The author, an Afghan legal scholar, laments the Taliban’s ever-strengthening grip on Afghan education, but argues that hope is not lost for the country’s women and girls…

“The Taliban’s new curriculum is all about killing people in the name of Jihad,” a Kabul-based teacher* told me in a recent interview.

“I’m not going to teach that material, even if I know it means I will almost certainly lose my job,” the teacher said, citing an early draft of the new curriculum.

Upon seizing the capital in 2021, the Taliban promptly set about barring girls and women from attending school. Initially, they said these students would be able to return to school in early 2022, but here we are in early 2024, and their return has yet to materialize. Despite the hopeful anticipation of millions of female students across Afghanistan, the Taliban ultimately reversed their decision, opting instead to keep half of Afghanistan’s population essentially imprisoned in their own homes.

Human rights and education activists around the world have sounded the alarm, publicly counting the number of days Afghanistan’s women and girls have been deprived of their rights to an education, and adopting hashtags like #LetAfghanGirlsGoToSchool and #LetAfghanGirlsLearn in a bid to publicly shame the regime.

Unsurprisingly, the Taliban appears to be internalizing no such shame. To the contrary, in December 2022 they banned women from pursuing higher education in universities. And rather than allowing girls to return to their general studies, they have slowly begun to build madrasas across the country.

Madrasas may be educational institutions, but they do not prepare women and girls to participate in public life.

As described in a recent JURIST interview by educational activist and father of Malala, Ziauddin Yousafzai:

Madrasa education is only helpful for educating women and girls on performing basic religious rituals and activities, like prayers, going to Hajj, taking ablution, and certain moral issues. But you cannot run modern institutions without modern education. You cannot run a hospital with a madrasa education. You cannot run a business with a madrasa education. You cannot fly an airplane with a madrasa education. You can’t even drive a car with a madrasa education. It is not an education that will teach girls and women to participate in the economy. It is not a modern education.

And even beyond these limitations, under the Taliban, Madrasa curricula can be concretely damaging. Crafted in accordance with the Taliban’s uniquely strict interpretation of Islamic law, the regime’s draft madrasa curricula for men and women alike aim not to foster education, but rather to give rise to a new generation of jihadists.

The regime’s approach to education has been pilloried for its prioritization of indoctrination underpinned by a lack of understanding of Islamic principles. [Ed: While interpretations of Islamic law vary broadly around the world, the Taliban’s interpretation has been described by scholars as a blend of Deobandi jurisprudence and the group’s own “lived experience as a predominantly rural and tribal society”]. The regime takes pride in the high number of Taliban suicide attacks in the last two decades, and it aims to instill its peculiar ideological interpretations in every child in Afghanistan.

So what’s left for the women and girls of Afghanistan? Should we accept defeat? Or is there a way out of this crisis — an option that could ensure we will receive a safe and proper education, and that we can build our country and serve our nation in what we hope will be a brighter future ahead?

I would argue that there’s still hope.

Option 1: International Scholarships for Afghanistan’s Women and Girls

Realistically, it’s hard to conclude anything other than that for women and girls in Afghanistan today, a madrasa education is worse than having no education at all. But a far better solution is to create pathways for women and girls to study abroad. By offering scholarship opportunities to Afghanistan’s women and girls, universities, individuals, and organizations could move mountains in terms of preventing lost time and wasted talent.

In late August 2023, the Taliban blocked a group of female students at Kabul airport from traveling to study in the United Arab Emirates. Additionally, in mid-November 2023, the Taliban’s Ministry of Higher Education prevented some 500 male students from leaving the country for a scholarship program in Russia.

Despite the heartbreaking situation, organizations must not give up. It’s a matter of life and the loss of time and energy. The international community, governments, and their special representatives should exert pressure on the Taliban. Instead of urging them to open schools and universities within the country, the focus should be on allowing people, especially women and girls, to study abroad, as there is no longer a safe and proper education for all students in Afghanistan. The risk is that without proper education, more students might become radicalized, resembling groups like ISIS and Hamas, who disregard human lives and exploit individuals [source].

Option 2: Offer Afghanistan’s Women and Girls Online Education and Certification Programs

Between Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain and its ongoing economic crisis, it is nearly impossible for the majority of the population to depend on reliable internet access. But steps can be taken to remove some of the resulting obstacles from the paths of women and girls seeking educational options.

One option would be for billionaire Elon Musk to offer internet access to the country, just as he has to Ukraine via the Starlink system. Activists have been advocating for this option since at least last year.

Another option would be to create a mechanism that would enable Afghanistan’s women and girls to pursue certifications through hybrid or correspondence learning. Global universities and schools could contribute to this initiative by sharing the policies and strategies they employed during the global COVID pandemic for online education. This collaborative effort could also open avenues to deploy female teachers who lost their jobs due to the ban on female students’ education in schools and universities. Teaching online would not only contribute to the education process but also offer these teachers an opportunity to regain employment.

Now is the time for action, and everyone should contribute whatever they can to ensure that no one is forcibly indoctrinated by the Taliban. Supporting and assisting female Afghan students in obtaining a proper and secure education is crucial, not only to protecting their own fundamental rights, but to securing the futures of Afghan citizens generations to come.

The author of this commentary is an Afghan legal scholar who cannot be named for security reasons. 

*The teacher requested anonymity, also for security reasons.