The Taliban had pledged to open secondary schools for girls in Afghanistan at the start of the academic year on March 23, 2022, after a seven-month hiatus. Schools had already reopened to boys on September 17, 2021, following the Taliban takeover, but remained shuttered for girls beyond grade 6. The UN and international partners welcomed the new regime’s promises to allow teenage girls to attend school.
The Taliban have cruelly and devastatingly reneged on their promise. The reversal of their decision was announced only after girls across the country had excitedly gone back to school and were turned away at locked gates. It is a heinous trick worthy of only the Taliban, and a painful reminder of why I made the most difficult decision of my life last August.
The Taliban are notorious for their violations of human rights, especially of girls’ and women’s rights. Since returning to power, they have not only deprived millions of girls from accessing education, but also forbidden women from working in the public sector. They closed the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and replaced it with the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. They have silenced the brave voices of women’s rights protestors through arbitrary detention. They’ve closed shelters and safe houses. Women who were finally allowed to attend university are met with harsh gender segregation and stringent rules about conduct and clothing. Women cannot travel without a male companion, and face all manner of restrictions on public space and public life.
Hoping the Taliban would be willing to compromise in their draconian rules and policies, Afghans across the globe anxiously and optimistically awaited the start of the academic year and girls’ return to schools. But the new authorities now say the girls’ schools will remain closed indefinitely—until policies compliant with the principles of Islamic law and Afghan culture are put into place. They gave the same justification the last time, when schools for boys reopened in September and girls were told to stay home.
Education is the great equalizer and a necessity in the modern age. The Taliban know this all too well. It’s why their officials reportedly send their daughters to schools and universities abroad. According to the Afghan Analyst Network, a Taliban official said that demand for modern education was strong among the families of Taliban leaders living in Qatar: “no one opposes it for either boys or girls—of any age.” Since coming into power, Taliban leaders have also sought educated second wives, reasoning that “education allows [women] to live a good life. They know the rights of a husband better and can better train your sons and daughters. That is why a literate wife is a necessity nowadays.”
My education is a big part of my identity. Such is the case for all educated women, whether in Afghanistan, China, or the United States, who must work twice as hard to achieve their status. I am no different. Having worked hard to put myself through university and graduate studies in the United States, and having served in senior positions in the Afghan government that were not welcoming to women, I left Afghanistan for this sole reason: I would not be allowed my basic freedoms—to public space and to work. Erasing the most significant part of my identity was not an option.
Nor should it be an option for the girls and women of Afghanistan. Education is a basic human right. That is why the international and donor community should keep pressure on the Taliban and spearhead a vigorous response to the attack on this fundamental right. Not doing so irreparably damages the legacy of the international engagement in Afghanistan—again.