ISLAMABAD — Two years after the Taliban banned girls from school beyond sixth grade, Afghanistan is the only country in the world with restrictions on female education. Now, the rights of Afghan women and children are on the agenda of the United Nations General Assembly Monday in New York.
The U.N. children’s agency says more than 1 million girls are affected by the ban, although it estimates 5 million were out of school before the Taliban takeover due to a lack of facilities and other reasons.
The ban triggered global condemnation and remains the Taliban’s biggest obstacle to gaining recognition as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. But the Taliban defied the backlash and went further, excluding women and girls from higher education, public spaces like parks, and most jobs.
Here’s a look at the ban on girls’ education:
The Taliban stopped girls’ education beyond sixth grade because they said it didn’t comply with their interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia. They didn’t stop it for boys. In the past two years, they’ve shown no signs of progress in creating the conditions they say are needed for girls to return to class.
Their perspective on girls’ education partly comes from a specific school of 19th century Islamic thought and partly from rural areas where tribalism is entrenched, according to regional expert Hassan Abbas.
“The ones who went on to develop the (Taliban) movement opted for ideas that are restrictive, orthodox to the extreme, and tribal,” said Abbas, who writes extensively about the Taliban. The Taliban leadership believes women should not participate in anything social or public and should especially be kept away from education, said Abbas.
The Taliban also stopped girls’ education when they ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
There’s a consensus among clerics outside Afghanistan that Islam places equal emphasis on female and male education. “The Taliban have no basis or evidence to claim the contrary,” said Abbas. But pleas from individual countries and groups, like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, have failed to sway the Taliban.
Syed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban front-line commander, said the insurgents espoused an Islamic system the day they entered Kabul in August 2021.
“They also gave Afghans and the outside world the idea that there would be an Islamic system in the country,” said Agha. “There is currently no (other) Islamic system in the world. The efforts of the international community are ongoing to implement democracy in Islamic countries and turn them away from the Islamic system.”
Roza Otunbayeva, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ special representative for Afghanistan and the head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, said one of the obvious impacts of an education ban is the lack of training of aspiring health care professionals.
Female medical students had their studies halted after last December’s Taliban edict banning higher education for women. Afghan women work in hospitals and clinics — health care is one of the few sectors open to them — but the pipeline of qualified people will dry up. Afghan women cannot see male doctors, so children will also lose out on medical attention if women are their primary carers.
“Looking into the future and a scenario where nothing changes, where will the female doctors, midwives, gynecologists, or nurses come from?” Otunbayeva said in an email to The Associated Press. “In a strictly gender segregated society, how will Afghan women be able to get the most basic healthcare services if there are no female professionals to treat them?”
The high school ban is not just about girls’ rights. It’s a worsening crisis for all Afghans.
Tens of thousands of teachers have lost their jobs. Support staff are also unemployed. Private institutions and businesses that benefited financially from girls’ education have been hit. Afghanistan has a shattered economy and people’s incomes are plummeting. Excluding women from the job market hurts the country’s GDP to the cost of billions of dollars, says UNICEF.
The Taliban are prioritizing Islamic knowledge over basic literacy and numeracy with their shift toward madrassas, or religious schools, paving the way for a generation of children with no contemporary or secular education to improve their or the country’s economic future.
There are other consequences for the general population, like public health and child protection.
U.N. data says birth rates are higher among Afghan girls aged 15-19 who don’t have secondary or higher education. A woman’s education can also determine if her children have basic immunization and if her daughters are married by the age of 18. The lack of women’s education is among the major drivers of deprivation, says the U.N.
Aid groups say girls are at increased risk of child labor and child marriage because they’re not at school, amid the growing hardships faced by families.
The Taliban waged a decades-long jihad to implement their vision of Sharia. They are not backing down easily. Sanctions, frozen assets, the lack of official recognition, and widespread condemnation has made little difference.
Countries that have a relationship with the Taliban could make an impact. But they have different priorities, reducing the prospects of a united front on girls’ education.
Pakistan has concerns about a resurgence of militant activity. Iran and Central Asian countries have grievances about water resources. China is eyeing investment and mineral extraction opportunities.
There’s a bigger likelihood of pressure coming from within Afghanistan.
The Taliban rule of today is different from that of decades ago. Senior leaders, including the chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, rely on social media for key messaging to Afghans at home and abroad.
They point to their success in eradicating narcotics and cracking down on armed groups like the Islamic State. But improving security and wiping out poppy crops will only satisfy people to a point.
While Afghans are concerned about the loss of girls’ education, they have more immediate worries like earning money, putting food on the table, keeping a roof over their heads, and surviving droughts and harsh winters.
There is a desire within Afghanistan for the Taliban to have some kind of international acceptance, even if it’s not recognition, so the economy can thrive.
Public opinion is much more relevant and influential today than it was during Taliban rule in the 90s, said Abbas. “Internal pressure from ordinary Afghans is going to ultimately push Kandahar in the corner and make a difference.”
But it could take years for the ban’s consequences to hit Afghan men and trigger a groundswell of unrest. Right now, it only affects girls and it’s mostly women who have protested the slew of restrictions.
Agha said Afghans will support the ban if the end goal is to enforce hijab, the Islamic headscarf, and finish gender mixing. But they won’t if it’s simply to end girls’ education outright.
“I think only the nation can lead the way,” he said.