The education of girls and women is universally accepted in more than 200 countries and territories, including nearly 50 Muslim-majority nations.
But Afghanistan’s hard-line Islamist Taliban rulers have banned teenage girls from attending school after the sixth grade since they returned to power two years ago. The ban was extended in December to women in universities.
Countless protests by Afghans inside the country, pressure from the international community, and lobbying by Muslim scholars and clerics have failed to convince the fundamentalist Taliban leaders to reopen schools.
Experts are divided over whether the ban is rooted in how the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam is shaped by conservative Pashtun tribal customs and cultural practices or if it is prompted by how senior Taliban ideologues interpret Islamic teachings.
Most Taliban leaders are ethnic Pashtun, Sunni Muslim clerics. Many were educated in Deobandi madrasahs in neighboring Pakistan. Deobandism emerged as a puritanical Islamic revivalist movement in 19-century British Colonial India. Based on the Sunni Hanafi school of jurisprudence, it is a prominent strain among Islamists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist and commentator, argues that the Taliban restrictions against women are linked to social customs and cultural practices in eastern and southern Afghanistan.
Most Taliban leaders come from various Pashtun rural tribal communities in these regions bordering Pakistan.
“They believe that a woman’s place is either inside a house or in a grave,” Yousafzai said of the basic Taliban belief influenced by the status of women in the families of clerics and religious leaders in these Pashtun regions.
“Women living in the households of the current Taliban policymakers were never educated and never left their homes,” said Yousafzai, who has tracked the Islamist group since it emerged as a ragtag militia in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar in late 1994. “These women never performed any government or nongovernmental jobs.”
Yousafzai says the Taliban backs policies shaped by this worldview by leaning on Islamic teachings supporting such ideas. He says Taliban leaders rely on sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that discourage women from leaving their homes.
“Their primary belief is that pubescent girls should not leave home under any circumstance,” he said. “This is why they view women leaving home for education or work as engaging in moral corruption.”
In Afghanistan, a Muslim nation of some 40 million people, activists and rights advocates accuse the Taliban of implementing “gender apartheid” by denying women education, work, freedom of movement, and deciding how they can appear in public.
Most Muslims agree that Islam allows women to get an education. Yet the Taliban publicly says that it will allow girls access to education only after ensuring complete gender segregation and other unspecified conditions.
Almost all Afghan secondary schools were gender segregated and universities imposed a strict separation between men and women after the Taliban takeover.
Yousafzai says in conservative and traditional Muslim societies around the world, some clerics also favor restrictions on women’s education, work, and their role in public life. But the governments in those countries usually oppose or limit such ideas.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia — one of the most conservative Sunni Muslim nations — has allowed women to drive and granted them freedom of movement without a male guardian. These steps are part of a reform and modernity drive by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
The Taliban ban on education has invited universal condemnation from Muslims globally.
“The Taliban’s ban on women’s education is not rooted in [the Islamic] Shari’a law but rather reflects cultural biases that contradict the teachings of Islam,” said Salam al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in the United States.
He said that contrary to Taliban practices, “Islam emphasizes the importance of seeking knowledge and encourages all individuals, regardless of gender, to acquire an education.”
But Islamic scholars and those who have attempted to convince the Taliban about reopening girls schools offer a different explanation.
John Mohammad Butt, an Islamic scholar and former BBC broadcaster who is the only Westerner to graduate from India’s Darul Uloom Deoband, argues that the Taliban’s policy on girls’ education is not tribal but shaped by the century-old conflict over modern education.
“The problem is that girls’ education in Afghanistan — indeed, contemporary education in general — has generally been introduced in Afghanistan in line with a secular agenda,” he said.
In the 1920s, a coalition of conservative clerics and tribal and community leaders deposed reformist King Amanullah Khan. He wanted to modernize Afghanistan along Turkish leader Kamal Ataturk’s secular lines and championed modern education and rights for women.
This opposition to modernity and secularism continued, and conservative clerics opposed women’s education and work. It became a key part of the Islamist opposition to the pro-Soviet Afghan communist governments after the April 1978 military coup that ended the Afghan monarchy. The mujahedin accused the communists of spreading immorality by promoting women’s education and empowerment.
“This has led to particular wariness on the part of conservative circles in Afghanistan with regard to girls’ education,” Butt said.
‘Deep Ideological Conviction’
Obaidullah Baheer, a political science lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan, became part of an effort to rescind the ban by talking to the Taliban last year.
But he says the effort failed because “the ban is a matter of deep ideological conviction” for the current supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.
Baheer says that the most prominent Taliban leaders have studied in Pakistani madrasahs and were thus disconnected from village and tribal life.
“They have been indoctrinated by the Deobandi school of thought so that they now enforce the strictest version of Islam on the Afghan population,” he said.
He argues that the ban on girls’ schools is a deliberate policy championed by Akhundzada, who he says has endorsed Taliban Chief Justice Abdul Hakim Haqqani’s Arabic language book The Islamic Emirate And Its System. In this book, Haqqani supports a fringe Islamic opinion of preferring the choice of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Sawdah Bint Zam’ah, who chose to stay at home until her death.
Baheer says Haqqani ignores his other wives and other female companions that played an active role in many sectors of society and how they served as students and teachers for men.
“This fringe opinion is not held by all Taliban leaders but is one that the current absolute sovereign, the Taliban emir, seems to be convinced of,” he said.
Butt says that even Haqqani has acknowledged the principle that if there is something that women need to act upon, then that is also something that women need to learn about.
“I hope the Taliban authorities will come to realize in the not-too-distant future that education for women will make Afghan women into better Muslims,” he says. “It will enable them to make a stronger contribution to the well-being of their country.”
Two years after grappling with the issue, Western diplomats appear to be encouraging Afghan conservative and clerical circles to find ways to end the ban.
Tom West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, recently tweeted that Afghan women must be educated and contribute to the economy to help their country stand on its own two feet.
“If change to policies is made, it will be because Afghans have asked for it, not a result of foreign requests,” he wrote.