Millions of Afghan female students have been unable to attend secondary schools and universities for over a year following a ban by the ruling Taliban.
The United Nations on Wednesday said Afghanistan under the Taliban government is the “most repressive country in the world” for women’s rights, with authorities effectively trapping women and girls in their homes.
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“It has been distressing to witness their methodical, deliberate, and systematic efforts to push Afghan women and girls out of the public sphere,” Roza Otunbayeva, head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, said in a statement marking International Women’s Day.
2.5 million girls out of school
The Taliban has barred girls above the sixth grade from attending schools since they came to power in 2021.
The rulers initially gave a shortage of teachers, lack of school infrastructure for gender segregation and other reasons for the continued closure of schools. Primary schools have been allowed to run.
Some senior Taliban leaders have called for schools to be reopened, saying there was no valid reason in Islam for the ban.
According to UNESCO, currently, 80 percent of school-aged Afghan girls and young women – totalling 2.5 million people – are out of school.
The Taliban’s decision to keep girls’ schools shuttered has reversed significant gains in female education during the past 20 years.
‘Living with dignity’
Hosna Jalil was not even 10 when the Taliban first came to power in 1996. During its rule between 1996-2001, female education was banned, with exceptions made for religious education.
Jalil from a remote village in southeast Ghazni province was one of those affected by the ban. Determined to continue her education, she joined a community-based religious educational programme run inside a mosque that taught the formal curriculum without the knowledge of Taliban authorities.
She recalled that all the children had to be ready to take out their religious books and hide their other books in case the Taliban officials raided the mosque.
“We would have stopped breathing because we didn’t know what would happen if they found out, if one of us would have made a mistake and if they would find out what was inside our bags. They sometimes even checked our bags” Jalil recalled. “That is when you could feel the brutality as a child”, she added.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Jalil continued her studies and graduated with a degree in physics from Kabul University.
In 2018, at the age of 26, Jalil was the first woman ever appointed to a high ministerial position in Afghanistan, serving as a deputy minister of policy in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. She went on to serve various government departments, including the Ministry of Petroleum and the president’s office.
Jalil had relocated to the United States on a fellowship from the government months before Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021.
In September, the Taliban replaced the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
“The 20-year gap between the two Taliban eras changed people. There was an understanding of how a person, men and women, could have their fundamental rights and live with dignity,” Jalil said.
“The only difference is that women are louder than they used to be, and they’re going to be on the streets. Women were more silent in the 1990s, and that’s it. There’s no difference when it comes to the Taliban side,” she said.
Since August 2021, the Taliban has issued more than 80 orders and decrees, many of which have tightened the group’s grip on Afghan women, according to data compiled by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
According to USIP, some of these orders include closing schools for girls, limiting the freedom of movement of women and blocking women from taking on public-facing jobs.
‘America, West are responsible for this situation’
Mahbouba Seraj, an activist, chose to live and work in her own country as tens of thousands of Afghans fled the country in the wake of Taliban’s return to power. She hopes to bring about change in whatever capacity she can.
“We are in a state of absolute sadness and disappointment, but also waiting to see what will happen,” Seraj said.
With women barred from universities as well in December, Seraj said it will lead to a shortage of professionals, including in the health sector.
“It’s [ban on female education] is literally pushing the country towards destruction,” she said.
Anisa Shaheed works with Amu Television based in the United States. She fled the country along with many other journalists, civil society activists and soldiers after the Taliban takeover.
“The previous Afghan government had dozens of problems, but girls had the right to study, work, and participate in society. But the Taliban have taken away all women’s rights,” Anisa said.
“Deprivation of education, work and social life made women suffer from mental problems. Girls are forced into marriages. Afghan women have been abandoned. America and the West are responsible for this situation of the people, especially the women of Afghanistan.” she said.
25 percent drop in women’s employment
Since the collapse of the West-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani in August 2021, female employment in Afghanistan has dropped by a quarter, according to estimates from the International Labour Organization (ILO).
“Restrictions on girls and women have severe implications for their education and labour market prospects,” said Ramin Behzad, the senior coordinator for Afghanistan at the ILO, in a statement accompanying its 2022 report on March 7.
However, Jalil said that in places where women are allowed to work, such as in healthcare or in domestic jobs, they do so based on verbal agreements between the organisation and local Taliban representatives.
“They [the Taliban] approved it verbally, giving themselves the flexibility to take it back any moment”, said Jalil.
‘Afghanistan will survive’
Last May, UN Women estimated that restrictions on women have cost Afghanistan $1bn in losses, amounting to roughly 5 percent of the country’s GDP.
At least 2.7 million Afghans fled the country in 2021, becoming the third-largest displaced population in the world, according to UNHCR.
Food insecurity in rural and urban Afghanistan is at an all-time high, and according to the World Food Programme, one-in-three people is hungry, and two million children are malnourished.
Seraj, the activist, says the brain drain from Afghanistan is a big blow for Afghanistan. Many of the tens of thousands of people who fled were well-educated and trained in a variety of important skills.
“We lost so much of our national treasures,” Seraj said.
Seraj feels that the future of women and girls will depend on how much the international community as well as Afghan people support change in the country.
“If there is that willingness, then Afghanistan will survive. And not only that, Afghanistan will survive. Afghanistan will thrive.That I can promise you. But as long as there is the willingness, it will need that to make it happen.