Few policies are as self-defeating as the Taliban’s hostility towards higher education for Afghanistan’s girls and young women. At a time when the nation needs to rebuild after decades of conflict and underdevelopment, excluding bright and capable people from schools and workplaces only adds to the many serious challenges that the country faces.
It now seems that the Taliban authorities have extended this self-sabotage from the sovereign territory it controls to other countries, even ones with which Kabul has a relatively functioning relationship. News that 63 young Afghan women, who had been granted scholarships and UAE visas to study in Dubai, were turned away from Kabul airport by Taliban officials on Wednesday is a disappointing development.
One cannot be failed to be moved by comments from one of the women, Sara, who had just finished her bachelor’s degree and hoped to start a master’s when the Taliban banned women from attending university last year. The opportunity to study in the UAE “brought hope into my life,” she said.
Since taking over Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban has imposed restrictions on girls and women’s education and employment, including closing high schools and universities for women. As a result of these mounting restrictions, many are seeking opportunities abroad. Although limited, such opportunities allow many Afghan women to continue learning.
“This ban will have an awful impact on our society,” Sara told The National. “We will not have women doctors, or any female professionals who are needed to run a nation.”
“Learning is not a sin,” she added.
Her comments hint at a bleak future for Afghanistan if the authorities’ current inflexibility persists. The country has already experienced a damaging brain drain of skilled, qualified professionals. Research from the Centre for Strategic and Regional Studies, a think tank established in Kabul in 2009, found that “in the first six weeks after the fall of the republic, 124,000 people left Afghanistan during the evacuation operation, the absolute majority of whom were experts and educated people, and after that, tens of thousands of people left Afghanistan gradually”.
Denying education and training to the next generation of female doctors, scientists, engineers and lawyers compounds this serious problem. It will have a knock-on effect by straining Afghanistan’s society further, as those few professionals who remain shoulder the weight of trying to sustain a country of more than 40 million people, many of whom live in poverty.
Khalaf Al Habtoor, founder of the Al Habtoor Group conglomerate, pledged in December to help bring at least 100 female Afghan students to the UAE. It was a welcome gesture but one that has been undermined. This not only does a disservice to the young women concerned; it reveals an intransigence among some sections of the Afghan authorities that frustrates those who want to work in partnership with Kabul.
Afghanistan is going through a period of acute international isolation, fuelled in part by the policies that deny women their basic human rights. No one is disputing that the Taliban are in control of Afghanistan but, as The National noted on the recent second anniversary of the group’s rise to power, for any goodwill on the international community’s part to translate into a better life for Afghans, the country’s rulers must learn to embrace compromise. Stopping young women from travelling to avail of the opportunities that exist abroad, is a retrograde step that hurts only Afghans.