The Morning Dispatch 29 December 2022
A female university student walks in front of a university in Kandahar Province on December 21, 2022. (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images.)
Hasti, a third-year political studies student in Afghanistan, was preparing for a final exam last week when she heard that the Taliban had shut universities to female students. She spent the evening crying instead of studying, and armed Taliban guards turned away young women at the campus gate in Kabul when they arrived to sit exams.
“It is very hard for me, because right now I have to stop my studying and my goals are not achievable,” Hasti told Reuters. “Women and girls are being buried alive.”
When the Taliban overran Afghanistan last year on the heels of the United States’ withdrawal, leaders of the militant Islamist group promised women would retain rights—including access to education—they had gained over the previous decades of rule by Afghanistan’s internationally recognized government. The Biden administration expressed cautious optimism they’d keep their word. “The Taliban has made their own commitments,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in August 2021 when asked about the possibility of the Taliban reverting to their old ways. “They’ve made them publicly. They’ve made them privately. And again, I think they have a very strong self-interest in acting with a modicum of responsibility going forward.”
That appears to have been a miscalculation, as Afghanistan’s de facto government has spent the 16 months since the United States’ withdrawal slowly choking off women’s freedom and imposing restrictions—and public corporal punishment—familiar to those who remember the group’s previous rule. Days after closing universities to women, the Taliban told aid groups in the area to pull their female employees in the field or lose authorization to work in the country, prompting several groups to pause operations altogether despite Afghanistan’s worsening economic and hunger crisis.
“The world must reject, as Afghans have, that this is about culture or religion,” Rina Amiri, U.S. special envoy for Afghan women and girls, wrote after the university ban. “In no Muslim-majority country, in no place in the world, are girls denied an education.” She added that the restriction “removes any doubt” that the Taliban is “reverting” to the gender-based repression implemented during its reign in the 1990s.
But the intervening two decades gave Afghan women a taste of freedom, and many don’t want to go back. Female students mounting a street protest in the western city of Herat faced water cannons, and at eastern Nangarhar University some male medical students walked out of their exams in solidarity. A few male professors have resigned in protest. Even some Taliban officials—such as the deputy foreign minister—have voiced support for female education as recently as September.
But the university closings were only the latest in a string of returning restrictions. The Taliban had already banned girls from secondary schools in March, limited what degrees they could begin pursuing in college, and required them to use separate entrances and split classrooms to avoid male students. Women and girls have been banned from public places like parks and gyms, barred from most types of work, and must once again cover their faces in public and travel with a male guardian. The religious affairs ministry on Saturday prohibited “adult girls” from attending certain religious classes in Kabul mosques, though the rule didn’t specify an age cutoff or why it only applies to women in Kabul.
Some restrictions have served as the pretext for implementing others: The Taliban’s higher education minister cited reports of female students breaking dress rules and traveling without male escort as justification for the university ban, and the Ministry of Economy offered a similar rationale for the ban on female aid workers. “Lately there have been serious complaints regarding not observing the Islamic hijab and other Islamic Emirate’s laws and regulations,” the Ministry of Economy said in a letter to licensed NGOs. It’s not immediately clear whether the ban applies only to Afghan women or all female aid workers in the country.
Without female employees, restrictions on mixed gender interactions will make it difficult to deliver aid to Afghan women, several aid groups argued. “If we are not allowed to employ women, we are not able to deliver to those in need,” the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said in a Sunday statement announcing suspension of its Afghanistan operations. Afghanaid, Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council, CARE International, and several other groups have also curtailed their operations in Afghanistan in response to the Taliban’s move. The World Health Organization estimates some 18.1 million Afghans need treatment for afflictions like measles, and nearly 19 million of the country’s 40 million people face acute food insecurity. Ramiz Alakbarov, the United Nations’ Afghanistan humanitarian coordinator, is holding out hope the Taliban health ministry will walk back some restrictions on certain female aid workers to ensure women can still access healthcare.
With unemployment among Afghan adults already above 80 percent, firing female aid workers will only deepen the country’s economic crisis. The Red Cross noted that a third of the more than 10,000 Afghanistan health care workers whose salaries it pays are women, and the IRC said more than 3,000 of its 8,000 Afghanistan employees are women.
International leaders swiftly condemned the latest restrictions. “Women are central to humanitarian operations around the world,” Blinken wrote Saturday. “This decision could be devastating for the Afghan people.” The United Nations Security Council on Tuesday unanimously decried the female aid worker ban, and Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other Muslim-majority countries have voiced disapproval over the higher education restrictions. The U.S. placed visa limits on current and former Taliban members in October in response to their treatment of women, and Blinken promised further unspecified multilateral “costs” if the university ban isn’t reversed.
But the Taliban has hardly proved receptive to previous criticism, and this time looks no different. “Those organizations operative in Afghanistan are obliged to comply with the laws and regulations of our country,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted Sunday, warning U.S. officials against interfering in “internal issues” of Afghanistan. “We do not permit anyone to state irresponsible words or make threats about the decisions or officials of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under the title of humanitarian aid.”
That argument hasn’t convinced students who are suddenly blocked from school. “The Taliban has come and taken away our human rights, both the right to education and the right to freedom,” second-year law student Najiba told Radio Free Europe. “Imagine how frustrating it would be for a bird with no wings who wants to fly.”