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  • Human Rights Research Center

“A woman's place is either inside a house or in a grave”: The Taliban in Afghanistan

March 28, 2024



As discussed in the previous article in this series, Afghanistan is the only country in the world that bans girls from going to school. The Taliban has instituted a system of gender apartheid in Afghanistan, defined by the International Service for Human Rights as:


“The systematic segregation of persons based on their gender imposed through law and policy as a governing ideology.”


This “total exclusion of women” cements Afghanistan’s place as the textbook case of gender apartheid. Afghanistan was officially founded in 1749 by Ahmad Shah Durrani, who brought the Pashtun tribes together. It gained independence from the British in 1919 after 40 years of colonial rule. Afghanistan shares borders with Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, is located in the Middle East, or Southwest Asia (pictured below), and has a population of about 43 million.



School life expectancy for Afghan boys is 13 years, while Afghan girls on average only receive 8 years of schooling. Girls older than 12 or 13 are denied education, with their schooling ending abruptly and disappointingly after primary school or 6th grade. So what is the history of education in Afghanistan, who or what is the Taliban, and why are they determined to prevent girls from being educated?


Modern, formal education in Afghanistan is still relatively new. Because the country is positioned at the “crossroads between Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East, its geostrategic location has kept it at war since the 19th century,” meaning that its education system has both improved and worsened over time. Informal education involves schooling at madrassas, which strongly focuses on Islamic religious teachings, while formal education is provided by the state. Before the mid-1900s, girls were not allowed to attend informal schools. The first girls’ school was created during 1919-1929, but its Western-style education system that included girls was widely opposed by conservatives. Once Afghanistan became a democracy in 1973, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a communist party backed by the USSR, took over and instituted a less religious-focused education system that was more welcoming and accessible to girls. Once the Taliban gained control in 1996, girls were fully banned from schools, textbooks were thrown out, and religious education became the norm once again. Gender apartheid was first instituted during this occupation. 


The Taliban is a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist, militant organization that ruled over Afghanistan from 1996-2001 and regained power in 2021. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support the growing communist pseudo-regime led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. A decade later in 1989, the USSR withdrew after mounting pressure from the international community, paving the way for the Taliban to grow. The men who fought against the USSR, known as mujahideen, became the Taliban. They were financed by the United States and other Middle Eastern countries. These soldiers were taught that their resistance was akin to that of the prophet Muhammad, using religion as a weapon for radicalization. The Taliban primarily recruits from rural Pashtun areas, where many boys attend madrassas. Particularly, the most vulnerable boys were targeted: orphans from the war who went to madrassas and didn’t interact with women. Madrassas are used to indoctrinate people to share Taliban beliefs and recruit males to join the ranks. Formal public schools are also used as intelligence-gathering sites.


Boys are socially constructed as recruits to mold in the Taliban’s image and girls are constructed as invisible beings chained to the home. The Taliban targets “issues related to public morality where women are a frequent target of social control.” Militant groups focus on providing the most desired public good to keep the population complacent. In the case of the Taliban, they focused on public safety due to the years of war, violence, and unrest. Chillingly, they believe that “a woman's place is either inside a house or in a grave.”


During both periods of Afghanistan being under occupation by the Taliban, girls were banned from schools. The Taliban claims its ban on girls’ education is informed by Islamic law, also known as Sharia law. Specifically, the Taliban’s ideals are based on Deobandi, a philosophical movement within the Sunni branch of Islam. Deobandi “insists on patriarchal control and women's seclusion.” The Taliban’s policies and public statements about girls’ education seem contradictory. Some Taliban spokesmen claimed in 2021 that they support women’s rights and would allow women to keep attending university as long as women and men were separated. Empty promises about reopening schools for girls were all backtracked and left girls devastated. As we will discuss in future articles, the Taliban has had devastating effects on women's and girls’ lives, opportunities, and education throughout both eras of its rule.


 

Glossary


  • Deobandi- a strongly patriarchal, extremist movement within Sunni Islam that strips women and girls of their rights and freedoms.

  • Gender Apartheid- the segregation of the genders, male and female, instituted in public life through laws.

  • Madrassas- religious Islamic schools that are often part of mosques, a primary place the Taliban recruits from. 

  • The Taliban- a fundamentalist militia organization that rules Afghanistan, enforcing extremist policies that relegate women and girls to the home.

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