DUBAI: Zaram received precious little formal education while growing up in Afghanistan’s rural southern province of Kandahar, but always hoped his children would someday benefit from the freedoms and opportunities long denied to him.
So when he learned in mid-December that the country’s Taliban rulers had outlawed higher education for women, depriving his daughter of the right to study, he was devastated.
“I wanted to be able to provide for my girl to have a better life than we are living,” Zaram, who did not give his real name fearing reprisals, told Arab News. “It will be impossible without her having an education. I cannot teach her myself as I barely went to school myself.”
The Taliban announced it was barring women and girls from colleges and universities with immediate effect on Dec. 20.
“You all are informed to immediately implement the mentioned order of suspending education of females until further notice,” Neda Mohammad Nadeem, the minister for higher education, said in a statement.
The following day, a crowd of Afghan women marched defiantly through the streets of Kabul, protesting against the new decree, chanting: “Either for everyone or for no one. One for all, all for one.” Women were filmed weeping and consoling each other outside one campus.
Following the US military’s chaotic withdrawal from the country and the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in August 2021, many Afghans had hoped the ultra-conservative group would be more lenient than it had been during its previous stint in power between 1996 and 2001.
Those hopes were quickly dashed, however, as freedoms enjoyed over the preceding 20 years under the US-backed Afghan government were steadily eroded at the command of the group’s Kandahar-based leader, Hibatullah Akhundzadan.
Just a month after returning to power, the regime imposed gender-segregated university entrances and classrooms and imposed hijabs as part of a compulsory dress code.
Then, on March 23 this year, when girls’ secondary schools were scheduled to reopen, the Taliban abruptly rescinded the directive, barring tens of thousands of teenage girls from education. Primary school-aged girls, at least for now, are still permitted to receive schooling up until the sixth grade.
In May, the Taliban ordered women to fully cover themselves, including their faces, in public, to remain at home, and to only travel between cities with a male escort. In November, a new directive banned women from entering parks, funfairs, gyms and public baths.
On Saturday, the Taliban banned women from working in non-governmental organizations, leading many foreign humanitarian aid agencies to announce they were withdrawing from the crisis-wracked country.
Now, nearly all women and girls over the age of 12 are barred from educational institutions in Afghanistan. According to UNICEF, around 850,000 Afghan girls have stopped attending school.
Afghanistan is now the only country in the world to ban women and girls from attending schools and universities.
The rules do not seem to apply to the Taliban elite, however. According to the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), an independent, non-profit policy research group based in Kabul, senior Taliban officials have their daughters enrolled at schools in Qatar and Pakistan.
The two daughters of Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban government’s spokesman, are reportedly attending school in Doha, while the regime’s health minister, Qalandar Ibad, reportedly has a daughter who graduated from medical school.
One Qatar-based Taliban official told AAN that “since everyone in the neighborhood was going to school, our children demanded that they go to school too. I enrolled my three sons and two daughters.”
“It is absolutely hypocritical,” a foreign humanitarian aid worker based in Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Arab News.
“But the Taliban leaders do not follow a global logic of what’s right and wrong, they follow their own internal logic. It is the driving force behind their decision making. They do not feel the need to justify anything to anyone.
“This educational ban is the Taliban’s way of telling the world we are here to rule, to stay, and we do not give a damn about what anyone has to say nor can anyone interfere. Nowhere else in the Muslim world is there a debate on whether sharia allows women to pursue their education. For it to now be discussed by scholars in Afghanistan is astounding.”
The regime’s decree has met an intense backlash. One video circulating on social media shows female students in eastern Nangarhar province disrupting their male classmates’ final exams for refusing to stand in solidarity with them.
At another university department in the same province, male medical students willfully walked out of their exams in protest at the regime’s decision to ban females. Videos have emerged of Taliban soldiers beating male student protesters.
Several male university staff have also resigned in solidarity. One Kabul-based professor tore up his diplomas during a live television interview aired by TOLOnews.
“From today, I don’t need these diplomas because this country is no longer a place of education. If my sister and mother can’t study, then I don’t accept this education,” he told the news channel.
The Taliban’s crackdown on women’s rights has drawn intense condemnation from the international community, including the government of Saudi Arabia. The Taliban has hit back, however, saying foreign governments should “not interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.”
On Tuesday, the UN Security Council called on the Taliban to reverse its policies targeting women and girls, expressing alarm at the “increasing erosion” of human rights in the country.
The 15-member UN Security Council said in a statement it was “deeply alarmed” by the increasing restrictions on women’s education, calling for “the full, equal, and meaningful participation of women and girls in Afghanistan.”
It urged the Taliban “to reopen schools and swiftly reverse these policies and practices, which represents an increasing erosion for the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
In its statement, it also condemned the ban on women working for NGOs, adding to warnings of the detrimental impact on aid operations in a country where millions rely on them.
“These restrictions contradict the commitments made by the Taliban to the Afghan people as well as the expectations of the international community,” it said.
Unless the Taliban shows it is willing to soften its hardline approach, particularly on matters relating to women’s rights, the regime is unlikely to gain access to billions of dollars in desperately needed aid, loans and frozen assets held by the US, International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Beyond sanctions and condemnations, however, there seems to be little the international community is willing or able to do to compel the Taliban to change ideological course. The Afghan people, it would appear, are on their own.
“Afghans have lost all their faith in the regime and their ability or willingness to reverse decisions,” the foreign humanitarian aid worker told Arab News.
“If any new changes are to be made, I believe it will be like a page out of the 1990s handbook where women are only allowed to continue their education in the medical sector for professions like nurses, doctors, midwives.
“There is a big trust deficit between the people and the government. Even the ministers who do not agree with the education decree have not voiced their opinion on the matter; you simply do not oppose the supreme leader.
“But we are at an interesting juncture, it will be interesting to see how this will play out as there is rising courage among the citizens in standing up for their rights.
“The world is watching dumbfounded at what is happening, yet the only thing the international community does is tweet out condemnations, the same old regurgitated words. Meanwhile women’s rights are shrinking day by day.”
For Zaram, the Kandahar-based father, there is little hope of his daughter obtaining a decent education, pursuing a career of her choice, or having a fulfilling life beyond the confines of the home.
“I feel ashamed of myself in so many ways. I feel I have failed her,” Zaram told Arab News. “What will she grow up to be? What options will she have? She will have nothing. I don’t want her future to be her being married off. She deserves better.”