The world should pressure the Taliban to allow girls an education

by Metra Mehran and Natalie Gonnella-Platts

The student is a woman majoring in computer science at a private university in Afghanistan, but since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan last year, the main thing that she seems to be studying is the regime’s manipulation of Islam.

The authorities mandated that she and her classmates take — and pay for — four religion classes each semester, leaving little time for computer science. But she’s one of the lucky ones. Her university is open. And she can still take classes in her field.

Other women doing graduate work in computer science were forced to switch concentrations because the university said it can’t afford to have gender-segregated computer science classes for women. And while the Taliban permitted thousands of female university applicants to take entrance exams in recent weeks, a number of subjects were noticeably missing from the limited list of course offerings. These included but were not limited to economics, engineering, journalism, and natural and social sciences.

With calculated steps like these, the Taliban are doing their best to push women out of classrooms and begin educating another generation of fundamentalists. If the international community wants to prevent that, it must take a stand on education.

Reopening schools for women and girls is critical, but it’s not enough on its own: We need to talk about the quality of the curriculum for girls and boys and contextualize how the Taliban follow through on any pledges they actually try to fulfill around education.

The international community still has tools to hold the Taliban to account, such as imposing sanctions on individual leaders and pressuring international actors who enable the Taliban to source revenue and hide their assets. The latter include some U.S. allies.

Despite the dire circumstances, the world still has leverage, and the international community must use it now. Because failure to act would yield significant consequences for the well-being of Afghan society and stability and security worldwide. Already, the Taliban have taken notable steps to transform public schools into madrassas.

While curriculum issues affect female and male students, many women and girls don’t have access to an education at all because of nationwide edicts banning their ability to attend school and freedom of movement.

Even with overwhelming support across the country for gender parity in education, the Taliban continue to restrict access for female students, including an overall ban on girls older than 12 from studying in person.

The Taliban have made hollow promises to follow through on education access, but their actions regularly demonstrate that their end goal is an uneducated society that stifles critical thinking, agency and resistance.

In the last few weeks alone, the Taliban have regularly used psychological and physical force in response to female students protesting the strategic oppression of the rights and well-being of all, especially within the context of education and opportunity. This includes the violent targeting of Afghans within the Hazara community, one of the largest ethnic minority groups in Afghanistan.

Unarmed against the gravity of the Taliban’s response, protesting students have been continuously met with beatings, arrests, interrogation, verbal threats of suicide bombings, expulsion from university dormitories and detention.

High-quality education is one of the only weapons Afghan women and girls have to counter the Taliban. And there’s a cascade effect to closing secondary schools: If there’s no education available for girls between sixth grade and college, there soon won’t be any women or girls to send to universities. Some fathers and tribal elders have started to think, if there’s nothing beyond sixth grade, why should I even send my daughter to primary school?

Education advocates and organizations advancing education initiatives are critical in countering these trends, so public-private support for their work is crucial. Many of these innovators and activists have long-standing track records in the country, and increased access to resources and capacity-building opportunities can significantly strengthen their reach.

Additionally, greater inclusion of and partnership with women-led organizations within global decision-making platforms is vital, especially as the Taliban’s oppression and growing economic crisis in Afghanistan have decimated the nongovernmental sector in country.

The Taliban will do whatever it takes to advance their objectives. The international community often fails to do the same. Now more than ever, it’s time for global stakeholders to be just as firm about our values and the protection of the rights and dignity of all.

Metra Mehran is an Afghan human rights advocate, member of the Bush Institute’s Afghan Education Working Group and Afghan Crisis Fellow at New York University. Natalie Gonnella-Platts is director of women’s advancement at the George W. Bush Institute.