Following the Taliban’s refusal to let Afghan girls go to school after declaring the country “Islamic,” Muslim author Hafsa Lodi draws on the importance of women’s education in the religion.
“What is our crime for being barred from continuing education?” It’s a question scrawled in marker, posed on a cardboard placard held by a young girl in a white headscarf – one of the many images circulating on social media after the new Taliban government opened schools for boys aged seven and above in Afghanistan last week. Girls of the same age were told to stay home, prompting pockets of protests across the country. In Kabul, women dressed in abayas and black tunics, with black tape forming an “X” over their mouths, and staged a “silent protest” outside of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education.
Earlier, the Taliban had stated that women would be allowed to attend schools and universities, as long as classes were segregated. But after its failure to allow girls to return to schools, many fear that the fundamentalist group will revert to its previous handling of women’s education – by effectively banning it altogether. Between 1991 and 2006, under Taliban rule, Afghan women were not permitted to go to schools or universities. But in the years following the Taliban’s control of the country, the number of girls in primary school increased from nearly zero to 2.5 million, and the female literacy rate almost doubled to 30% between 2011 and 2018, according to a 2021 Unesco report.
Although the Taliban claims its policies are guided by Islam, there is nothing Islamic about preventing women from going to school – in fact, it’s arguably un-Islamic. “The Taliban, who lack education and humanity, have been posing as the guardians of Islam – it’s a preposterous claim, given that their actions are contrary to Islamic teachings and philosophy,” says Nelofer Pazira, the Afghan filmmaker who penned a moving letter for Vogue Arabia shortly after the Taliban seized control last month. “As a Muslim woman, I strongly believe that we must speak out against injustices, especially the ones that are carried out in the name of Islam.”
While curbing women’s access to education has no basis in religion, it’s been firmly on the agenda of this extremist group for years – it was a faction of the Taliban, after all, that shot Malala Yousafzai in the head as punishment for her pro-female-education activism.
But the Quran commands all Muslims, regardless of gender, to read, think, contemplate, and pursue knowledge, and the Prophet Muhammad encouraged education as a religious duty for both males and females, explains Dr Haifaa Jawad in her book, The Rights of Women in Islam: An Authentic Approach. “One of the most important rights granted to women by Islam is the right to education,” she writes.
How then, can the Taliban, which declared Afghanistan an “Islamic” state, prevent women in the country from fulfilling what is otherwise seen as their religious duty? The answer lies in cultural gender roles that patriarchal – not religious – regimes strive to uphold. Women’s purpose in these societies, according to the men that lead them, are to grow up chastely, marry (rarely for romance), and birth children, while maintaining the household with cooking, cleaning, and other domestic duties. Their schooling, which could open the door to job opportunities and employment outside of the home, threatens this very traditional mindset.
These cultural attitudes are often masqueraded as religious ideals. But Islam is a faith that improved the position of women in 7th-century Arabian society, and many Muslims are confident that this spirit of reform was meant to continue. Precisely the opposite has happened under authoritarian extremist regimes where women’s rights have regressed, rather than progressed.
The Taliban’s leaders are well aware that the world’s eyes are on them, particularly watchful of their handling of women’s rights. They have not announced any nationwide ban on women’s schooling – just that it will resume once “security concerns” are addressed. Yet, with the Taliban’s track record, this delay could carry on for months or years on end. These “security concerns” may amount to high-level leaders’ fears that their soldiers, many of whom are uneducated and deeply steeped in patriarchal customs, may not comply with orders to allow women safe passage to school.
More concerning is the fact that a lack of access to education will severely impact young Afghan girls’ prospects for empowerment and their future roles in society. “Banning women from education and work is a crime against humanity,” says Pazira. “The Taliban behavior in Afghanistan will have a catastrophic impact on women’s daily lives, and their survival. It deprives an entire generation from learning, and participating in society.”
Male allyship will be critical in the weeks and months that follow. Already, many Afghan boys have announced solidarity with the women in their families, some even refusing to go to school until their sisters are allowed to go too. In an interview with BBC last week, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan affirmed, “The idea that women should not be educated is just not Islamic. It has nothing to do with religion.”
Facing intense scrutiny from the international community, it’s likely that the Taliban will soon allow young women to return to school in Afghanistan. What’s critical, however, is their sincerity in welcoming them – students and teachers – back to the classrooms, without threat or disrespect, but rather with the compassion and inclusivity that their religion preaches.
Muslim women clearly have an Islamic right to education. But in the conclusion of her book Sufi Narratives of Intimacy, Professor Sa’diyya Shaikh points out that a solely “rights-based” approach to reform in Muslim societies is not enough. She calls for a “comprehensive theological critique” that “interrogates the nature, roots, and assumptions” of these ultra-patriarchal power structures and their gender-discriminatory policies. Without such a drastic reckoning, the Taliban’s “religious” authority will persist, unchecked.