Women in Afghanistan should have the same rights as you and I
The Violation of Fundamental Human Rights and the End of Higher Education for Women in Afghanistan
By Marie-Luise Winter, University of Trento
Can you imagine not being allowed to take the final exams to finish your bachelor’s or master’s degree because universities are suddenly forbidden for you? It has been over a year now that the Taliban, a paramilitary group consisting of Deobandi Islamic fundamentalist and Pashtun nationalist Afghan war veterans, regained power in Afghanistan. One of their latest decisions was made official through a statement on the 20th December 2022 and instructed to expel women from universities, no matter how close they were to finishing their degrees . Driven by the insecure situation caused by the Taliban and the fact that many Afghan women are disagreeing with the ideology of the Taliban [2, 3], the establishment of secret schools for women to educate themselves was necessary and dangerous.
During over 30 years of conflict, education in Afghanistan has suffered tremendously and recent attacks against higher education communities deteriorate the situation further. After the withdrawal of the US troops by September 2021 – and the return of the Taliban with their radical ideology of Muslim faith to the city of Kabul in August 2021 – women’s rights and including women’s academic freedom decreased again drastically. In fact, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs which advocated for women’s rights through Afghan laws was eradicated and the ‘Elimination of Violence against Women’ Law rolled back. One of the most severe impacts on the education of Afghani citizens was that students and scholars were not able to return to school from August 2021 till March 2022, due to a ban on co-education of female and male students. The following decisions of the Taliban included denying women and girls above sixth grade to educate themselves at all. The future for teenage girls and women in the sense of education and work as well as for secure jobs for female teachers and professors in Afghanistan remains unclear. Many scholars and students have left and are still trying to leave the country, not only to pursue their careers or continue their education but also due to threats of persecution, retribution, kidnapping, and death by the Taliban because of their gender, background, or international relationships. This affected especially private universities which were not able to pay professors anymore as their funding relied on the tuition fee paid by the students. Afghanistan should follow inter- and national legal provisions (like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, or Articles 17 and 43 in the Afghan constitution that promote education and research) to protect higher education and academic freedom. However, the regime of the Taliban severely impacts academic freedom in Afghanistan whose foundations are the rights to learn, research, and teach, and which includes the freedom of expression and publication. This resulted in that research funding on an international level has almost completely stopped. Leaving women out of education not only now but already during 1996 and 2011, is justified by Sharia and Afghan customs and culture. Even though, the Taliban did not officially exclude the possibility of education for women above the 6th grade at first, their released “decree of women’s rights” in September 2021, did not mention the right for women to work or educate at all . The delay of their return to school was justified through various statements made by the Taliban that there are not enough female teachers which is why pubescent girls cannot attend school , that they need to set up a secure transportation system for female students , or that they need to decide on an appropriate school uniform .
Nevertheless, on Tuesday 20th December 2022, three months after many Afghan women had their university entrance exams, the Afghanistan Ministry of Higher Education suspended female students from universities for an indefinite period. The Minister for Higher Education, Neda Mohammad Nadeem wrote in his letter to private and public universities “You all are informed to immediately implement the mentioned order of suspending the education of females until further notice” . The order was confirmed by Ziaullah Hashimi, the ministries representative and another series of justifications were given such as the current changing of the syllabus along Islamic lines as well as lack of funding. The ban of women and girls from higher education was followed by the decision to ban them as well from working in national and international NGOs on 24th December 2022, leading to disappointments and criticism worldwide as it violates the fundamental rights of women. Amnesty International’s Regional Director for South Asia, Yamini Mishra, claimed “It is imperative that the UN Security Council halts the steep decline in women and girls’ rights in the country. The world watches as the Taliban systematically decimate women’s rights through numerous discriminatory restrictions rolled out by them in quick succession over the last few months,” .
Afghan females are suffering already under the harsh restrictions that the Taliban put in place like the ban on females traveling alone without an escort and the Taliban’s open belief that females should stay at home or the rule that women need to wear the hijab or burqa but the harshest ban is to forbid them to educate and consequently limiting their future drastically.
UN Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous wrote in her statement from 21st December 2022 as a response to the ban from higher education “It is as short-sighted as it is appalling. The right to education for all women and girls must be restored immediately” . The prohibition of women in higher education causes severe harm to the country’s economy, future, and human resources as many students and scholars with interests in for example engineering or medicine, are not able to finish or even start their degrees and/or work in Afghanistan and international sanctions are imposed on the country. The order was likely implemented by Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban supreme leader and those around him, which aims to put women and girls in their “right place in society”. This order has had a dually negative effect in worsening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan due to international aid organizations such as Save the Children that are pausing their activities in response to the Taliban’s decisions.
The future. Protests, Secret schools, and International Support Nevertheless, opponents of the Taliban implementations are not giving up and even with very limited capacities . Students and teachers driven by the dream of freedom and gender equality in education in Afghanistan are risking being arrested and severe penalties for acting against the regulations of the Taliban [3, 11, 12]. Worldwide there are movements and protests against the suppression of women and their exclusion from the education system. On January 14, 2023, twenty three countries followed the movement of “Global Movement for Women’s Rights in Afghanistan” and others to unite and support women in Afghanistan by not being silent, protesting, and spreading awareness about the violation of women’s rights. Hundreds of urgent enquires were received by Scholar at Risk (SAR)  and international support and solidarity are asked for and necessary to stand up for human rights, equality, and academic freedom. Many measurements have been taken and set up like SAR appeals asking European governments, EU institutions, the US government, and the U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (which was sent by 100 non-governmental organizations in total) to help in securing the lives and careers and safe passage for scholars, society leaders, and experts. Further, the European Students’ Union asks the EU and European governments for scholarships for Afghan refugees. Many universities are answering the call by offering spots to refugees in host countries to finish or pursue their careers. Moreover, various fundraising efforts have been established for Afghanistan like the ones implemented by the SAR and UCSF Afghan Scholar and Refugee Initiative.
In summary, since the Taliban returned to power in 2021, human including women rights like the freedom of expression, education, and movement were violated severely . One of the latest decisions is the denial of women from higher education . While much support is shown by worldwide movements and protests, much more needs to be done. Every measurement, strong cohesion, and working hand in hand helps to get closer and underlines the importance of the implementation of equality and human rights for everyone in Afghanistan.
About the author
Marie-Luise Winter is a student from Maastricht University studying the Maastricht Science Programme with the focus on Biology. The article was written in the scope of a student-lead advocacy project dedicated to support the academic freedom in Afghanistan. The project was part of the Jean Monnet Course on ‘Academic Freedom and Human Rights: European and International Perspectives’ at the University of Trento.
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