a complete Taliban takeover of Afghanistan came fast approaching months ago, they assured that the rights of women would be protected. But knowing the Taliban’s track record  on promise-keeping and their treatment of females, women were rightly nervous. In cities hair salons were boarded up and women began to wear burqas again in fear of being arrested or killed. 

But, many were still hopeful that the Taliban would stay true to their word, and this seemed to be happening on March 23, when girls came back to their classrooms for the first time in eight months, optimistically looking forward to a new school year. Just hours into the day though, those girls were all sent home after the Taliban abruptly took back its pledge of reopening schools for girls above the sixth grade. This rightly renewed worries that teenage girls’ education will be taken away indefinitely. 

“Some of my classmates began weeping,” said Sakina Jafari, an 18 year old. “We were so excited to return. And now we don’t know what will happen to us.” Another girl emotionally described her experience of being turned away from school after counting the 186 days she had waited, “What is our crime? That we are girls?” 

Since the Taliban has been in power they have allowed schools to be open for boys, but only for girls up to the sixth grade. Women were able to attend college, but with heavy segregation from male students and a strict dress code. High schools, though, had remained closed for girls. That was until March 21, when the Taliban announced that high school level girls would also be allowed to attend class at the start of the Afghan new year. Once the girls arrived that day, they were sent home by Taliban officials in a confusing about face. 

Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s ambassador-designate to the United Nations, insisted that the decision was only a delay to decide on school uniforms. “There is no issue of banning girls from schools,” he said. “It is only a technical issue of deciding on the form of school uniform for girls. We hope the uniform issue is resolved and finalized as soon as possible.”

A schoolteacher from Kabul also said that as girls went inside her classroom, they were immediately turned back by the principal who said, “Don’t come in here until we’re got official permission. And when you come back, you have to wear a black face veil, a black chador, and a black scarf.” The students were then very upset and confused, arguing that their clothes were already modest enough. “One of them said ‘we are ready to wear burqas but please let us stay,” the teacher said. “But we told them they had to leave.” 

Countries around the world have been responding to this new enactment, with the U.S. canceling scheduled talks between them and the Taliban. “I deeply regret today;s announcement by Taliban authorities in Afghanistan that girls’ education from the sixth grade has been suspended until further notice,” said the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “I urge the Taliban de facto authorities to open schools for all students without any further delay.”

Malala Yousafzai, a Nobel Peace Prize winning advocate for girls’ education, also expressed her disappointment. “I had hope for today: that Afghan girls walking to school would not be sent back home. But the Taliban did not keep their promise. They will keep finding excuses to stop girls from learning because they are afraid of educated girls and empowered women.”

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