Taliban may be persuaded to establish female-only schools, claims an ex-education minister from Afghanistan

There are many Taliban officials who would support reversing the ban on schooling for girls in Afghanistan, according to the country’s last education minister before the takeover.

Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan has become the only country in the world where girls are banned from schooling beyond the age of 11. The group has also imposed what has been described as a policy of “gender apartheid”, banning women from most work and public spaces.

But internal fractures that exist within the Taliban on girl’s education could be leveraged by the international community to lobby with them to reopen girls schools, said Rangina Hamidi, who recently visited the country.

“The Taliban are not a monolith. There are differences of opinions within the Taliban, just as with any other group. And it is evident, particularly on the issue of the ban on girls’ education, there are many within the Taliban who support reversing the decree,” she said.

“Whether or not the world recognises the Taliban, for nearly 40 million Afghans, at least half of whom are women and girls, this is a lived reality,” she said. “And it pains me, that even after two years, the international community hasn’t figured out how to deal with the Taliban, at the expense of the people and girls of Afghanistan.

“Not that long ago the US government, along with its allies and international agencies, were engaged in the political talks with the Taliban. Why then, does the same global community today have a problem with working with the Taliban?”

Hamidi has proposed supporting homegrown solutions from Afghans who are finding ways to work around Taliban bans, including the use of spaces where girls are allowed, such as madrassas – religious schools – as an alternative avenue for education.

“Madrassas are synonymous today with religious schooling only, but historically these are spaces for learning,” she said, urging people to “look beyond semantics [for] indigenous opportunities for girls to continue their learning”.

“The country has lacked funds to invest in schools and there are communities where boys and girls are out of school. Yet, as a Muslim country, there are mosques – which are also places of learning – at least one in every 2km radius. So, why can’t we use this space to help our children learn using a standardised curriculum?” she said.

Afghan children read the holy Koran at a madrassa or an Islamic school in the Fayzabad district of Badakhshan province on November 20, 2023.
A madrassa in Badakhshan province, Afghanistan. Photograph: Omer Abrar/AFP/Getty Images

Hamidi’s views received a mixed reaction at a feminist gathering in Istanbul this month, organised by the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (Ungei), where she spoke. Some Afghan female participants were critical of any proposal to normalise relations with a group that continues to restrict women’s basic rights.

Selma Acuner, a member of the Women’s Coalition in Turkey, part of the Ungei feminist network, said: “Working with the Taliban, who intentionally suppress women’s rights and enforce their interpretation of radical fundamentalist ideologies through madrassas, presents a highly paradoxical situation.”

Acuner acknowledged that religious schools may provide girls an opportunity to continue engaging in a learning space, but said: “We cannot expect religious institutions to compensate for the lost access to formal secondary education … they do not match the broader educational scope and future opportunities it provides.”

Acuner said it was crucial to hear from and understand the experiences of women in Afghanistan before agreeing to such an approach. “Otherwise, it would mean consenting to a deepening regression in women’s rights worldwide,” she said.

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