New minister’s hardline views raise fears for education

Many private universities have re-opened in Afghanistan under the new Taliban regime with gender-based segregation in place and girls required to follow a strict dress code.

Within weeks of taking power in the country following the fall of Kabul on 15 August, the Taliban’s self-proclaimed ideas of Islamic teaching were visible on various university campuses as classrooms were seen divided by physical barriers separating young men and women while attending lectures.

Their hardline approach was underlined by the appointment of a new higher education minister who declared that “universities and degrees have no importance” compared to religious scholars.

An official decree No 146 by the Taliban’s higher education ministry issued this week stated that all public universities and private higher education institutions should consider separate classes for male and female students.

It also stated that female students should be taught by female professors in future, but if universities do not have female professors, they should engage “senior professors with a good reputation” for this purpose.

All female students, teachers and staff must wear an Islamic abaya robe and a hijab that covers the hair, according to another document issued by the Taliban education ministry on 5 September. The garments must be black.

A number of private universities have issued notifications on the mandatory veil for all female students and professors.

Women students are also required to start and finish their classes five minutes earlier than men to prevent them mingling outside. The Taliban document said women must remain in ‘waiting rooms’ until their male classmates have left the building.

“Female students should be accommodated in classes five minutes before the start of the lesson and the male students at the beginning of the lesson, and recreation areas should be separate for ladies and gentlemen,” a statement by one private university said.

Hardline Taliban view on higher education

Some had hoped for more pragmatism by the Taliban, with some even voicing the view that the Taliban may have changed in the interim 20 years since their previous hardline rule from 1996-2001 when women were not allowed into universities or to work.

However, remarks to the media on 7 September by Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the new higher education minister appointed this week as part of the new Taliban government led by Mohammad Hasan Akhund, put the Taliban view on education plainly, questioning the relevance of higher education and saying “universities and degrees have no importance” in comparison to the religious scholars of the Taliban.

“Mullahs [religious scholars] are better than a doctor or a master,” Haqqani said. “You see that the mullahs and Taliban that are in the power have no PhD, MA or even a high school degree, but are the greatest of all.”

Within a month of capturing power in Kabul, the Taliban also brought back their moral policing unit to enforce Sharia law and sidelined the women’s affairs ministry in Afghanistan in announcing government appointments, which has compelled many to fear that worse is to come.

Frontline women’s rights activist Nilofar Ayoubi told University World News the moves by the group clearly indicated its narrow-minded approach towards this diverse country.

“This is the start of limiting girls’ education,” she said, referring to gender-based segregation. “Eventually the Taliban will end up banning girls from schools and universities.

“Today, they [the Taliban] have demanded the separation of classes by gender; tomorrow they will demand that only women teachers can teach women, but all know we don’t have enough women teachers. And, finally, they will say that due to the lack of women teachers, girls should sit at home,” she said.

Constraints on universities

According to higher education ministry estimates, there are some 131 private universities and higher education institutions in the country.

Many students have stayed away from campuses. At Kabul’s private Gharjistan University, only 10% to 20% of the 1,000 students who enrolled last year showed up. The director, Noor Ali Rahmani, estimated that up to 30% of the students have left Afghanistan.

Students expressed mixed reactions after the re-opening of campuses following a long period of uncertainty and fighting.

While some girls welcomed the new dress code including the ‘hijab’ (veil), others feared gender-based segregation would harm their prospects for higher education.

According to Kabul University professor, Arif Bahram: “It is an emotional decision, far from the objective realities, without considering the facilities and scientific manpower of the universities.”

He pointed out that the implementation of segregation would face problems such as a lack of classrooms, lack of professors and laboratory equipment, besides causing social and psychological problems.

There are, however, some with more pragmatic views about the latest developments.

Muhammad Israr Madani, head of the International Research Council for Religious Affairs in Pakistan, told University World News that the Taliban’s recent moves clarified the situation regarding higher education policies to some extent.

The Taliban “have put curtains in the classrooms of schools and colleges [to segregate boys and girls] which seems that they are not ready to have co-education to a great extent,” he said.

But he added that the Taliban’s aim was to improve women’s literacy rates across Afghanistan, for which they need to open separate educational institutions for women and men so that parents and tribes in conservative areas can have confidence in the education system.

“Under the new education policy, religious schools are also expected to be affiliated with the relevant ministry of education. Perhaps they [the Taliban] do not want to keep religious schools separate and independent like in Iran. The move is also expected to improve education indicators,” he said, referring to literacy rates.