Education is perceived to be a fundamental human right in the twenty first century but in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, it is nothing less than a luxury, unfortunately. The reminiscence of the havoc inflicted upon the civil liberties and specially the education sector in the 1990s by the last Taliban regime is still lurking. And yet, the Afghan youth is already dreading to witness its return, anew. After seizing power in the mid-1990s, Taliban made sure they strictly enforce a moratorium on all kinds of institutional education for women. The entire female population of the country was subjected to domestic confinement and their future was defined by orders implemented through the barrel of a gun. It was only after 2001 when the Taliban regime was toppled and Afghan girls had the long awaited respite to return to schools and resume their basic education. As per the statistics of UNESCO, 40 percent of the school enrollment by 2018 was comprised of girls, which certainly indicated hope for the country’s future.
With Taliban’s walkover victory against the Afghan Defense Forces in 2021, followed by the formation of their government, it was suggested by their spokespersons that this time around, there won’t be a ban on school education for girls. It hinted a softening in their hardline approach towards civil liberties and human rights since they had an understanding of the international liberal order and the prerequisites to engage with the West. However, what is materialising isn’t as promising as it was proclaimed to be. According to the New York Times, many of the girl schools are yet to be resumed, which speaks for their plight.
To look into the theocracy’s treatment of women before they could get back to schools is of prime concern. Firstly, most Afghan girls have never seen armed Taliban policing the streets in their entire lives, so they are petrified by the notion of stepping out of their house each morning to get to the school in such garrison-like environment. The theocracy doesn’t take it into account that education could only be ensured in an environment which is friendly towards liberty and free inquiry. It cannot be pursued under fear in an effective way, since education for children is certainly more than literary inculcation in a classroom.
Strict dress codes are another hindrance. Taliban earlier proclaimed that girls would be allowed to go to school only in accordance with the laws of Islam. But the clarification that this assertion required never came out. Dupattas are replaced by niqabs and female students have this challenge of adaptability under the new regime, apart from the academic challenges they are yet to face ahead in their careers. Parents are also not very motivated to encourage children to go to school in such environment in numbers like those preceding Taliban rule.
Under the theocracy, gender segregation is getting mainstreamed in all social spaces. Since women are told not to leave their houses without a male guardian, how can educational institutions be spared? Perhaps the most destabilising policy regarding the educational sector coming from the Taliban regime is its enforcement of rules barring male teachers to teach Afghan girls. They have stipulated that only female teachers are allowed to teach in girls’ school, without taking into account that the country already is light-years behind the developed countries in terms of educational gender gap and there is a disastrous scarcity of female teachers in the country after the recent violent turn of events. This gender segregationist policy is makes the future appear bleak. Also, on the young minds, it is leaving an impression that no healthy interaction is ever possible with the opposite gender for literary and official purposes.
Moreover, the theocratic regime has clearly asserted that women won’t be allowed to work unless it is for the medical profession. In such circumstances, Afghan girls are losing all meaning in getting an education, since it would never lead them to financial independence or professional experience. The current Taliban version of a factory model of education is going to prove counterproductive, since its stress is not to create a skillful and literate citizenry but to produce a disciplined and hyper-moralistic, segregated class of men and women. The Taliban regime is hardly differentiating between religious education and modern education. There is no particular difference between the two for the regime, which is why parochialism is adopted in all educational institutions as for now.
But then what are the possible solutions of this grave problem?
One thing is clear: that this deterioration of educational access and standards in Afghanistan cannot be fixed from within. While the Taliban regime is craving to be bailed out by international organizations and powerful countries, their survival and that of Afghan people against famine, bankruptcy, communal violence and other disasters depends on the global community. It might sound ironic but after their victory against the US (as they claim it), their sustenance without American aid seems difficult. The global community has to persuade them to facilitate the full functionality of education in general and women education in particular. With almost no funds left to run the affairs of the state, managing remunerations for teachers is already a challenge for the Taliban.
Pakistan will have a role to play as well. There was recently an OIC Conference in Islamabad to stress upon the importance of assisting the Afghan people. The Pakistani foreign office also seems very active to raise funds by influencing the international community for the Afghan cause. Think tanks in Pakistan should come forward to influence Pakistan’s foreign policy engagement with Afghanistan, so that it could also hold talks with the Taliban regime to facilitate women’s education on their soil. Statements like the one Prime Minister Imran Khan gave last month when he asserted that women’s education is looked down upon in Afghanistan because “it’s their culture” etc are not the answer to the question. Stigmatising a basic human right in the garb of culture is the last thing Afghan girls would be needing at this hour. Many of them wish to escape the country but for those who cannot afford to, their interests must be looked after by the international community.