Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
Soon after the Taliban took back power in Afghanistan last year, they issued a “temporary” policy requiring all Afghan women to stay at home until their fighters could be trained to respect women. During the 20 years it had taken to reforge an army, the Taliban had failed to instill this basic notion among its troops. And they had no shame in admitting it.
That policy has since become permanent and, clearly, there was never any real intention to develop respect for women within the Taliban’s ranks. The group has gradually reverted to the oppressive policies of its previous rule during the late 1990s, including reneging on its promise to provide education to girls and women, among other rights.
In the fall of 2021, the Taliban allowed women to attend university courses in gender-segregated classrooms, with instructors who were either female or old men. A dress code requiring loose-fitting clothing and a hijab was imposed. Then last spring, it rescinded a promise to allow girls to attend high school. Soon after, all Afghan women were ordered to wear a niqab in public, told to not leave their homes unless “necessary,” and banned from travelling without a male relative.
This past August in Kabul, women protested these draconian rules, chanting “bread, work and freedom,” as many had been relegated to poverty because of the imposed mobility restrictions. They, along with journalists who covered the protests, were beaten by Taliban fighters. In November, parks, gyms, public baths and theme parks were declared off-limits to women at all times.
The latest salvo in female erasure: Women have been “suspended” from attending university entirely, in order to preserve the “national interest” and “women’s honour,” according to the Taliban. There have been heartbreaking scenes of female students sobbing as they are turned away from university gates by Taliban guards. Dreams of getting an education, and hopes of serving their country, have been shattered. The Taliban have also banned women from working with NGOs, leading some to suspend operations.
There is no theological basis for the outrageous ban on female education in Afghanistan – the only country where such a prohibition exists. The Quran’s first revelation was the command, “Read!” It exhorts followers to reflect, to study the natural world, and to offer the prayer: “My Lord, increase me in knowledge.” Islamic history is replete with female scholars and judges. The world’s oldest university, according to UNESCO, is Al Quaraouiyine in Fez, Morocco, which was initially built in the 9th century by Fatima al-Fihri, who was highly educated in Islamic jurisprudence.
It is clear that the Taliban see nothing honourable in women, nor have any interest in their historical role or contemporary presence. Rather, they are viewed through the lens of misogyny, and seen as being troublesome and a source of fitnah (temptation). The Taliban believe that women should be removed from the public sphere, confined to their homes and kept illiterate.
International criticism of the women’s education ban has been swift and damning, especially from Muslim countries. Turkey’s government called the university ban “neither Islamic nor humane,” while Saudi Arabia has expressed “astonishment and regret” over the decree, joining Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in calling for the Taliban to reverse their decision.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), on behalf of its 57 member states, expressed “deep frustration.” The Gulf Cooperation Council not only condemned the decision as a clear violation of human rights, but also pointed out the obvious: that denying women’s education can “doom the economic future of Afghanistan, relegating half of its people to a life of poverty and ignorance.” There is no “national interest” – only national disaster – in banning education for women and girls.
Afghans are courageously standing up to this oppression. Male students walked out of their exams at several universities, in solidarity with their female counterparts. Protests have broken out in Kabul and Herat, as women, armed with their voices and moral conviction, demand a reversal of the ban. They have been met with arrests and water cannons.
Here in Canada, Muslim leaders can do their part by reminding communities that education is a right for all, that seeking knowledge is a duty, and that banning such opportunities for women is antithetical to Islamic teachings.
We must support all efforts to overturn the Taliban’s education ban while providing Afghan girls and women with online educational opportunities or even university placements until their full rights are restored. We must also support the women of Iran in their struggle. Once again, I say to the ruling elites, be they religious or secular: Leave Muslim women alone.