Home / Opinion / Views /  Global initiatives may help revive the education of Afghan women

Girls’ education is a powerful tool for bringing peace and security. If girls don’t learn, Afghanistan will suffer. As a girl and as a human being, I need you to know that I have rights. Women and girls have rights." These are the eloquent words of Sotooda Forotan, a 15-year-old Afghan schoolgirl with hope in her eyes. Last month, Sotooda’s message was delivered to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken by Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. We couldn’t agree more with Sotooda and millions of Afghans who share her concerns.

In today’s knowledge-based economy, Afghanistan needs educated citizens with technical skills for economic and social progress. This is not possible if nearly half the country’s population is kept away from education and denied basic rights. It is imperative that the Taliban administration devises a long-term sustainable plan to ensure the progress of Afghan women and others.

Although the situation has mostly been grim in Afghanistan, the education of girls was never universally taboo. Women started graduating from Kabul University as early as the 1960s. The following decades saw women being employed by the government as technicians, administrators and even judges at Islamic courts. However, under the first Taliban regime, the rights of Afghan women were severely curtailed and they were not permitted to work or get an education. After the Taliban rule was overthrown, the number of girls in primary schools increased from nearly zero to 2.5 million and the female literacy rate almost doubled to 30% between 2011 and 2018 (Unesco, 2021). That progress is threatened by the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul.

The Taliban have been paying lip service to women’s rights even as their policies turn into a nightmare for Afghan women. Recently, the Taliban ministry of propagation of virtue and prevention of vice restricted the mobility of women unless chaperoned by a male relative. This stance of intransigent Taliban members has denied women access to public spaces and public life, not just education. But it is important to recognize that the Taliban are not a homogeneous group and have members with varied policy preferences. In historically progressive regions such as Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz, for example, local Taliban leaders have been persuaded to reopen schools for girls. The international community needs to acknowledge this and deal with the Taliban in a nuanced manner, so that less hardline elements may prevail in the Afghan administration.

It is vital that Afghan women’s welfare does not become a casualty of Afghan conflicts. Societies have progressed on women’s education and empowerment at their own pace. In India, women-only colleges were established around 1947 as part of a movement aimed at claiming the right to education for women. These institutes served two purposes. One, they sought to foster a community in which women have more opportunities to engage in various endeavours, and two, women-only set-ups appealed to conservative families that might not have allowed their daughters to attend co-educational centres of learning. Fast forward to today, and one finds that all-women colleges such as Lady Shri Ram College and Miranda House are at par or even better than their co-educational peers. Church-affiliated convent schools are also among the best in India. Having taught at Lady Shri Ram College, the authors have witnessed the potential of an all-women institute to transform the young into confident women. In Muslim-majority nations, too, women’s universities have emerged as leaders of education. These include the Lahore College for Women University in Pakistan, Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University in Saudi Arabia.

The Taliban administration is eager to get global recognition and aid but hardline Taliban members are sure to stonewall any proposal of co-educational learning. As an alternative, the world community could advocate the setting up of mosque-affiliated all-women schools and colleges across the country. These could be entirely managed by women and designed for education in modern disciplines (in addition to religious texts). No one knows how long the current Taliban rule will continue, and Afghan women can ill afford to lose access to education during these years. In such a scenario, the above idea can be effective in putting girls and women back in schools and colleges. There are four key advantages of this proposal.

First, such an educational system is most likely to survive regime changes, minimizing learning disruptions for women. Second, being in an all-women environment, students and staff can escape the Taliban’s draconian dress code, at least in the teaching-learning space. Third, educated Afghan women would have the option of employment at these all-women institutes. Fourth, seeing women in leadership positions at women-run institutes would instil confidence in a younger generation of schoolgirls. Having role models in safe spaces is especially important for Afghan girls right now. Education is the most powerful tool for Sotooda and millions like her to realize their dream of a better future. Time is running out and the global community must not let them down.

Parul Gupta & Rajeev Parashar are, respectively, assistant professor of economics at Indian School of Business and Finance, and research scholar at Shiv Nadar University

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