Part Two: The Taliban & Girls’ Access to Education
Allegra Berg, Connie Farrell, Aimee Hanstein, Faye Lax, Benjamin Levitt, Liam Tormey, Johnny Yared, CENTCOM & Extremism Teams
March 24, 2021
Girls attending school in Samangan Province, Afghanistan
The peace talks between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the international community are pivotal to ensuring equal access to rights and education for all Afghans irrespective of sex. Free and equal access to education for girls and women will signal a turning point for Afghanistan, a country that has suffered from widespread low literacy rates for many decades. Although every negotiator aims to keep all parties engaged in the peace talks and maintain what stability there is in the region, equal rights and equal access to quality education is just as critical for Afghanistan. While the Taliban may leave the talks if education for girls is mandatory for making a deal, not guaranteeing equal rights will lead to continued violence in the country. Thus, peace and education for all are crucial to ensuring long-term peace and equality. Gender equality in education, in turn, contributes to greater opportunities for female engagement in economic, political, and public life which benefit the country as a whole. As discussed in part one of this series, women are not innately peaceful beings any more than their male counterparts, yet their inclusion in all aspects of governance, public life, and education promotes more diverse and intersectional voices which are better placed to facilitate and maintain lasting peace.
The Taliban, or "students" in the Pashto language, emerged in the early 1990s in northern Pakistan following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Their main goal is to enforce their austere version of Sharia or Islamic law, once in power. The arrival of the Taliban regime was a tremendous imposition on the Afghan people, especially on local women. Under the Taliban, women and girls were discriminated against in many ways for the perceived 'crime' of being born a girl. The Taliban historically claimed to recognize their Islamic duty to offer education to both boys and girls, yet a decree was passed that banned girls above the age of 8 from receiving education. Under the Taliban, oppression of women became rampant and justified through tradition, religion, chivalrous protection of women, and defense of personal and family honor. Girls are often not supported in their attempts to achieve an education due to society’s enduring perception of the women’s subordinate role in society and the lack of recognition that girls deserve an education.
With the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001, positive changes occurred for many, especially women, as Afghanistan acknowledged the idea that women formed half of society. Therefore, conflicts and disputes about women's rights and the role of women gradually established a central place in Afghan society and national life. The development in Afghanistan once again bears witness to how, with the fall of the extremists, Afghan women emerged from political isolation and succeeded in taking part in public, social, economic, and cultural life. They regained access to education and employment and, to a certain extent, shared in decision making and the peace and reconstruction of the country. However, pressure from civilians has its limits and has, in some cases, been met with violence by the Taliban. Nevertheless, this demonstrates an undercurrent across Afghan communities which is prepared to risk retaliation from the Taliban to encourage the rights of women and girls in the educational sphere. These grassroots communities willing to risk their safety in support of better educational opportunities for girls and women could, in theory, be leveraged by Afghan government actors or international forces such as the US to make a stand against Taliban threats. However, in practice, the Afghan government has been incapable of protecting these communities from danger and the US has withdrawn from Afghanistan without first securing the safety of these civilian groups; therefore, there is a lack of trust which precludes community efforts. For community pressure on the Taliban to have productive results, it must be accompanied by government support and assurances of public safety coupled with incentives for the Taliban to oblige.
While significant strides have been made, education remains inaccessible to many girls across Afghanistan. Currently, more than 80 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. In the rural regions of Afghanistan, where more than 74 percent of the population lives, the illiteracy rate of females is closer to 93 percent. Where girls do have access to education, there remains gender inequality in terms of the quality and focus of education received in comparison to boys, particularly in Taliban-held areas. For instance, in the Mohammad Agha district, a Taliban-controlled region, Taliban educational administrators allowed boys to complete up to grade 12 (graduate), however, girls were limited to grade 6. These educational restrictions have resulted in madrassas becoming the main source of primary and secondary education for females in Taliban-controlled regions.
Madrassas, Islamic religious schools, in Afghanistan constitute an informal and non-uniform system, characterized by the presence of a variety of educational institutions offering religious education at different levels. These madrassas adhere to the Deobandi and Wahhabi schools of Sunni Islam and are funded mainly by Saudi Arabia, as well as by wealthy individuals. This lingering Saudi influence dated from the anti-Soviet jihad, during which Saudi Arabia matched the USA in funding for the mujahideen. This private funding has enabled the Taliban to dictate access and curriculum independent of government oversight or influence. For young girls, the idea behind the madrassas is to fully absorb them into the culture of the Islamic faith. Girls attend school from 0630 to 1630 every day and, throughout their education, memorize all 30 sections of the Quran. The madrassas educate the girls in acceptable clothing standards for women and distinctly emphasize the importance of the hijab.
Islam teaches that women who wear the hijab are protected from corruption and immoral behavior. All girls that attend the madrassas must cover their entire faces as well as their hands and feet and should ideally wear a mesh gauze over their eyes as well. The preoccupation with female Muslim appearance as an expression of piety is not something western actors can or should unilaterally seek to eradicate, since some girls and women feel empowered by their way of the dress where others do not. However, there remains an opportunity to posit that the time and attention afforded to discussions around the hijab in the school curriculum of madrassas denies girls the time or chance to learn subjects such as mathematics, sciences, or languages which would give them the tools to pursue different avenues in the future beyond their gendered role. In short, wearing a hijab and learning physics are not mutually exclusive. Increasing girls’ access to quality education - regardless of what they wear in the classroom - is vital to improving not only women’s lives but Afghanistan as a whole, as educated women can contribute more fully to economic and political life.
The educational experience for females within Taliban-controlled regions remains extremely dangerous as they face both sexual and physical violence from the Taliban forces and the pro-government militias, who are operating against each other for control. However, one of the most salient issues that continue to prevent more girls from enrolling is the lack of female teachers as less than 20 percent of teachers in the country are women.The schools are set up and run by male teachers that must never come into contact with the girls, and the male teachers must never be present in the schoolyard. In lessons, the girls are taught from behind a curtain and resist face-to-face contact. Due to the adherence to traditional cultural norms, many Afghan families are not comfortable sending their daughters to a school where they would only be taught by men. A greater presence of women teachers in the classroom would likely build parents’ confidence in sending their daughters to school. Without this, male-dominated educational settings perpetuate a system where women and girls remain absent or in a very small minority. This, in turn, impedes girls’ opportunities later in life for engagement in public and work environments as they have limited qualifications and skills compared to their male counterparts. This cycle of restrictive education for girls focuses on suppressing their agency to navigate life beyond what is dictated to them by their male teachers. To remedy this, the cycle must be broken by introducing more female teachers into the classroom. Measures are already underway by international groups like USAID to try and implement these changes but the progress thus far has been slow. Because female teachers continue to be targeted by Taliban violence, there is an understandable reluctance of women to risk their lives; this must be addressed at the local level by Afghan police and military forces to ensure female teachers’ safety.
Female teacher with her students, Afghanistan
Another obstacle to girls’ access to education that is responsible for limited female enrollment in schools and universities is physical proximity to education settings. This is especially impactful on those living in remote/rural areas, as their travel to school from their village sometimes takes upwards of 4 hours. Additionally, the violence between the Taliban and government forces can often make these journeys very dangerous. This perpetuates the inequality in access to education between urban and rural communities. Institutional corruption is also a significant shortcoming of the Afghan educational system. Education is recognized as a right of all people and should be free, but the materials and travel expenses can be too expensive for families, especially for poor families in remote areas. The Taliban have exploited this issue in the past to attract boys from impoverished families to attend Taliban-run madrassas which, beyond offering an education, also provided food and clothing for the children. In some instances, the Taliban has also offered a weekly or monthly stipend so that families would send their sons to the madrassas. These boys were then targeted for radicalization and recruitment into Taliban ranks as child soldiers.
This highlights a serious concern; if the Taliban does permit girls to attend school, there exist considerable risks to the child being recruited into an extremist organization. Although the Taliban typically do not recruit young girls as fighters, this does not mean they are protected from abuse. Rather than being trained militarily, young girls are more often used for sex slavery for military groups and experience severe trauma. Taliban control of madrassas would provide the group with a recruitment pool of young girls which would facilitate an increase in girls being forced to join the Taliban in ancillary roles, such as cooks, in which girls remain subjugated to the domestic sphere. Greater protections must be put in place to prevent the recruitment of children as fighters, sex slaves, or any other form of child labor or role within the Taliban ranks. Delivering access to education for all children regardless of sex should also come with assurances for child safety and security.
The international community is a significant player in the development and progression of the Afghan school system. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, donors have contributed millions of dollars to help the weak Afghan government grow its social and economic projects regarding education. In December 2020, UNICEF and the Taliban formed an agreement to establish upwards of 4,000 informal schools from the 680 community-based classes (CBE) which already exist in select Taliban-controlled districts. These schools will function under the system most accepted by international organizations and involved foreign entities; the Community-based Educational system. These informal classes will be created in Taliban-controlled Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, and Faryab districts and will allow around 140,000 boys and girls to attend. The cost of operations for constructing and maintaining these skills will be paid by the Global Partnership for Education, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and various other NGOs. UNICEF is also working closely with the Afghan Ministry of Education (MoE) to improve the quality of education in CBEs through the development of subject-specific syllabi and the recruitment and training of female teachers through the establishment of a 2-year scholarship fund - created in coordination with nonprofit, Girls’ Access to Teacher Education (GATE) program.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been working closely with the Afghan government and coalition forces to strengthen processes and institutions to ensure all children have an opportunity to learn in Afghanistan. The agency works to print and distributes millions of textbooks to schools, and since 2008, it has enrolled around 3 million Afghan girls in CBE classes. Like UNICEF, USAID has made significant efforts to increase the number of female teachers in Afghanistan through the USAID’s Promote Scholarship program, which has provided the opportunity for more than 850 women to study bachelor’s and master’s level degrees through full-tuition scholarships. USAID has conducted various projects focused on improving educational standards in Afghan schools. Most notable is the Education Quality Reform in Afghanistan (EQRA) and Afghan Children Read (ACR) programs. ERQA seeks to increase equitable access to primary and secondary education for girls in 17 selected provinces with the improvement of learning conditions throughout these districts and monitoring and tracking attendance of the enrolled girls to ensure they are consistently in school. The ACR program has two main objectives: first, build the capacity of the MoE to develop, implement, and scale-up nationwide early grade reading curriculum and instruction programs in public school and CBE classes; second, pilot evidence-based early grade reading curricula and instruction programs to improve reading outcomes for children in grades 1-3 in public schools and CBE classes. Since its establishment, the program has supported around 300,000 students in areas such as Kabul, Herat, Laghman, and Nangarhar.
In regards to the UNICEF deal and Intra-Afghanistan deal, the Taliban waged a political campaign that required establishing support from Afghan citizens as well as a greater degree of international legitimacy. Although this deal's scale is notable, many aid groups and the Afghan government ministry of education have historically negotiated indirectly with the Taliban to keep schools running. Additionally, the Taliban seeks international recognition and legitimacy, as well as wanting international aid; the promise of securing these things will likely be influential in the Taliban allowing female education. Previously, the Taliban could not keep basic services such as running water in villages, thus international aid will be vital to enabling them to provide such services and gain the trust and establish a social contract with the people they govern.
Perhaps surprisingly, aversion to girls receiving an education is not expressed by all Taliban members. Some all-girl schools in areas of rural Afghanistan that are under Taliban control do exist and some of the fighters’ daughters and sisters attend them. A teacher from one of these schools says the Taliban seems to have a mixed stance, on the one hand supporting an organization that seeks to subjugate women, yet on the other wanting the girls in their own families to get wisdom and education. By allowing family members to join, the Taliban could be grooming them to be fighters alongside them (which would also be a shift for them) or may expect them to serve the Taliban in more gendered roles such as cooks. While some Taliban members have allowed their female family members to go to school, others have sent threats to all-girl schools. Some experts attribute the shift in the Taliban’s narrative on girls’ schooling to pressure from communities that want their daughters to have access to education. These demands might have persuaded the Taliban to take a more flexible and pragmatic approach. In some cases, village elders made subtle threats that they would turn against the group and provide information to the Taliban’s foes if the Taliban did not respect the community’s wishes. However, pressure from civilians has its limits and has, in some cases, been met with violence by the Taliban. Nevertheless, this demonstrates an undercurrent across Afghan communities which is prepared to risk retaliation from the Taliban to encourage the rights of women and girls in the educational sphere. These grassroots communities willing to risk their safety in support of better educational opportunities for girls and women could, in theory, be leveraged by Afghan government actors or international forces such as the US to make a stand against Taliban threats. However, in practice, the Afghan government has been incapable of protecting these communities from danger and the US has withdrawn from Afghanistan without first securing the safety of these civilian groups; therefore, there is a lack of trust which precludes community efforts. For community pressure on the Taliban to have productive results, it must be accompanied by government support and assurances of public safety coupled with incentives for the Taliban to oblige.
For women to continue to have the right to pursue an education, the Taliban leadership must have a clear position on the matter. Without a cohesive stance on the issue, it will impede the agreements regarding education negotiated in the peace talks. As highlighted in Part 1 of this series, there has been a considerable push to include women in the peace process to ensure women’s rights, including education, are not left out of the discussion. Some observers and activists believe that the Taliban will ban any kind of education for girls and young women again. The Taliban leadership prefers to stay vague and underlined the importance of Islamic norms in the context of women’s work and girls’ education. “We are not against female education or work. But we have Islamic norms. This is still not the West,” Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the head of the Taliban office in Qatar stated. Given the Taliban was never able to have a clear position to even convince their fighters about the validity of un-Islamic orders such as closing schools, this is not surprising. All groups (including the Taliban) have issues that are disagreed upon and elements that are more conservative or less conservative on certain points, education for the Taliban is one of those points. It could indicate there are internal rifts within the organization and peace talks could attempt to be more inclusive of those members who do favor education for girls. In this case, Taliban members can be engaged in the process without denying girls' education. There might be issues with such an approach, as it could lead the more militant and extreme members to stop engagement with the process and continue attacks separate from those engaging in talks.
The Taliban is far more politically pragmatic and public relations-savvy than they were two decades ago. To avoid what happened in the 1990s (when they were a pariah state subject to international ridicule and isolation – in part because of their treatment of women), they may be willing to allow girls’ education to continue. The Taliban wants international recognition and legitimacy which will also fulfill their needs for international aid. If the Taliban wants international aid, it may force them to allow female education if this is an ultimatum given by the international community. The international community could offer the Taliban more aid money that would be dedicated to female schools and education, which could make it hard for the Taliban to refuse when considering legitimacy. Such agreements must also ensure that adequate measures are put in place so that girls, even in Taliban-controlled areas, receive an education that includes a balanced curriculum with government oversight and that ensures safety from harassment, sexual exploitation, radicalization, or recruitment.
As a way to leverage girls’ education in the peace talks, the Taliban will need to be offered something in return such as recognition as a legitimate party. However, agreement by the Taliban to allow girls to be educated in Afghanistan will not come without significant threats. There are not only factions of the Taliban which consider education for girls entirely unacceptable, but other extremist groups, such as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), may enact attacks on women and girls in educational settings following a Taliban endorsement. Moreover, as the Taliban have set a precedent of using schools and children’s education systems to access and recruit child soldiers, adequate protections need to be put in place to mitigate this threat and to ensure girls’ and boys’ safety from extremist messaging and recruitment in the education system. If given the proper incentive, or if the peace talks are beneficial enough for the Taliban, it is possible that the Taliban could turn down their significant violent actions and turn towards more party/governmental stances. While this is a possibility, this outcome is also dependent on the Afghan government with agreements such as governance abilities and ceasefires (from both sides). The Taliban has already provided the US a three-month reduction in violence (RIV) plan, it should be noted though that this plan is not a formal agreement and nothing has been finalized. If an agreement between the two countries can be made, even something like a formal RIV plan or a ceasefire, then it is very likely the Taliban will turn down this violence to maintain legitimacy and recognition.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends that the international community continue to put pressure on the Taliban on behalf of girls’ education if the Taliban is seeking legitimacy and recognition and desires international aid, NGOs focused on women’s rights also recommend the same. Ensuring girls are allowed to go to school must be a central part of any deal with the Afghan insurgents. The US and Afghan governments should continue to negotiate on female education even if peace deals are dismantled. These discussions should include women negotiators and representatives at all levels. The international community could offer the Taliban more aid money that would be dedicated to female schools and education, which could make it hard for the Taliban to refuse when considering legitimacy; aid must only be given on the basis that clear parameters for the safety and inclusion in education for girls and women are set and maintained. CTG will continue to monitor any attacks the Taliban conducts on girls’ schools and other educational institutions. CTG will monitor any potential fractures or fragmentation within the Taliban if the organization does come out (in a statement or official recognition of sorts) in support of girls’ education. If there are already inconsistencies amongst Taliban fighters, it is likely that if the Taliban does recognize girls’ education, smaller groups could split off and insurgency in the country could continue to rise.
_______________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
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