Afghan women's rights activist urges global action to promote online education for girls

Four Afghan girls were blocked from travelling to Dubai for university last week

Since regaining power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban has curtailed women's access to education and employment. AFP
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A prominent women's rights activist in Afghanistan has called on countries around the world to support the online education of Afghan girls.

It comes after a group of Afghan women who were offered full scholarships in Dubai were last week stopped from leaving the country by the Taliban, prompting an outcry against the Islamic group's regressive policies against women.

Mahbouba Seraj, 75, who was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her decades-long fight for women's emancipation in Afghanistan and runs the Afghan Women's Network, an umbrella group that supports women's organisations in the country, said there is no hope for women as the Taliban keeps taking away women's rights.

"Education is out of bounds for Afghan girls. But these women had the opportunity to go to university in Dubai and that was also taken away from them," Ms Seraj told The National in an exclusive interview.

"I am as heart-broken and hurt as they are," she said.

The girls were due to study at the University of Dubai under scholarships offered by Emirati businessman Khalaf Al Habtoor who later called the Taliban decision a "significant tragedy against humanity, against education, equality and justice" on social media.

Since regaining power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban has severely curtailed women's access to education and employment, effectively wiping out half of its population from public spaces.

Girls' schools and colleges remain closed in the country as girls above sixth grade are prohibited from going to school.

The Taliban also recently shut down beauty salons and banned solo travel for women.

As women are grappling with mounting restrictions on a daily basis, Ms Seraj, said she was surprised that arrangements were not made for their safe departure from Kabul.

"You cannot take anything for granted in Afghanistan today," she said. "It is not the same country as we knew it two years ago.

"I wish they had played their cards carefully to avoid such huge disappointment for these girls," Ms Seraj said, who added that countries like the UAE could play a critical role in offering online education for Afghan women.

"I hope the UAE and its generous people will make immediate arrangements to provide these girls with computers, internet education and connect them to universities," she said.

"You can equip them with university degrees so that they are ready for employment anywhere in the world in the future."

According to her, despite restrictions, underground schools and online classes are thriving in Afghanistan.

"Women are doing it. Online education is the only ray of hope," said Ms Seraj.

Afghan women protest against Taliban's decision to shut girls' schools

Afghan women protest against Taliban's decision to shut girls' schools

Losing hope

Ms Seraj chose to stay back in Kabul after the Taliban takeover and confronted the Islamic group as they suppressed protests and arrested rights activists.

She rose to fame in early August when a video showing her sitting down with a Taliban spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, went viral.

"For God's sake, please open the girls' schools. It is not possible to have a generation that doesn't go to school," she was heard in the video. "Unless you solve this, the whole world will stand against you."

As someone who has always worked for the country, Ms Seraj says the Taliban gives her an ear.

But despite her efforts of engaging with the group – a view that draws criticism – Ms Seraj says she has hit a dead end.

"I had hope that the new Taliban were different from the old one in the beginning. There were always a group of Taliban within the Taliban that you could speak to.

"But it is getting more and more difficult every step of the way," she said.

Ms Seraj said what is happening in her country has left her speechless.

"I fail to understand what their [the Taliban] thought process is. Nowhere in Islam does it deny women their right to education. It is crazy they are doing it and calling themselves Muslims," she said.

The regime is failing to see the psychological and emotional impact of the restrictions on women, she said.

"The sad fact is that women are unable to copy with this. They are supposed to be the future of this country. They are expected to raise the next generation. But they are so broken.

"We have gone through so much and now I am starting from scratch. I don't believe that anything is going to change at least in my lifetime. I can only say sorry to these young women whose dreams are being cut short," she said.

Despite feeling deflated, Ms Seraj vows that she will continue her flight.

"This regime is what the US and the world thrust upon us after 20 years of an unsuccessful war," she said.

"This is our reality and we have to live with it. All we can do is try to work with it to bring reforms."

Afghan women living under Taliban rule – in pictures

Updated: August 31, 2023, 4:06 PM