Thursday, November 30, 2023

Afghan women’s education: A story of denial and dilemma


Afghan women have proven their might by being successful half of the population in the war-torn country despite the headwinds. However, in the reemergence of Taliban rule in the country, Afghan women’s rights and education are being impacted severely.

Afghanistan is a country that still has much to overcome. Located in the heart of Asia, Afghanistan’s borders have also made it vulnerable to constant intrusions and threats from neighbouring countries, causing continuous instability in the region. In the absence of education, Afghan women and girls cannot engage successfully in society or contribute positively to their families and communities. As a result, it is unnecessary to divide health and education.

Women and girls’ access to formal education provides a glimpse into how politics have historically intertwined with development efforts to prioritize strategic goals rather than addressing the country’s needs. Since 2001, in particular, their education has played a significant role in forwarding contradicting political agendas with the potential to hinder Afghan women’s lives further. Moreover, it is mainly through financial aid for education that foreign nations have been able to forward their strategic interests.

In countries affected by wars and conflicts, the redevelopment of education is often considered an essential step toward transforming inequities or injustices.

In countries affected by wars and conflicts, the redevelopment of education is often considered an essential step toward transforming inequities or injustices. Education is seen as having the potential to minimize the negative effects of the conflict by nurturing emotional and social development and providing learners with “necessary skills to increase their social and economic opportunities. For women and girls, education empowers them, but it also enables them to become more aware of their rights and freedom to make decisions affecting their lives. The previous Afghan government also focused its attention on positive outcomes of education as it recovered from decades of wars.

For example, the 2004 Constitution states: “Women’s education, nomad education, and the eradication of illiteracy in the nation are all issues that the government must address. Effective programs must be designed and put into action. This commitment to enabling access of the marginalized to education cannot be easily met in the conflict-affected areas as education in such situations has the potential to contribute negatively to the development or the well-being of society. In the post-2001 Western-led occupation of Afghanistan, financial aid for the development of education has further complicated the positive outcomes of education.

The Taliban’s ban on female education provided international support and justification for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. The linking of women’s learning to the US-led occupation, and their equality or empowerment to the market, highlights the militarized nature of women and girls’ learning in Afghanistan.

Education has been appropriated through neoliberal restructuring to support capitalist economic and political order instead of addressing society’s social or intellectual needs. Specifically, through the rhetoric of “democracy promotion,” the learner is disconnected from the material realities of war, militarization, occupation, inequality, and poverty. Through “learning by dispossession,” learners are taught new skills and knowledge favouring capitalist social relations.

They simultaneously are alienated, fragmented from, and disconnected from their communities or themselves. The consequence of dispossession is to create settings in which the learners’ experiences are presented “inverted,” meaning that “capitalist social connections are legitimized, maintained, made attractive, and naturalized as a human social organization alternative.

In a country with an illiterate majority (men), the increased focus on Afghan women’s access to education has led to great resentment toward women and girls’ learning.

Ultimately, such processes not only alienate students from their lived realities but ultimately serve to maintain existing social inequalities and social contradictions. Afghan Women’s Learning restarted Since the American-led occupation of Afghanistan, women, and girls have received considerable attention from the international community and the civil society institutions in Afghanistan. The Taliban atrocities toward women generated international condemnation and served as a critical justification for the “need” to invade Afghanistan militarily.

Moreover, colonialist narratives about “Muslim women” were ignited in a deliberate and aggressive attempt to justify the occupation and ultimately see the war on terror as a humanitarian response.

The WB, as a leading financial supporter of higher education in Afghanistan, has also engaged directly with these narratives by consistently prioritizing the education of women and girls and linking their emancipation with the needs of the market. Based on international theory, the neoliberal restructuring of higher education reduces men and women to individual consumers and workers, which gives the illusion of equality. However, this is a move away from women’s equality because it does not address structural inequalities or imbalances in power. Such an approach adds women to the existing system.

Moreover, the fusing of neoliberal ideologies within these efforts poses further challenges to women. Some of the often circulated narratives do not acknowledge other experiences, including how women continue to navigate through militarized and insecure terrains in their everyday lives, how they balance or guide through historical practices of gendered subjugation, or how the present occupation itself is exacerbating their lives.

Focusing on women’s lived experiences is especially important because in a country with an illiterate majority (men), the increased focus on their access to education has led to great resentment toward women and girls’ learning. For example, the increase in women and girls’ enrollment has led to a parallel rise in violence and attacks directed toward women and girls’ education.

Afghan women

Development of formal education:

An Elitist Past Formal education was first introduced through the Afghan monarchy, under the leadership of King Habibullah, in 1903, when the first secondary school for boys was established. This type of education differed from the traditional, nonformal Islamic form prevalent in the country. King Habibullah, and later his son King Amanullah, introduced a Western-inspired system to Afghanistan that was “Afghanistan’s copy of the European education model. It was limited mainly to the children of the Afghan monarchy and extended family members.

Later, under King Amanullah’s leadership, formal education became a central priority and was extended to include primary, vocational, and higher education schools across the country. As a result of these efforts, formal education was developed and modernized “at an unprecedented level” and expanded into a national education system.

Some forms of Gregorian’s (1969) earlier assertion about class and urban-based access to formal and compulsory education at the turn of the twentieth century have remained present throughout these years. Since it was promoted mainly by the Afghan rulers, its role as a “social mobilizer” was further enhanced. From the beginning, schools served as sites where intellectual classes loyal to the ruling families would be trained and recruited. While formal and compulsory education would continue to grow over the years and was even made mandatory for all Afghans in the 1931 constitution, the question of women and girls’ access continued to generate controversy and reluctance among many tribal chiefs and religious leaders across the country.

Those who opposed these reforms saw them as an attack on their religious and cultural values, especially since King Amanullah had introduced other female-focused reforms contradicting the established social practices. From the very beginning, schools served as a battleground for political agendas and foreign ideologies. These tensions continued to exist even as different leaderships took over the country’s affairs. Notably, during the Soviet-backed PDPA term, a Marxist/Leninist-inspired organization, opposition to female education reached unprecedented levels.

The PDPA forwarded a much more aggressive effort to eradicate illiteracy in the country, and women and girls’ participation was central to their efforts. They too introduced reforms that contradicted existing social practices; for example, they banned arranged marriages and dowries and forwarded an aggressive effort to improve women and girls’ access to education.

The PDPA also replaced Islamic education with Soviet-inspired curricula, which not only increased resentment and opposition but raised suspicion about their goals as they were now challenging values that were fundamental to the beliefs of many Afghans. The PDPA’s approach thus sparked a movement of resistance that would ultimately defeat them and plant the seeds of a fundamentalist-style, religious-driven politics.

After the Soviet collapse, the mujahideen would enforce its brand of religious fundamentalism, starting with the burning of educational institutions and putting severe restrictions on Afghan women’s mobility.

In this situation, the Soviet Union feared the resistance movement unfolding against the Shah of Iran would spill over into Afghanistan and thus felt a military intervention was needed to “sustain and defend the cliental regime. Unfortunately, their violently repressive approach provided both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with opportunities to encourage the resistance building throughout Afghanistan. Pakistan, for example, received economic and military aid in exchange for training mujahideen fighters to fight against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.

After the Soviet collapse, the mujahideen would enforce its brand of religious fundamentalism, starting with the burning of educational institutions and putting severe restrictions on Afghan women’s mobility. With heavy backing from the United States, both the mujahideen and the Taliban put severe restrictions on Afghan women’s basic human rights. Since its inception, the development of formal education demonstrates the politicized nature of women’s learning as their access is defined and carried forth by various groups’ ideologies. This brief overview also shows the active and enabling role that foreign powers have played in either directly or indirectly impacting Afghan women and girls’ access to formal education.

Outsiders may be in charge of de facto administration, decision-making, and even the use of external resources during this critical period. Gender policy in nation-building has numerous facets that are intertwined. In the modern democratic state, Afghan women’s equality is a fundamental principle, and every post-conflict government formed by the international community is expected to adhere to this principle.

Women’s involvement is frequently also an economic requirement; thus, the only logical strategy in terms of human capital is to provide Afghan women with education and training, followed by opportunities commensurate with their skills and skillsets. The advent of more enlightened governance will also benefit Afghan women as voters and members of civil society. They may be depended on for their support of the new administration.

On the other hand, forces and influences oppose any rise in Afghan women’s position. ‘ From the sincere belief that women must be subordinated by tradition and religion to the more pragmatic desire of men to hold onto perceived advantages, they include the linking of the issue of Afghan women’s rights to an ideology or value system associated with a hostile group. Ethnic minorities also suffer similar challenges that must be considered while trying to integrate them better and raise their social position. It is essential to begin thinking imaginatively about engaging formerly excluded or minority populations in rehabilitation.  

During the Soviet occupation, aid became more explicitly linked to foreign political agendas for the United States and the Soviet Union. Both countries saw their support as an opportunity to “ensure control of the political-strategic location in Asia. Since the 1970s especially, the two areas that these countries provided the most financial support toward were infrastructure development and education. This was done for the former Soviet Union through the “Sovietization” of the Afghan curriculum, which attempted to remove religion from the curriculum and replace it with Soviet-inspired communist ideologies. The Taliban were former refugee children trained in religious madrassas in Pakistan and grew up in refugee camps surrounded by these radicalized textbooks.

Once again, the United States saw an opportunity to intervene and forward its interests. With heavy dependency on foreign aid, especially since 2001, the education of women and girls continues to be politicized, with aid linked directly to the country’s interests. Reported showed that girls’ education was targeted much more than boys’ participation in education. Hence, girls were less likely to continue their education after experiencing violence or hostility. This is a serious concern that demonstrates the continuity of direct violent and persisting threats toward the learning of women and girls. The quality of education offered in the two provinces also reflected these conditions.

For example, Kabul was very diverse in language and ethnicity, whereas other provinces were dominated mainly by one language and one ethnic group. Also, there were greater “traditional” rule elements than in Kabul. Women, for example, were visibly covered in a much more rural area than in Kabul. Women were much more visible on Kabul campuses than in rural areas. However, despite these differences, it was compelling to face different concerns and fears regarding security.

For example, girls were beginning to question whether life might have been better under the Taliban, especially regarding security. Students have been suffering from dire situations; there are always bomb blasts like before. People are always scared of increasing violence, and uncertainty is constantly worrying. This violence affected their psychological well-being and their fears that it might prevent them from completing their education. People think diverse reasons for why they feel violence is increasing; while many blame the Taliban, others blame neighbouring countries or local political groups.

Taliban Afghanistan Afghan women

Taliban and Afghan women’s education dilemma

In the past, Afghan women’s rights have resulted from reforms enacted from the top-down and the outside in. There is a significant gap between the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Afghan women and the realities of their everyday lives and treatment. Such an asymmetry was unavoidable given the Taliban’s basis of utter disenfranchisement and persecution, built upon customary backwardness. More attention should have been given, albeit gradually, to how these concepts would be conveyed to the public, particularly legal experts, educators, and law enforcement officials.

This is especially true since it was predictable. High levels of commitment and effort ensured that the constitution’s modern, egalitarian results for women were met. Still, there was no significant preparation for its lofty standards when they were implemented. Abuse and oppression suffered by Afghan women throughout their lives were well-known.

The widespread use of misinterpreted Islamic law in favour of women was well-known, as was the lack of remedy for Afghan women. Moreover, it may have been foreseen that the principles of the constitution would not suddenly spread across society. There has to be a long-term educational effort, focusing on the judges and the police and public-awareness efforts to explain how these ideas promote society.

Educators’ Facts and Figures Post-conflict rebuilding relies heavily on schools. While they help children in war-torn countries, they also allow parents to witness a functional system working toward restoring community and hope for their children’s futures. Open and functional schools provide a haven for children fleeing war-torn families and the hardships of living in poverty.

Teachers are given a chance to make a difference in their communities and a job and a salary. Schools may assist lessen the possibility that children and teenagers would get involved in criminal or insurgent activities to the degree that they take them off the streets and impart healthy civic values, practical life skills, and an actual prospect of a future career and livelihood the students.

More than 90% of the population has been pushed to hunger and famine since the Taliban assumed control of the country in late 2021.

Afghanistan’s hopeful female students were met by shut gates and armed Taliban guards on March 23, the opening day of the education year. Girls had been denied access to higher education despite pledges from the unofficial authorities just days previously.

More than 90% of the population has been pushed to hunger and famine since the Taliban assumed control of the country in late 2021. The international community’s measures, including freezing Afghanistan’s offshore assets and ceasing development support, contributed to the financial collapse. It was in the context of a weak economy and the worst famine in living memory when it occurred.

As a result, many families are already experiencing food shortages and little hope of employment. To what extent low-income and rural families, in particular, would have been able to afford to send their girls to school even if the Taliban had not intervened are an open question. Families able and willing to make the financial commitment to send their daughters to a girls’ high school will be eligible.

The Taliban are also concerned about issues of morality, such as the instruction of female students by males and the need for female students to wear modest clothing and be separated from male students in universities. It has permitted female students at the elementary and secondary levels to return to educational facilities with segregation and alterations to the structures and clothing.

The Taliban’s harsh attitude toward Afghan women is seen in its policy of closing girls’ secondary schools, consistent with its religious beliefs. There will soon be no female high school students. Hence there will be no female university students in the future.

Getting females into school is a more significant issue than building schools in post-conflict areas.

We must remember that the Taliban have survived for almost two decades through negotiating and making compromises. For the last two decades, girls’ education in Afghanistan has been a top issue for the international world, as shown by several media campaigns and online discussions. Closing girls’ secondary schools have had the opposite impact in the short term.

This time around, it is much more difficult because Afghan women have experienced what it means to be educated and influential, making it more difficult for them. The Taliban will have a far more difficult time keeping their ban on female education in place this time around. As you can see, they are busy absorbing information in their secret lairs. They have taken to the streets to protest. For the time being, this prohibition is in effect. They were sobbing as they waited outside the school’s gates in their uniforms.

Every Muslim must further his or her education. We did not squander the previous two decades; we made a lasting impression. A better life has been made possible for two-thirds of the people, thanks to our work. As a result, the Taliban government should be used to develop educational expectations, aims, and goals in post-conflict rebuilding. Using these established objectives would be significantly more efficient than scrambling to put out a national strategy after a conflict.

Also Read: The narrative behind the United States’ ambition for Afghanistan

(Heela Hakimi specialises in international relations majoring in Peace and Diplomacy. She worked in the Parliament of Afghanistan and the consulate department of the Chinese embassy in Kabul.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)


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