On Dec 21st, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan put a stop on all attendance and activities of the women at the universities. Immediately the world reacted. All Western countries issued a joint statement condemning the decision. Influential Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and UAE also condemned the decision calling it “unislamic” and “inhumane”. Turkish and Saudi reaction questioned the Taliban officials and reminded them how important education in Islam was for all Muslims including women and girls and any such decision were unislamic and backwards. Several non-Muslim and Muslim media pundits, education experts, human rights activists and even Islamic scholars from around the world reacted on social media demanding an immediate reversal of this decision.
While the decision is getting a lot of media coverage there's hardly any reporting that explains the reason of this decision by the Afghan government. Unfortunately to say this but even the vibrant Muslim media houses like Al Jazeera, TRT World, or Arab Media outlets, remain silent. Therefore its important to know why Taliban made this decision for girls and women.
The Afghan media reported that when inquired about the decision, the acting Minister of Higher Education Neda Mohammad Nadim said that some reforms planned by the Islamic Emirate were not implemented in the higher education sector over the past 16 months. Nadim outlined four reasons for the closure of universities for female students.
Since the takeover of the country the Taliban are struggling to replace the education system and syllabus of modern universities and schools in the country. The modern school system in Afghanistan was setup as a result of the secularization efforts by the colonial powers and their Afghan allies since 19th century. These institutes were the first to replace the historical traditional Islamic Madrassah system of Afghanistan. The main concern of Taliban comes from the fact that the modern universities and schools are setup within a secular framework and the Islamic studies come under that framework. For instance, the Department of Theology comes inside a secular university which they say is incorrect. They believe that the correct way is that all secular studies need to be setup under the traditional Islamic Madrassah. In such a setup the compulsory education will be Islamic, and the secular studies will only be optional.
The secularization of the Muslim world began after Europe colonized large parts of the Muslim world. Afghanistan was one of the few exceptions because Afghans fiercely resisted such efforts, first against Great Britain, then USSR and then US led Western countries. At this moment one of the greatest challenge for Taliban is to streamline the education system and syllabus in these institutes along Islamic lines. But they are finding it hard to restructure these institutions where hundreds and thousands attend every day especially amid international pressure mainly from the West. Their aim is a complete demolition of the current education system which is built along European model.
How did the Secularization Education Project begin?
In the 19th and 20th century Afghanistan was in the midst of the international rivalry of Great Britain versus Tsarist Russia first and then Soviet Russia. Called the Great Game both Britain and Russia tried to gain influence on the country’s elite in Kabul whose personal or national interests would at times ally them with one power against the other. This led the Kabul based rulers to be influenced by the socio-political systems of these powers who now tried to reform their own society based on their models.
It was during Amanullah Khan’s rule that the first drive to modernize the state began and education system was also included in the list. The new education system for the first time, encouraged women to step outside the traditional way of life of the Islamic Afghan culture. Amanullah Khan ruled Afghanistan from 1926 to 1929 and during his tenure the first modern girls’ school was opened in the country. Amanullah announced drastic reforms to “update” Afghan culture. He declared Coeducation to be compulsory for children and foreign-run schools were to be established in all provinces. For the first time girls were also permitted to be sent to study abroad. These included the official holiday being shifted from the Friday to Thursday. Polygamy was to be abolished and blood money prohibited. He even ordered Western dress in parts of Kabul and elsewhere, discouraging the veiling and seclusion of women.
Amanullah’s reforms were met with fierce resistance from the religious tribal rural Afghanistan that eventually led towards him being ousted and exiled, and immediate reverse of all such anti-Islamic reforms. Nadir Khan replaced Amanullah, who also worked on modernization project but with a softer approach. Gradually Nadir succeeded in making primary schooling compulsory and foreigners could continue teaching in Afghan schools, but girls schools remained shut and girls were forbidden from study abroad. After Nader Khan's assasination, his son Muhammad Zahir Shah, became the King for the next 40 years of Afghanistan. He was a mild ruler compared to predecessors but he too continued pushing for modernization. Zahir Shah was educated in France and was only 19 when he ascended the throne in 1933 after his father was assassinated. Zahir Shah brought in foreign advisers, established the first modern university (Kabul University) in 1944, and pushed for cultural relations with Europe. He introduced Western democracy, elections, a parliament system and also pushed for more women rights and freedom on the footsteps of European culture.
But despite all efforts by these rulers to bring the majority of the country into the modern setup they failed mainly because the religious and tribal sentiments of the country especially in the rural areas always resisted. Hence Afghanistan was unable to be fully or at least majority was never integrated into European model like other Muslim states after the abolishment of Osmania Khilafat. In 1973 Zahir Shah was replaced by Communist Afghans like Muhammad Taraki who came to power and adopted the same radical approach as Amanullah in bringing reforms. Introducing radical Marxist policies that challenged both traditional Afghan values and well-established traditional power structures in rural areas. Taraki introduced women to political life and legislated marriage laws challenging the traditional marriage system. Taraki launched an ambitious literacy campaign stressing modern education for both boys and girls. Popular resentment of Taraki's drastic policy changes triggered surging unrest throughout the country.
To support these unpopular Kabul allies USSR invaded Afghanistan and once again the resistance against the might of a secular power started. After soviets were defeated and withdrew in 1989, the Taliban movement emerged and in 1996 came to control majority of the country. They were strictly madrassah graduates with extremely low or almost no influence of modern universities and school. The Taliban were a generation who were descendants of those tribal and religious leaders of the country who had resisted Kabul’s modernization efforts for several decades.
They were adamant to bring about the change in the system of modern education institutes centered in major cities, whose system operates on a dichotomy of religious vs secular which results in a friction within the society. The Taliban were in control for about 6 years when 9/11 happened and this time US entered Afghanistan and replaced their Islamic Emirate and reinstated the democratic parliament system and constitution. The modern institutes were back in business and Taliban’s system was declared as religious extremism that was now the biggest target of the “free world”. Education and women rights and their free access to modern schools and universities was the greatest selling point of the US led occupation. The Taliban were the “terrorists" who disliked women and their access to education.
For the next 20 years Taliban continued to resist from their bases in rural Afghanistan, the same region known to resist modernization efforts since Amanullah times! After defeat of the US led NATO alliance and their withdrawal the Taliban are now back in power and the greatest struggle that their facing is the restructuring of all those institutions based in major centers like Kabul, that are purely run on European models including the Education System, which is inherently unislamic and was always pushed by a secular minded elite on the Afghan society. Hence Taliban’s latest reaction to these education centers is because they function in a way that they will modernize and secularize the Afghan minds who will view Islam as secondary or outdated. So this is the story of Taliban’s latest suspension of schools and universities especially for women. They cannot tolerate and watch thousands of young minds men and women subtly indoctrinated in these institutions on daily basis.
It is in this regards that Taliban’s Chief Justice Haqqani said that 'secular institutes spread immorality and irreligion, and rampant freemixing, schools are, amongst the greatest barriers between Muslims and Islam, and the greatest preventors of the teaching of the Quran, the rulings of the Sharia, and the moral uprightness of Muslims. It was only logical, therefore, for an Islamic government to abandon taqleed (blind imitation) of the West in its secular-religious distinction: the real cause for the Islamic world’s decline. It is important for an Islamic government,’ Haqqani elucidates, 'to not abandon secular education, but incorporate it within a broader religious education.’
How do Taliban plan to Islamize Education?
In May 2022, the Taliban released a 312-page manifesto titled “Al Imarat al Islamiah wa Nizamuha,” which translates as “The Islamic Emirate and Its Nizam” (“nizam” means administration, system, institutions, or order). About one-sixth of the book is about women and their place, rights, and responsibilities in an Islamic society. It declares that in the new education system Islamic education (madrassa education) is wajib (mandatory) for both men and women. Modern education (secular education), however, remains mubah (permitted) for both sexes. Islamic education should be given twice as much time as modern education.
The document discusses the rights and roles of women and girls at some length. In terms of education, women and girls should study subjects deemed appropriate for their gender. These include anything related to the domestic realm, such as home sciences, elderly and child care, or embroidery. Women in the Islamic Emirate should only work in fields deemed necessary for them, such as medicine (to treat women) or education (only for girls). Women should not travel long distances without a mahram, a close male relative, nor should they take jobs or participate in educational activities that require them to travel for more than three days. Women cannot hold senior leadership positions, but they can work if they are separated from men in the workplace. Women must always wear the hijab (including full facial coverage).
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