Fear and distrust despite Taliban pledges on women’s HE

With the Taliban capture of power in Afghanistan, higher education institutions in the country remain locked down and students, but particularly women and girls, are facing grim uncertainties with curbs on girls and women in education already introduced in some areas, such as Herat.

In the days since the Taliban marched on the country’s capital, Kabul, on 15 August, students have been unable to resume their studies at universities and other higher education institutions that were already devastated by years of fighting and the ensuing coronavirus pandemic.

Shakira Ahmadi, a law student at Herat University in the country’s west, towards the border with Iran, told University World News that she and many of her classmates were in disarray following the Taliban take-over.

“My studies were nearly over, and I had so many dreams to pursue upon finishing the last semester, but now I have no hope whatsoever,” she said.

Aziza Ahmadi, a science faculty student at Herat University, told University World News her inspirations are the members of Afghanistan’s female robotics team, whose members hailed from Herat.

“I chose to study science to become a robotics expert, like them, but now it seems that will never happen,” she said.

The Taliban is yet to frame and implement expected hardline policies, as political wrangling continues in Kabul, but reports from elsewhere such as Herat, Takhar and other areas indicate that curbs on girls and women have already been introduced.

The Taliban has already installed its own rector at Paktia University in Gardez in what some say is a sign that it intends to assert control over universities.

Co-education ended in Herat

Taliban officials in Afghanistan’s Herat province issued an order to the local government and private universities that girls can no longer be allowed to sit in the same classes with boys, Afghanistan’s Khaama Press News Agency reported last week.

In a three-hour meeting between university lecturers, owners of private institutions and Taliban officials, the latter said that there was no justification for continuing co-education and it must be ended, according to the report.

Confirming this, Herat University lecturer Ghani Khusravi told University World News that the university campus had remained closed for both male and female students since the Taliban take-over.

“The Taliban demand that, until further notice, the university remains closed. They want separate classes for boys and girls. Second, they demand female teachers for female students,” he said, adding that this was presently impossible due to a shortage of female staff.

“The discussions between university officials and the Taliban are continuing,” he added.

Until recently, Afghanistan had a mixed system of both co-education and segregated classes, with schools functioning with separate classes but co-education existing in government and private universities and institutes around the country.

But now Mullah Farid, head of higher education of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban), representing the Taliban in the meeting in Herat, has said that co-education should be ended because the system is the ‘root of all evil’ in society, according to Khaama News.

Reportedly, the Taliban have suggested that female lecturers or elderly male ones who are ‘virtuous’ are allowed to teach female students. As for co-education, there is neither an alternative nor any justification for it to be continued.

There are reportedly around 40,000 students and 2,000 lecturers in private and government universities and institutions in the province.

Some lecturers fear they will not be paid, as happened during the previous Taliban era between 1996 and 2001.

Some students in Kabul told BBC News they were hearing reports of male and female university students being separated in class by a curtain. In some areas parents are not letting their daughters go to classes for fear of possible consequences. Few believe the Taliban’s promises on female education.

Taliban pledges so far

The Taliban has pledged repeatedly to allow women and children to work and study, but within the limits of Sharia or Islamic laws.

In his latest interview with Turkey’s Anadolu Agency, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem said all Islamic religion protects the rights of women and minorities.

“We are totally committed to [protecting] women’s rights. Women have the right to education, work and property,” Naeem said.

“We assure all about this. We will not say that the situation will improve in one or two days. We want a chance to solve these problems.”

Another Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said in an interview with British television channel Sky News, also on 17 August, that women in Afghanistan would have the right to work and be educated up to university level.

Shaheen said: “We are committed to women’s rights, to education to work and to freedom of speech, in the light of our Islamic rules.”

However, yet another Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said on 17 August: “We are committed to letting women work in accordance with the principles of Islam,” prompting scepticism among analysts about how the Taliban will interpret those principles, given that the group is considered to have a hardline ideology not practised in other Islamic countries.

Whatever the mixed messages, the Taliban has a track record on this – when it ruled from 1996 to 2001 women were barred from accessing higher education and even school education for girls above the age of eight was restricted.

The panic and anxiety that gripped students way ahead of the Taliban’s sweeping advances, when the group began storming urban centres after overrunning suburban towns and villages, have not been calmed.

Stirring further concerns, in Kabul Taliban fighters last week occupied the campus of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) commandeering equipment that had not already been looted after university staff and students had fled the campus.

Victoria Fontan, the French-born vice president of academic affairs at AUAF, told France Info radio network in Paris that university officials had scrapped the university’s website and “burned the university’s servers [and] all the documents we were [not] able to take before leaving, such as the lists of professors, students”.

Desperation and distrust

The huge crowds of Afghans, including female university students, who gathered at Kabul Airport in a desperate scramble for evacuation flights, despite United States and United Kingdom warnings of terror attacks at the airport – which tragically came to pass with twin bomb attacks at the airport on 26 August, leaving 90 dead – were a measure of the extent of distrust of the Taliban’s recent announcement of a general amnesty and promises on education.

Academics and human rights activists are doubtful of Taliban assurances to respect women’s rights and fear losing the gains for Afghan women made in higher education in the 20 years since the Taliban ouster in 2001, as international donors pledged funds and focused on increasing access for women to higher education in Afghanistan. This is despite the Taliban saying that their second rule would be different from the previous one as it would allow women to work.

According to a 2019 paper by Fred Hayward and Razia Karim at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the United States, “higher education moved from a situation of virtually no women students, faculty or staff in 2001 to 28% women students and 14% women faculty members in 2017.”

The authors say in the paper titled ‘The struggle for higher education gender equity policy in Afghanistan: Obstacles, challenges and achievements’: “As we look back on the period since the defeat of the Taliban at the end of 2001, we can see tremendous progress in higher education, from no women in schools and higher education institutions to more than 35% young women in schools and 28% women students in higher education.”

The Afghan constitution adopted in 2004 also guaranteed fundamental rights to women with the aim of devising and implementing effective programmes for women’s education. However, the Taliban did not accept that constitution and continued waging years-long guerrilla warfare, including attacks on educational facilities and the banning of girls’ education in areas under its control.

Women ordered to stay at home

Two days after taking over Kabul on 15 August in addition to most of the rest of Afghanistan, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid made a pledge in a press conference in Kabul that the Taliban would respect women’s rights. But on 24 August the Taliban restricted working women, including higher education professionals, telling them to stay at home until further orders.

The Taliban spokesman told reporters in Kabul: “Working women in Afghanistan must stay at home until proper systems are in place to ensure their safety,” assuring the media that restrictions were temporary. But the main threat to their safety stems from armed Taliban fighters being on the streets.

Rasheed Khalid, former professor at Quaid-i-Azam University’s department of defence and strategic studies in Islamabad, Pakistan, told University World News: “It is true that the Taliban now is more politically oriented.”

They may have undergone changes during the past 20 years out of power “but trusting their recent rhetoric about allowing women access to university education is too early until a government is announced in Afghanistan and the world sees women actually attending colleges and universities,” Khalid said.

Islamabad-based analyst and columnist Munir Ahmed told University World News: “The fears about the future of women’s higher education in Afghanistan have an undisputed origin. Given its recent assurance on giving women rights to higher education, only time will tell if the Taliban has changed or not.

“It is expected that there will be some change in its attitude towards higher education for women, but it is also expected that it would not be like before the 15 August fall of Kabul. Women would face some restrictions in line with the Taliban interpretation of Islamic principles.”

‘Fundamental red line’

Commenting on the situation in Afghanistan, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on 24 August that women’s rights were a “fundamental red line”.

Earlier, in briefing notes on Afghanistan issued from Geneva on 17 August, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, said: “Taliban spokespeople have issued a number of statements in recent days, including pledging an amnesty. They have also pledged to be inclusive. They have said women can work and girls can go to school.

“Such promises will need to be honoured, and for the time being – again understandably, given past history – these declarations have been greeted with some scepticism. Nevertheless, the promises have been made, and whether or not they are honoured or broken will be closely scrutinised.”

Shadi Khan Saif was able to co-write this story despite having to flee Kabul to safety in a neighbouring country.