Taliban HE gender policy threatens women’s education

The Taliban wasted little time in establishing its authority over Afghanistan’s higher education system with the appointment of a new acting higher education minister, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, on 28 August, even before the departure of United States troops on 31 August.

Haqqani held his first meeting on 29 August with ministry officials and staff, representatives of public and private institutions, and higher education experts, including the director of the Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan. He said providing a safe educational environment for students was a priority.

Haqqani said the current education system set up by the international community regarded religious education as insignificant and he would invite staff of reputable Islamic universities to revise the curriculum in the light of “Islamic, national and historical values, and on the other hand be able compete with other countries”.

He claimed that the Taliban would try use the existing facilities to bring the country’s universities in line with “the standards of the world’s prestigious universities”.

Other priorities would be to strengthen and standardise the education system, extend higher education to remoter areas and reduce fees.

But professors and other officials called on the Taliban to maintain and upgrade the existing education system instead of replacing it. Former higher education minister Abbas Basir said starting again was a mistake made by previous Afghan governments.

“Let’s not reject everything, starting a new system; we should work more on what we already have,” he was quoted by Afghanistan’s Khaama Press News Agency as saying.

Objections voiced to segregated classes

Haqqani reiterated the Taliban policy on women in education. “To create a safe learning environment, classes need to be divided according to gender, and boys and girls should study in separate classes,” he said.

Representatives of private universities, in particular, have objected to the Taliban order to separate male and female students, saying there are not enough female teachers to have separate classes.

Raghav Sharma, director of the Centre for Afghanistan Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs at OP Jindal Global University in Northern India, said that with very few women in the higher education sector and men not allowed to teach women, this decision would effectively leave a very large number of women outside the ambit of education.

This in turn would impact the pipeline for teaching girls at school, since currently upper secondary schools require teachers to have a bachelor degree.

OP Jindal Global University was part of international efforts to strengthen higher education in Afghanistan and help provide dependable alternative instruction options for Afghan students. Its Centre for Afghanistan Studies has strong links with a number of universities in Afghanistan, including Kabul University and Herat University.

Sharma said segregation in education would make it hard to preserve educational gains for women in higher education.

“The only faint and distant hope is that the international community exerts pressure on the Taliban to correct its course by using its leverage, such as on international aid. But how effective this would be remains to be seen. I am personally not very optimistic about this,” he told University World News.

Sharia in higher education

Amid relative peace in the past two decades, the international community provided hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen higher education in Afghanistan, which helped send talented Afghans with bachelor and masters degrees overseas.

“Between 2006 and 2019, I implemented approximately 10 higher education development projects in Afghanistan,” Kenneth Holland, who was president of the American University of Afghanistan from 2017 until 2019, told University World News. He is currently dean of academic, research and international affairs at OP Jindal Global University.

Holland also implemented a project funded by US aid agency USAID, the University Support and Workforce Development Program, to establish a bachelor of business administration (BBA) and a master of business administration (MBA) degree at Kabul University.

“The project was opposed by the Sharia law faculty at Kabul University. The Sharia law faculty also opposed the establishment of a masters in public administration. As a result, the MBA never got off the ground,” he said.

“The influence of the Sharia law faculty at the public universities in Afghanistan will now grow even greater. They will exercise a veto, I predict, over the curricula in all disciplines and set Afghanistan back 50 years in terms of educating a modern professional and technical class of managers and researchers,” Holland said.

Universities in Afghanistan are currently closed, but academics fear considerable changes when they re-open. Some have noted with concern that the rector of Paktia University in Gardez has already been replaced by a Sharia graduate who will also oversee other higher education institutions and schools in the region.

A law student in Kabul filed a dispatch to the Jurist, an online news portal, saying: “In these last 20 years, the law faculties of Afghanistan have approached teaching law with a mixture of Sharia textbooks and modern doctrine drawn from other legal systems’ textbooks; law academics have always tried to find common ground with other legal systems and modernise the legal sector in the country.

“Now that an extremist group has sole discretion in the affairs of the country, the law faculties will be merged with Sharia faculty. This means that the preponderant part of the curriculum will be covered by Sharia professors and their textbooks.”

“Hundreds of law students were trying to get scholarships for 2022; that is not likely to happen.”

Brain drain

A recent UN report estimates that 500,000 Afghans are planning to leave the country in the coming months, and this will be a formidable challenge as this would include a very large chunk of the skilled and educated youth of Afghanistan.

Holland said Afghanistan has been losing an entire generation of university-educated people – many who earned degrees in advanced countries have left or are trying to leave Afghanistan.

“The country’s universities will become a backwater, and many of Afghanistan’s problems, in fields as diverse as agriculture and engineering, will go unaddressed,” Holland noted.

Sharma said: “It is going to be almost impossible to fill the void created by the brain drain and will make the task of governing Afghanistan very challenging.”

Sharma added: “The fact that the Taliban have almost no technocrats in their ranks and have appointed mullahs to positions of authority in ministries, banks, et al, has only reinforced the desire of the educated class in Afghanistan to explore avenues for emigration as they are not receptive to serving under a theocratic regime.”

Meanwhile, young, aspiring students like Maryam, a final-year student at the prestigious American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), wait to get a flight out of Afghanistan.

US-funded AUAF, the only foreign university in Afghanistan, closed down after the Taliban took control of the country following the closing of the Kabul flight evacuations in advance of the 31 August deadline agreed with the Taliban for Western forces to leave the airport.

Born to a poor Afghan family from the central highlands, Maryam made it to the prestigious university enduring countless hardships. She told University World News she sees no future for herself in the country.

“I am too terrified to come out of home, let alone seek to build a career and build a life here in the future,” she said.