Last Tuesday, the currently presiding Afghan government banned women from attending universities. After reviewing university curricula and environments, Minister of Higher Education Neda Mohammad stated that women’s enrollment would be officially placed on hold immediately until an “appropriate setting” could be assured. (One of the reasons the Ministry cited for this suspension was that women were not following dress code.) However, despite similar promises to re-open some high schools to girls in March, secondary schools have remained barred to female students since the Taliban took back control. The Taliban have failed to uphold their guarantee that women under their rule would be free to seek an education.
The group contends that its regulations are consistent with Islam, but its fellow Muslim nations disagree with this interpretation; Afghanistan is the only Muslim nation which forbids girls from attending school. Despite Qatar’s role as an intermediary between the Taliban and the West, the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs promptly denounced the ban, expressing concern and disappointment and urging Afghanistan to lift the restrictions. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Prince Faisal Al Saud also asked the Taliban to reconsider its decision, which he argued deprived women of their “full, legitimate rights.” Education is the “foremost” of these rights, the minister said, “which contributes to supporting security, stability, development and prosperity in Afghanistan.”
Afghan universities have been running under policies which discriminate against women since the Taliban’s return to rule last year. According to the B.B.C., institutions placed limits on which disciplines women could enroll for, heavily restricting journalism applications and barring female applicants entirely from engineering, economics, veterinary science, and agriculture. Men and women entered through separate doors, and only women and older men were allowed to teach female students. Nevertheless, women still had some access to higher education before last week.
By Wednesday morning, Taliban vehicles blocked the entrances to several prestigious universities to keep women away from the campuses. Women began protesting in the capital city of Kabul the same day.
Taliban officials quickly put down the demonstrations.
The fundamentalist group pledged to be more lenient than it had been under its earlier administration, promising to grant Afghans more liberties than it did from 1996 to 2001 and also claiming that it would uphold women’s rights. However, Al Jazeera reports, the Taliban has imposed many rules restricting women’s freedom since last August. For example, the government ordered women in May to fully cover themselves, instructing its female citizens to stay home if going out is unnecessary. A ban introduced last month forbade girls and women from visiting parks and other public spaces. Further recent regulations prohibit women from travelling, visiting mosques, or attending religious institutions if unaccompanied by a male companion. This month saw the Taliban re-introduce floggings and execution as viable punishments for disobeying any of these rules, which it says were established to protect “the national interest” and women’s “honour.”
In no way do these laws preserve women’s rights. Rather, excluding women and girls from education, the workforce, and all other spheres of public and political life makes them more vulnerable to the dangers of forced marriage, underage marriage, violence, and abuse. Despite the Taliban’s frequent claims to the contrary, it is stealing away progress hard-won over the course of 20 years.
Disempowering women, depriving them of their autonomy, and excluding them from all spheres of public and political life violates the universal principles of human rights which underpin peaceful, stable communities. This university ban is the most recent move in a vicious campaign to restrict Afghan women’s freedoms, but more than that, it is another step towards returning Afghanistan to the battered country it was under the Taliban’s initial rule. Denying access to education hampers women’s ability to flourish and participate fully in society, but women are crucial to a nation’s stability and prosperity. Afghan women support the economy, create and run businesses, create jobs, help those most in need, and are active members of their communities. Women are essential to Afghanistan’s development. As Minister Al Saud argued, banning women from education will subject Afghanistan to misery, economic hardship, and international isolation, affecting millions for generations to come.
Everyone should have equal access to higher education without prejudice. Every child should be provided with equal access to both elementary and secondary school, regardless of religion, sex, ethnicity, social standing, disability, or any other status. The Rome Statute, to which Afghanistan is a state party, states that discrimination based on gender may qualify as a crime against humanity; the Taliban are required to secure the protection and fulfilment of the economic, political, social, and civil rights recognized under international treaties and conventions to which Afghanistan is a state party. Thus, the Taliban must allow girls and women to enroll in formal education.
The U.N. and several other states have argued that this failure to respect Afghanistan’s agreements is condemnable and should receive consequences. “The Taliban cannot expect to be a legitimate member of the international community until they respect the rights of all in Afghanistan,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Together with all of its prior rulings curtailing Afghan women and girls’ fundamental rights, the Taliban’s university ban is exceedingly alarming. Sex-based discrimination denies Afghanistan and its people the essential contributions that women make to a country’s development. Protecting women’s right to participate in society is the “national interest.” Instead of imposing disproportionate restrictions on women and girls in the name of their “safety,” the Taliban should focus on curtailing the behaviour of men who believe that women are inferior and subordinate.
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