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500 days of desolation: Why ending the gender apartheid in the education of women and girls is the key to unlocking the future of Afghanistan

  • 16 January 2023
  • By Naimat Zafary and Ruth Arnold

Naimat Zafary came to the UK as a Chevening Scholar on one of the last flights from Kabul as the Taliban took Afghanistan. He is now studying for his PhD at the University of Sussex. 

This article was written with Ruth Arnold, Head of External Affairs at Study Group and cofounder of the #WeAreInternational campaign.

I stand in a classroom in a primary school in Sussex and take a picture on my phone. An ‘ordinary’ sight. My eldest daughter Hina is showing my wife Saima her work from the year. Next to the careful English handwriting is a gold star. She is of proud of it, as are we.

In my mind are other pictures in other places. I think of the girls I saw going to school in Afghanistan in the old days. In poor rural areas I once watched  a brother and sister travelling the miles to their classroom on a donkey, their only for of transport. But nothing mattered more for their future. 

Now it has all changed. My daughters love their school but they talk to their cousins back home who speak through tears of frustration at the lockdown of girls’ education imposed by the Taliban. My daughters try to teach their cousins what they have learned.

I think also of my own talented female classmates when I was a university student, and of the educated Afghan women who were the best bosses I’d ever had as I worked for global development agencies, desperately trying to improve the lives and prospects for my fellow citizens.

I think of the determination of my sister as she undertook her medical training, and of our nation’s need for her skills. I think of my fellow Afghan Chevening scholars and the courageous Afghan women in exile who are both relieved to have escaped and grieve their homeland. 

And then I think of the consequences of the last almost 500 days. 500 days – how is that possible? And yet those of us who had prior experience of the Taliban’s promises always knew where this could lead. 

Female education and development goals 

But let us think less personally for the moment. I have worked for the UN and am now studying development at the top university in the world for this discipline, The University of Sussex. So I can say with confidence that it is widely understood across all who work in overseas development that girls’ education is not only important for them as individuals and to change the lives of their families, it is essential for social and economic development. Girls’ education is a key factor in eradicating poverty for the whole of society. That is why education and equality feature in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is Public Benefit 101. 

Educating women is also essential for the future of a nation as they take on the effective voice and tools to shape their own society, to create better opportunities for themselves and their children. As a precursor to suffrage, educated women change a nation’s balance of power and its order of priorities. It is both why it is so needed and why it is resisted by the Taliban who seek to put the clock back, even if the country starves as a result. 

But none of this is easy, with or without the Taliban. Achieving gender equality in education is always difficult in countries with limited financial resources. Girls in low-income countries are less likely to be enrolled in school than boys, and schools in rural areas are often poorly resourced and often lack teachers with appropriate skills. Poor families place more importance on educating their sons rather than their daughters fearing costly investment will be lost when a daughter leaves to marry or become a mother herself.

However, with the right interventions, it is possible to overcome these issues and make real progress. Over decades aide initiatives targeted at women have been shown to benefit the whole of society, and to transform ambition and opportunities. The best way to lift the prospects of a nation’s children is to educate their mothers. 

Slip sliding away – the consequences of collapse 

On 15 August 2021, the world watched aghast as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. The Republic and an elected government collapsed, and the President fled.

As a witness of the scene and as an Afghan, I saw how everything changed in the blink of an eye. The cruel images of that time will haunt me all my life, but the practical consequences also carried devastating effects. Government institutions, banking systems, and education centres shut their doors. Gradually a few institutions opened up again, including some primary schools and universities, but secondary schools for girls remained barred. An estimated 3 million girls are now deprived of education. Progress from 2001 and 2018 – the period between Taliban rule when female access to higher education increased 20 times – has been obliterated. 

When would things change? The messages were mixed and unreliable. Despite public promises and hopes for a Taliban 2.0, the complex internal structures and discord that makes up the new administration has paralysed decision making. 

Worse, there are clear signs that the most conservative elements are in the ascendancy. The consequence is that no one takes responsibility for the development, but all play a role in its destruction. There is high-level talk of reform and change to build a sustainable society, but no one says what or how. And meanwhile women and girls are incarcerated in their own homes, unable to learn or work as their families and society succumb to fundamentalism and male tribal politics. 

Afghanistan – a modern day Robben Island 

For women and girls in Afghanistan, much of life feels lived under house arrest. A whole country has incarcerated talent and opportunities based on gender. 

There have been moments of hope, of course. After six months of Taliban rule, on March 23 2022 girls across the country prepared their uniforms and headed towards school to hug their classmates, greet their teachers and once again open the doors of learning in their lives. And then it was snatched away. After a single hour, the Taliban ordered girls’ secondary schools in Afghanistan to shut once more, sparking confusion and heartbreak over the reversal. With eyes full of tears and hearts full of sorrow Afghan girls asked their parents why their schools has closed yet again? What had they done that could be solved in more than 400 days?

Then in December came the news that was the logical extension of this educational gender apartheid. Women were no longer to be permitted to study in Afghan universities, nor to be on the faculty. The jobs which educated women aspired to were also to be closed to them, including for overseas development agencies for whom they were essential workers, able to take aide into every part of society. 

Despite the dangers, the protests were real. Afghan women students stood at the gates or were blasted by water cannon as they objected. Their male peers walked out of the examinations for which they had been preparing for a lifetime. Faculties put their names to their objections. One scholar, shaking with emotion, tore up his certificates on live TV. 

Showing solidarity in practical ways 

Here in the West, the academy remembers other dark times. The Jews who were banned from universities under the Reich and the scholars who fled overseas, many to become Fellows of the Royal Society and British Academy. Or the struggle against Bantu education and apartheid in South Africa. 

But these are not only matters of history. Another apartheid is taking place right now in Afghanistan, and its victims are women and girls. As the Director General of UNESCO has said, the ‘decision to ban women from higher education is a terrible regression and imperils the future of all of Afghanistan.’ The Nobel Prize laureate and Cambridge graduate, activist Malala Yousafzai also believes the removal of access to education means years of change are being erased in front of the world’s eyes. ‘It was Afghan women’s activism that made it possible for them to get access to education, to get jobs, to be part of the parliament, to be part of everyday public life. And suddenly that public life is taken from them, women are erased.’

So how can U.K. academia show solidarity and keep a flame of hope alight for the talented Afghan women and girls who have had their education and future snatched from them? 

We must first ensure we do not let silence and disinterest be the most pernicious enemy of change. The Taliban are helped by distraction and embarrassment. Tyranny assumes the West will compound its withdrawal of arms by shrugging our shoulders in despair as we look away and move on. By contrast, stamina and unwavering solidarity strengthen dissent. 

And then there are the timely lessons from COVID. Across the world, educators learned through a pandemic how to deliver education to children and students unable to meet in person. Afghan girls are still in lockdown but many families still have access to phones and computers. These can be as much an intellectual lifeline as radios were to those listening for signals of hope in the 1930s and 40s. 

An important initiative in this regard was recently announced by Future Learn chaired by former U.K. Universities Minister Jo Johnson. For this period of lack of access, Future Learn has agreed to make its university courses available to Afghan women free of charge. 

And this is a principle which could be echoed at every level so Afghan girls can also study the subjects they will need for a better future. Sanam Wahidi’s Afghan Women’s Organisation is already reaching out online when other access routes are blocked. ‘Technology has been critical to our work’, she says. ‘particularly in connecting with girls and women in the community. It enables us to connect and reach them even at a distance and particularly in the current situation. Much of the time, for us, one of the only ways to get into contact with them is through technology.’

Afghan scholars in exile also have a role to play. Many of these resources are in English but native language teachers can guide and translate. Afghans here in the U.K. can help girls with and women to access to online resources understand and learn. And we can remind them they are not alone because, aa Sanam Wahidi says, ‘when something is stripped from you, passion is accelerated tenfold.’

Of course, none of this is as good as the reopening of schools and universities. Media is increasingly controlled and unavailable in Afghanistan. Power supplies are erratic. And hunger and poor health – physical and mental – are always the enemies of learning. Our reach may be imperfect, interrupted, partial. 

But maintaining a lifeline matters, and we are not without any ability to act. Nelson Mandela once wrote, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” It is my urgent request to U.K. universities that we rise together to challenge this apartheid of our own age, that we give meaning to our values through action. That we let Afghan women and girls know they are neither forgotten nor alone. And that one day in the future, we will applaud their own long walk to freedom knowing we played our small part in it. 

4 comments

  1. Alice Prochaska says:

    This situation is desperate, but you are offering a way through. Do you know Freshta Karim, the founder of Charmagzh, setting up mobile libraries in buses and containers in Kabul? Charmagzh has been forced to close under the new edict against women working. But I’m sure Freshta and others like her will find ways. Somerville College Oxford, which is a college of sanctuary, seeks to help.

  2. Ros Lucas says:

    An essay from the heart that reminds us all everywhere, that education is a vital part of life and economic success of a country.

    Future Learn could be a living to those abroad who can ac
    access their learning platforms.
    Reminding me of a growing concern globally that such free resources must be made available to all, and in the UK there is growing concern at the numbers of learners unable to attend school/college to complete courses between 16 – 18 for various health reasons and unable to pay for online GCSEs A Levels or BTECs.

  3. Mr John Robinson says:

    Education; And Nelson Mandela.

    With the possible exception of Robert Mugabe (who took from the white farmers to give back to the Black Africans in then Southern Rhodesia), I can think of no other African leader who has given so much back to his country.

    Around 1979 (I think), Mandela was arrested on trumped up charges, and spent the best part of the next twenty years locked away. This is because he stood up for what he believed in.

    And on release ,which was partly due to international outrage at Apartheid (the systematic discrimination of black and coloured people in South Africa), stripping them of the right to vote, use the same beaches, and even same toilets as the white people. Truly they were treated as second class citizens, something which would have shocked us, if it happened today. Until he was eventually released in 1997 (I think it was).

    The power of pretty much this one man, to stand up for what he believed in, stay true to what he believed in, and one day change the world, says a-lot.

    His release prompted great celebrations across the country. Not just from the black citizens, but also All South Africans. Not to mention the resistance Diaspora; It really was a time of community and a great result for Freedom. Worldwide. He subsequently went on to win two great National elections, to secure the leadership of the ANC for his country. Which was the first time black people were given the right to vote.

    I remember this because my dad’s parents both spent time in South African jail’s, for standing up to Apartheid.

    Much as the suffragettes won the freedom for the women to vote here in the UK, before World War 2, so too we mustn’t let the backward regime in Afghanistan refuse the girls and women there, of this basic right.

    John

  4. Mr John Robinson says:

    (Sorry Also Robert Kenyatta for Kenya)!?

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