Taliban reversal on reopening girls’ schools increases regime’s international isolation
The Taliban’s abrupt reversal of their decision to reopen girls’ high schools has caused outrage inside Afghanistan and outside. Images of weeping girls outside locked schools being sent back home has exposed the myth that the conservative regime is willing to moderate its hardline position on women’s access to education and other social issues. The move will make it harder for the regime to get recognition from the international community. It could also threaten the international humanitarian aid to the country.
Under international pressure, the Taliban has announced to allow for the reopening of girls high schools from the third week of March. But the decision was reversed hours before the schools were opened. Thousands of girls who had turned up to resume classes across the country were shocked to see the locked gates of their schools. The last-minute reversal has shattered the dreams of more than one million girl students who were excited to resume their education.
A notification issued by the education ministry said the girls’ schools would remain closed until officials draw up a plan for them to reopen in accordance with Islamic law. Authorities have not given any time frame for their resumption. Some Taliban officials have reportedly said that Islam allows limited education to women.
The reversal of the decision to reopen girls’ high schools demonstrate that the hardliners are in control of the leadership. The move came following a leadership council meeting in Kandahar. Women rights activists came out on the streets of Kabul and other Afghan cities to protest against the move.
After returning to power in the aftermath of the exit of American forces last year, the Taliban ordered closing down all girls’ schools and stopped women from working in government offices. The ban was reminiscent of the regressive social order imposed by the previous Taliban regime led by Mullah Omar, the late founder leader of the movement.
But in an effort to win international recognition, the new regime allowed girls’ education up to primary school. It also allowed women to work at select government departments related to health and education. The Taliban also promised to gradually reopen women’s access to higher education.
Intriguingly, the Taliban reneged on their promise a week before a UN sponsored international conference seeking millions of dollars from donor countries in badly needed humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
A major issue obstructing any move by the international community to legitimize the conservative regime is the Taliban’s own inflexibility in moderating their position on human and women’s rights. The regime’s reneging on its promises has been a cause of serious concern even among countries that favor a more positive approach towards the Taliban regime.
In recent months, the new government has imposed restrictions on local media and cracked down on peaceful protests. Taliban officials have also issued new restrictions on women, including a ban on traveling further than 45 miles in a taxi unless they are accompanied by a male chaperone. The measures have drawn global condemnation.
Such retrogressive moves indicate that the organization’s ideological views are taking precedence over international engagement. It seems that the hardliners have strengthened their control over the regime completely sidelining the elements favoring moderation.
Intriguingly, the Taliban reneged on their promise a week before a UN sponsored international conference seeking millions of dollars from donor countries in badly needed humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. It is now doubtful that the donors will be willing to contribute following the Taliban’s abrupt reversal on their key commitment of girls’ education. The international community has made girls’ education a central condition of foreign aid and any future recognition of the Taliban.
The conservative orientation could be disastrous for a country facing multiple economic, social and political challenges. It cannot deal with problems isolated from the international community. One of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan is on the brink of a human catastrophe with the large-scale internal displacement of a population fleeing worsening economic conditions.
According to a recent UN refugee agency report, more than a quarter of a million people have been forced to leave their homes since the beginning of this year. And over 90 per cent of Afghans are believed to be living below the poverty level. Without international support, more people could be pushed into starvation. The economy cannot be revived under regressive rule.
Taliban officials have been meeting with Western officials seeking financial aid and recognition. So far, no country has recognized the Taliban’s government, and the latest move is likely to increase the regime’s isolation. The world is not willing to accept a retrogressive regime which does not believe in fundamental human rights and equal rights for women.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year.