This summer international headlines were filled with stories from Afghanistan. Following the final withdrawal of US troops in August, the Taliban swept through the country at an alarming rate, toppling provincial capitals in quick succession.
Within just 10 days, the Taliban had reached the gates of Kabul, mere hours after President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country. Thousands of Afghans attempted to do the same, as images of desperate Afghans clinging to the underside of a C-17 aircraft reverberated around the world.
This desperation was fuelled by the fear of the many changes that Afghanistan would face under the Taliban. One of the principal concerns worldwide was how the takeover would impact the lives of women and girls in the country.
The Taliban are notorious for the limiting of often complete removal of women’s rights. Before they were overthrown by the US military, the Taliban had previously controlled Afghanistan in the 1990’s. During a 5-year period between 1996-2001, girls were barred from education. Despite not taking responsibility, many observers believe that the Taliban was responsible for the bombing of a girls’ secondary school in May 2021. The attack killed more than 85 people, most of whom were young girls.
The Taliban have declared that they will observe the rights of women and girls, but do not deny that they will act ‘within the limits of Islam’. This purposefully vague statement has been far from enough to reassure observers in Afghanistan and worldwide that the Taliban will respect the rights of women and girls living under their control.
The Taliban are also yet to allow girls and female teachers to return to secondary schools in Afghanistan, although they have stated they will do so once stricter segregation and curriculum changes have been put in place. Because of this, many girls who had previously persevered with their studies, despite the risk and fear of attacks, now must remain at home and await the Taliban’s announcement. They have lost not only their right to attend a classroom, but their opportunities for a brighter future.
In response, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai – the famous Pakistani activist for female education – has written an open letter to the Taliban, demanding that they re-open schools for girls while also highlighting that Afghanistan is now the only country in the world that does not allow female education.
In her letter, she addresses Taliban leaders, stating: “you assured the world that you would respect the rights of girls and women — but you are denying millions their right to learn. Reverse the de facto ban on girls’ education and re-open girls’ secondary schools immediately.”
As well as directing addressing the Taliban, in her letter Malala also calls upon other Islamic countries to act. In her statement to the leaders of Muslim countries she states that “religion does not justify preventing girls from going to school. Make this clear to Taliban leaders by issuing public statements on the Islamic imperative for girls’ complete education”.
Many are unsurprised that the Taliban are reneging on their promise of equal educational opportunities and dismiss the rhetoric of the so called “Taliban 2.0”. While the group may have reinvented their social media and PR presence, it appears they remain the same at their core: cruelly misogynistic and intent on establishing total control over women’s bodies. In the 90’s, along with girls over the age of 8 being barred from education, women were unable to work, were forced to cover their faces in public and were unable to leave their homes without male company.
Women faced public humiliation, severe beatings and sometimes execution for breaking these rules. Indeed, perhaps the most barbaric image from the Taliban’s first reign in Afghanistan is that of Zermina, a mother of five who was dragged before 30,000 spectators at Kabul’s Olympic Stadium in November 1999, before being shot in the head as she kneeled before the goalposts. With reports of public beatings and children already being sold-off to Taliban soldiers, Afghanistan’s women yet again face a grim reality.
Although Malala’s letter has already received over 650,000 signatures and is a statement of female empowerment that reminds us of the importance of education for all, it remains to be seen whether the Taliban will consider, let alone respect, Malala’s demands.