This past week another academic year began in Afghanistan, but for most young girls and women it was the start of another year being barred from classrooms. Since seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban have imposed an indefinite ban on secondary and high schools for girls, depriving about 1.1 million girls older than 12 of education. In December 2022, the Taliban extend the restrictions on educational institutions by placing a ban on women’s access to university-level education. As a result, about 100,000 female university students are unable to continue their studies. Afghanistan is now the only country where women’s access to most forms of formal education is restricted.
Empty Promises and Continued Repression
The Taliban have responded to criticisms from international and domestic activists by claiming that the bans are temporary. Once an Islamic curriculum is prepared and Islamic uniforms are issued, girls can return to schools. However, these are just another one of the regime’s empty promises. School doors have been shut for more than 500 days and the Taliban have shown no progress in addressing the alleged obstacles to re-opening them.
In response to the Taliban’s repressive rule, women protesters have staged protests across the country to resist the restrictions on women’s rights to education, employment, and free movement. Their protests have been met with violence and have resulted in the imprisonment of protesters. Nargis Sadat a woman protester who publicly protested the Taliban’s oppressive policies was arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned on February 12. Others who have criticized the education ban have received similar treatment. For example, on February 2 Professor Mashal, a university lecturer was arrested and his academic records were burned live on television. He has been accused of “provocative actions.” His whereabouts remain unknown.
Human rights activists have repeatedly warned about the catastrophic consequences of banning women’s access to education for the future of the country. They have also expressed their concern about the Taliban’s educational curriculum, particularly the removal of subjects deemed anti-Islamic.
Freedom Now spoke to various women about the education ban, including students and teachers from different parts of Afghanistan, to document their perspectives on the impact of the ban and how they envision the future.
Erasing the Future
Shamsia*, a secondary school teacher from a northern province in Afghanistan told Freedom Now: “In my school, last week the Taliban distributed books for girls up to sixth grade. They piled all the books above sixth grade in a room and locked the room. They told us those books will be burned so that girls can not continue studying at home.”
In 2001, the enrollment rate at all education levels in Afghanistan was 1 million. In 2018 this number increased to 10 million and by August 2021. Four out of 10 students in primary education were girls. Not only has the education ban ended new university-level enrollments, but it effectively ends all education for women past the 6th grade level, severely limiting the ability of women to meaningfully participate in public life and have access to employment. Afghan human rights defenders believe this is how the Taliban are aiming to systematically erase women from public spaces.
Girls across Afghanistan are hopeless about their future. Young women are being forced into early marriages by their families. Girls who dreamed of graduating from university, having jobs, and building a bright future are left with no good options.
Shabnam*, a mother of two young girls told Freedom Now: “When the Taliban sent my daughters back home and told them they were not allowed to enter the school, I joined women’s protests along with my daughters to demand the reopening of schools. I was devastated. My daughters are sad and scared for their future. There is nothing I can do for them.”
Morwarid a 15-year girl who was in 10th grade when the Taliban took over said: “I don’t believe that the Taliban will ever reopen our schools. They are not true to their words. Even if they do reopen schools someday, they will impose Hijab on us and only teach us what they believe is Islamic.”
If she had not been banned from studying, Morwarid would have graduated from high school now and would be preparing to enter university. Morwarid dreamed of becoming a graphic designer. Now, she is uncertain whether she will ever have a career.
Deepening a Humanitarian Crisis
Many teachers have either lost their jobs or have had their salaries reduced. The average salary range for teachers in Afghanistan is $75 to $150 per month based on years of experience. The monthly salary range for civil servants in Afghanistan is $57 to $351. While secondary and high schools remain shut, the Taliban have continued to pay the salaries of teachers in some provinces, but at a reduced rate. This is particularly troubling as Afghanistan is grappling with a humanitarian crisis. More than half of the population depends on humanitarian support to survive. The education ban has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation by removing or reducing potentially life-saving income.
Atefa*, a secondary school teacher told Freedom Now “Many secondary school teachers struggle to make ends meet. Taliban’s ban on the education of our daughters is not only destroying our future, but they are also taking our right to live now. Taliban cut $11/month from our salary.”
Concerned about the Taliban’s increased restrictions on women’s education, Nasrin Hamidi a former ministry of education official told Freedom Now: “Demanding the reopening of schools without emphasizing the quality of education will not benefit the women of Afghanistan. Taliban have eliminated art and social sciences from the curriculum and are focusing mainly on their interpretation of Islamic studies. We need to focus on the quality of education, and we need to advocate restrictions imposed on women’s free movement, and compulsory Hijab requirements are lifted so that women can have access to good quality education in a safe environment. Only the reopening of schools is not enough.”
For almost two years Taliban have refused to constructively engage with the international community and the Afghan people. By ignoring calls for the reopening of schools and the reversal of restrictive edicts against women, the Taliban are jeopardizing the future of Afghanistan.