Only mass action can save Afghan women's right to university education

A 'temporary' ban on female students will have permanent consequences for the country's well-being and stability

The Taliban has banned university education for females nationwide, as part of a wider assault on girls' education. AFP
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Our worst nightmares are unrolling before our eyes. Tuesday night's decision by the Taliban to ban female students from universities was a knife that had hung over our necks for months and finally fell. For those of us old enough to remember, it was one of the strongest reminders of the first Taliban rule. For the younger generation, it triggered the memories of August 15 and the dark day of March 23, when the Taliban re-imposed their ban on girls' high school education. There were already indications and strong rumours of an impending edict banning women from universities which was why we started our #LetAfghanGirlsLearn campaign on November 13. We hoped that the conversations we held and the discourse we generated would warn the Taliban of the consequences of such a decision. It appears today that our efforts were in vain.

Our campaign was designed to reclaim the girls' education issue as a national issue. We wanted to counter the Taliban’s attempts to brush off demands for the reopening of schools as a foreign agenda. We wanted to show the Taliban that we were not their enemies but citizens of the country who were demanding their rights from inside the country. The campaign brought together close to 35 speakers ranging from Afghans to friends of Afghanistan, from within the country and outside, half of whom were women. We discussed different topics daily and broadcast our discussions in the national languages to Afghan audiences. One of our final topics was what we would do if a ban on universities was imposed. I went on to make a number of appearances on national media to ensure that the campaign got maximum exposure. It led to my detention by the Taliban just 10 days ago.

Students walk in front of the Kabul Education University, Afghanistan. Reuters

The Taliban, for all intents and purposes, have ensured that Afghanistan becomes a pariah state. The initiation of public floggings, the ban on women going to segregated parks, gyms and baths, and now the ban on education for girls above grade six, check all the boxes of the promises they made to the world to not repeat and yet have managed to break every one of them. This latest edict will have a direct impact on the prospects of Afghanistan’s federal reserves being released. It will also affect the amount of aid coming to Afghanistan, as the appetite of the world for supporting the country under Taliban rule will diminish if not completely disappear. All this happens as Afghanistan faces one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history.

There was an argument being made for welcoming this recent, audacious ban. Some intellectuals and experts, myself including, suggested that this move might force the less conservative figures within the Taliban to come out of the shadows and forgo their current, passive opposition on the group's draconian policies. I don't see much utility to this argument anymore. This less conservative lot had months to do something tangible to stop this policy from being announced. They always knew that the excuses presented for these actions were all meaningless. Bans that have no timeframe to them are not temporary, despite what the edict states. There is little reason to take the Taliban at their word on the temporary nature of the bans, considering their regime in the 1990s had promised the ban on schools to be temporary only for it to last until the regime itself fell five years later.

If there was ever a time for Afghan activists, inside and outside the country, to work together, it is now. We have very few options available to us, but we must mobilise in large numbers. The only window of opportunity here is that the ban was imposed during the winter break for schools and universities. We have to use this time until classes resume, to get as many people as we can to join hands and commit to demonstrations. Considering the Taliban's crackdowns are brutal in nature, these demonstrations will need to be well thought through, and large enough to not be quashed. I want to imagine that we will mobilise thousands of parents to walk their daughters to their universities and schools on the day that the winter break ends. We will have to stage sit-ins outside these institutions until we are noticed and heard. There will be a risk to life involved, and strong-arming the Taliban leadership would be an impossible task, but we seem to have been left with no option but bravery. Many, including myself, have already looked death in the eye while campaigning for education, and we are willing to do so again. We just need a few thousand Afghan men to do so with us. This cannot be the end of our dreams. This will not be the end of our dreams for a better Afghanistan.

Published: December 21, 2022, 6:38 AM
Updated: December 27, 2022, 9:29 AM