Taliban pledged to respect girls’ and women’s rights, but many can no longer attend school

For a brief moment in the tree-lined courtyard of the Malalai School in Kabul, it’s as if nothing else matters.

Dozens of schoolgirls hold hands, twirling around as they dance together in a circle, their laughter echoing in the air. Others sit in a row with serious faces as they sing a song about unity in Afghanistan together.

It’s the easy joy of youth, but for Taliban-controlled schoolgirls, it’s devastatingly precarious.

Inside the school in the Afghan capital, grade 6 students, now Malalai’s oldest students, study the lesson of the day as fear that their education will be compromised weighs on their minds.

“I became sad when I heard that the upper classes could not come to school [anymore]”said Rahna, sitting in the front row of the class.

“I don’t know if this is our last year. If next year we can come to school or not?

Young students play in the courtyard of the Malalai school. About 1,000 students at the school were forced to stay at home after the Taliban seized power in August and changed the rules on who is allowed to attend school. (Ellen Mauro / CBC News)

About 1,000 students from that school alone have been forced to stay at home since the Taliban banned seventh-graders and older from attending school in the weeks following the takeover of power by the government-backed government. the West after 20 years of war.

Extremist leaders said the move was only temporary. But it’s been over a month and hundreds of thousands of college girls are stuck at home, their dreams and potential in danger of being wasted.

“I hope … that we can continue our studies until we get a good job,” Rahna said. “I would like to be a doctor to serve my nation.”

“Education is our power”

Just days after the Taliban victory in August, government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid held his first press conference. He pledged that the new Taliban regime was “committed to women’s rights” in the context of its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

“Our sisters, our men have the same rights,” Mujahid said. “The international community, if they have any concerns, we would like to assure them that there will be no discrimination against women, but, of course, within the frameworks that we have.”

But in mid-September, when high schools were allowed to reopen, only boys were allowed to return to class. The girls were completely excluded from the ad – invisible despite this vow to respect women’s rights. The UN says 4.2 million Afghan children are currently out of school, including 2.6 million girls.

Taliban officials, including the mujahedin, have since said that a “safe learning environment” must be in place before girls in upper grades can return to class. But there are few details on what that means or when it might be in place.

A Taliban fighter patrols central Kabul. When the Taliban came to power, they promised that women’s rights would be protected. Fears are growing now that the same harsh regime of the Taliban regime of the 1990s will take hold again. (Ellen Mauro / CBC News)

Each passing day brings more grief to young women who fear their future will slip away.

“They know education is our power,” said Massouda, 18, a university student who was studying engineering when the former government fell.

She no longer knows if she will be able to resume her studies.

“I am so sad,” she said. “I am so upset. I feel disappointed.”

Massouda is not his real name. CBC News has agreed not to name her because her family fears Taliban retaliation for speaking out.

She flips through an album of school certificates and glowing reports from former teachers.

“I have a lot of goals,” Massouda said, her voice broken and tears rolling down her cheeks. “I don’t think I will reach them.”

WATCH | How life has changed for girls and women in Afghanistan:

Taliban takeover changes lives of women and girls in Afghanistan

Two months after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, women and girls have seen their lives turned upside down and their plans turned upside down after losing the opportunity to go to school or work. 6:49

Access is severely restricted

While the vast majority of girls are currently not allowed to attend Grades 7-12, there are some areas of the country where female high school students have been allowed to return to class. It is not clear why this is happening in some regions and not nationally.

Taliban officials have also said that women can continue their university education, but access has been largely restricted.

All areas of college campuses should be segregated by gender, including classrooms; strict Islamic dress is mandatory; the subjects which women will be allowed to study are being studied; and, by Taliban rules, female students should only be educated by female teachers – even though the Taliban has told many women to stay home after work.

Dozens of professionals and academics were among tens of thousands of Afghans who fled the country during the August evacuation, limiting the number of teachers available. Many of those still teaching are not being paid as Afghanistan faces a perilous cash flow crisis.

The Taliban say the ban on female students attending school beyond grade 6 is only temporary. But it has been in place for over a month with no indication of when it could be lifted. (Ellen Mauro / CBC News)

Kabul University has been completely closed for the time being. Its chancellor was replaced last month by someone appointed by the Taliban with no academic experience. Other public universities across the country also remain closed.

“I can’t be a girl who should get married and have babies,” Massouda said. “I want to work. I want to go to study, to do something for my country.”

Instead of attending classes, Massouda now spends her days at home with her family, trying to overcome her sadness by reading books in English and doing her best to study on her own.

“I won’t stop,” she said. “Whatever they do, I won’t stop.”

“Half of our society is owned by women”

The restrictions fuel fears among Afghan girls and women that Taliban assurances that women’s rights will be protected are empty promises; that a repeat of its stern reign of the 1990s, when women were excluded from school and largely confined to their homes, is setting in again.

There are other worrying signs for women. There are no women in government, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been transformed into the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Sediqua Nuristani, acting principal of the Malalai school in Kabul, says she is convinced that the Taliban will reopen schools for all women and girls. (Jared Thomas / CBC)

Still, some say they believe positive change is coming.

“The Taliban – their vision has changed,” said Sediqua Nuristani, acting director of Malalai.

She says the current Taliban regime is better educated than the previous one.

“I am confident that they will open our schools for all women and girls,” Nuristani said.

“Half of our society is owned by women.”

The international community has been reluctant to provide desperately needed aid to Afghanistan until the Taliban show the girls will be allowed to continue their education. (Jared Thomas / CBC News)

International pressure is key, advocates say

But women’s rights activists say the only way half of Afghan society can be granted full rights is to come under pressure from the international community.

Foreign aid has long been the cornerstone of Afghanistan, but much of it was frozen after the Taliban took control. Without it, the country is on the brink of economic collapse with a seemingly inevitable humanitarian catastrophe.

Most households already don’t have enough to eat, banks are running out of money, and Afghans sell their goods on busy roadsides just to get by.

Despite the increasingly desperate reality for the Afghan people, the international community is reluctant to provide more aid until the actions of the Taliban demonstrate that women and girls will be treated equally.

“The Taliban don’t have a lot of time to sit down and think, linger and rethink,” said Mahbouba Seraj, a prominent women’s rights activist in Kabul on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most people. influential 2021.

“There’s no need to think about it again. Girls, they have to go to school. Period.

“The world will decide whether or not to recognize the Taliban. And a lot of it depends on their actions – whether they’re going to let the girls go to school or not.

WATCH | “They can’t hold the girls back,” activist Mahbouba Seraj says:

Mahbouba Seraj on the fight for the preservation of women’s rights in Afghanistan

Mahbouba Seraj, head of the Afghan Women’s Network, discusses the Taliban’s return to power and the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan with CBC’s Susan Ormiston. 5:02

Loose hope

But some Afghan women, driven by the ambitions they have cherished for a long time, refuse to wait patiently. Instead, they are agitating for their rights on the streets and on social media.

Small protests take place every few weeks in Kabul – and have taken place in other cities as well – organized by brave young women holding signs and marching even after the Taliban’s violent crackdowns in previous protests.

Afghan women demonstrate in Kabul in September, calling on the Taliban to guarantee women equal rights to education, work and participation in government. (Stringer / Reuters)

“If we want to make our voice heard, we have to accept certain risks and difficulties in asserting our rights,” said Zwaak, a university student in law and politics. “For that, we accept the risk of participating in this demonstration.”

Zwaak is not his real name. It’s a Pashto word for “power” and it’s the alias she chose when CBC News agreed not to release her name.

A young activist and artist, Zwaak uses her paintings and writings to advance the cause of Afghan women – creating vivid images depicting a grim present for women desperate to learn.

Zwaak continues to fight, guarding against growing fears that this is a losing battle.

“I lose hope, day after day.”

A painting by Zwaak, a student and activist in Kabul who asked CBC to use a pseudonym. Her work sheds light on the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban. (submitted)

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