KABUL: The Taliban said on Monday their latest order making head coverings mandatory and for classrooms to be gender-segregated was to safeguard women from “unnecessary harassment” and ensure their “mental well-being.”
This came a day after the Taliban introduced its new education policy based on Islamic law.
The move, however, has prompted outrage from rights groups, elicited mixed reactions from women students while educators said they were struggling to adapt.
On Sunday, the interim government’s newly installed Higher Education Minister Abdul Baqi Haqqani told a news conference that women in Afghanistan could continue to study in universities, including at post-graduate levels, provided they adhered to a compulsory Islamic dress code.
“We will not allow coeducation,” he said, adding that hijabs or headscarves were a must as per the new policy.
Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi reiterated the stance on Monday, saying that the decision was based on the Islamic Emirate’s new policies and “no group could oppose” it.
“Islamic law has commanded that women should wear the hijab and that their classes should be separate,” he told Arab News.
“Educating girls in separate classes will provide mental well-being. From now on, no one can cause them unnecessary harassment,” he said.
The Taliban announced their all-male interim setup last week after retaking Kabul in a bloodless siege on Aug. 15. Since then, the group’s rise to power has stoked fears that their new government will not be different from the first time in power in the late 1990s when girls and women were barred from education and work, among other harsh policies.
After ruling Afghanistan for five years, the Taliban were ousted in a US-led invasion in 2001, ushering in a new era for the war-battered country where women students did not have to abide by a dress code and could study alongside men.
Still, most women students opted to wear hijabs in keeping with their religious and personal choices, while boys and girls were taught separately in elementary and high schools before the Taliban came to power.
Haqqani acknowledged the shift in policy in his address but said that the Taliban did not want to turn the clock back 20 years. “We will start building on what exists today,” he said.
Women students, however, said that the latest directive could threaten their hard-won rights and overshadow freedom.
“Imagine, in the 21st century, instead of thinking about quality education we go back to the ’90s. I think it’s toward the rear. We’re actually wasting 20 years of achievements,” Wahida Jabbari, a law student at Fanoos University in Kabul, told Arab News.
Jabbari’s collegemate Vida Darvaish, a journalism student, implored the Taliban “to make progress instead of repeating our historical mistakes.”
“Making hijab compulsory in the classroom is a clear violation of women’s freedom. It should not be forgotten that today’s generation is not the generation of the 1990s,” she told Arab News.
Other students, however, welcomed the policies introduced by Afghanistan’s new rulers.
On Saturday, a group mainly comprised of women students held protests in Kabul to support the rules on dress and separate classrooms.
“Hijab is actually a protector for women. Having a hijab while learning is never a bad thing. It is the decision of the Islamic Emirate to bring true Islam back to Afghanistan,” Aziza Iftekhar, a Sharia law student at Al-Azhar University in Kabul, told Arab News.
She added that separate classes would “help calm minds” and ensure “psychological security.”
“We need peace of mind while studying. Women’s hijab and taking classes in separate classes will bring us psychological security, and our sisters will be safe,” Iftekhar said.
While laying out the new education policy, Haqqani said that the subjects being taught would also be reviewed, with women teachers required for female students “wherever possible.”
Where no women teachers were available, “special measures” would have to be adopted to ensure separation.
Educators, however, lamented the move, saying that the Taliban’s decision to separate classes had led to a “logistical and financial nightmare” because universities did not have the resources to provide separate classes.
“This decision has been a big headache for us because, in some classes, we have only one girl studying, but if we create a separate class for them, we will actually incur additional costs,” Ruhollah Wahab, head of the journalism department at Fanoos University, told Arab News.
He said that the initiative would “pose many challenges” for educational institutes. “Many private universities are not able to hire female professors because it creates organizational inflation and makes it difficult for the university to pay their lecturers.”
Since returning to power, the Taliban has maintained that their attitude, particularly toward women, had shifted in the past two decades.
Still, in recent days, the group’s officials have sent out mixed signals, while several members have used violence against women protesters demanding equal rights at small-scale demonstrations in the country.
While the Taliban have not officially ruled out women’s participation in their government, in a recent interview with popular TV channel TOLO News, Taliban spokesman Syed Zekrullah Hashmi said that “it’s not necessary that women be in the cabinet,” and should, instead, “give birth and raise children.”
Afghanistan had made massive progress in improving its literacy rates, particularly for girls and women, in the 17 years after Taliban control.
According to a recent report by the United Nation’s education branch, UNESCO, the number of girls in primary school had increased from “almost zero to 2.5 million” during that period, while the female literacy rate had nearly doubled in a decade to 30 percent.
Human rights groups, however, said that the Taliban’s latest policies “will make it much harder for women to study.”
“It will push many women out of higher education, and will reduce the quality of education for both women and men,” Heather Bar, associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, told Arab News.
“These restrictions violate the obligation any Afghan government has to ensure gender equality under the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which Afghanistan ratified in 2003, and the world is taking note of that,” she said.