Is the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) playing around the issue of women education to achieve some diplomatic leverages? This is a question of interest for the world at large and for all those who have been tirelessly campaigning for the cause. A post-August 2021 Afghanistan is the only country on the map of the world that does not allow girls to secondary school and higher education, and women to work. More than a year has passed since young girls were asked to return home on what could have been the first day of the academic year for them – March 23 2022. The matter seems to have become a policy issue that is conveniently sidelined until forgotten. Or is it not an issue at all for the ruling government of the IEA?
The IEA has not yet given in to any pressure by the world community as far as the matter of girls’ education goes.
Only repeatedly it has been termed as an “internal matter” that is not open for discussion and deliberation. But it makes a lot of us curious about how does the IEA come to assume such a hardliner stance regarding women. Or is there a flip side; where they are trying to bargain for something big in return. If latter is the case, no spokesperson of the interim government has come up with any hint of such a bargain being a possibility. Even when the Deputy Secretary General of the UN, Amina Mohammed, visited the country in January this year, no such signaling or willingness to negotiate surfaced from the government of IEA.
If there is one issue that has invited the loudest hue and cry from all countries of the world alike, the international civil society, multilateral forums, as well as Afghan diaspora; it is the issue of women education in Afghanistan. On the diplomatic front, the IEA has shown all desire to engage with regional as well as trans-regional countries. This openness has led many to believe the new IEA government is more progressive, more receptive, and more inclined to make their way into the world. But this view of the IEA government comes crashing down when even the most progressive factions of the ruling lot are just as immune to the hue and cry of young Afghan girls as the conservative ones. This is only serving to validate the fear of the Afghans that against all desire, they would be pushed back into the darkness of the Taliban’s first rule (1996-2001).
When the Taliban regime fell in 2001, there was not a single girl enrolled in primary schooling and only a few in secondary school.
The years that followed, despite being years of war, saw enrollment of girls to schools; a number as large as over 3 million. A number that is now stranded and stuck outside of schools and inside homes. Those who were in universities await a decree that at least allows them to complete and earn their degrees.
Indeed, formal education for girls in Afghanistan has suffered major setbacks over the course of history; which in turn carved two major trends in pursuing education. One being informal schools run in house basements; often referred as Afghanistan’s secret schools. Such schools often have the support of NGOs and INGOs. But with the IEA government imposing a ban on women working with such organizations, it seems that this trend will also suffer a halt. The other major trend among Afghan females has been a relocation and permanent settling in other countries to be able to achieve the education they are deprived back home. This trend accounts for a diaspora population as large as 2.6 million; a figure from before the fall of Kabul, and it is natural to assume the number to only have increased since the fall.
Drawing from the precedence of the Taliban of the 90s and from what has been set out for the world by the Taliban 2.0 since reassuming power, it becomes imperative to look into the matter from a standpoint of how the IEA government views women.
A renowned Afghan academic, Obaidullah Baheer, points to the “ideological” and “religious” convictions that drive the Taliban’s view of women and subsequently their policies. He refers to the “only available” written manifesto, authored by the Chief Justice Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani, that serves as a guide to understand how the government of IEA interpreted various references from the life of the Holy Prophet ﷺ as well as from the Quran and how these interpretations lead them to believe that women best belong inside homes.
But the same instances and Quranic verses have also been interpreted differently by other renowned scholars of Islam; as noted by Baheer. This means that while the Taliban’s policies regarding women education appear staunch, there is still one way to move that pillar. If the world thinks it can diplomatically pressure its way into the IEA taking back the decree that bans girls from schools and universities, the world is getting the Taliban wrong once again. While Qatar was helpful in mediating between the US and the Taliban and while it is clear that the US still thinks it can get the message across through the same channel (as evidenced by the recent meeting of Qatar’s Prime Minister with the Emir), this time the deep “ideological conviction” needs addressing.
Unlike the West, the Islamic world understands this a little better. The OIC issued statements on the ban time and again but there is still way to go before it can summon Islamic scholars from around the world and delve deeper into the matter of interpretations of Shariah and the Holy Book. This is not to say that the IEA government will open up easily to counter-interpretations. However, it is possible that the world at least realizes that women education in Afghanistan is not being played around for seeking legitimacy by the current regime in Kabul.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.