Invisible Women: What Happens When the Taliban Take Away Education’s ‘Visibility’ Superpower from Afghan Women

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An Unconventional Approach to US & UN Involvement in Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan. History repeats itself as on a normal school day, girls are sent back home until further notice under the most recent Taliban policies. Taliban officials justify this decision before the UN and the global community as “a technical issue of deciding on a form of school uniform for girls” [1] or “[a matter of] providing transport and other facilities that are required for a safer and better educational environment.” [2] Yet the world remains in distress, for how could preventing girls from their right to education ever be justified…

Following the most recent events, an additional million girls were banned from middle school after the Taliban retook effective control of Afghanistan, resulting in a total of more than four million women without access to education in the country. [3] Balance in gender roles is already resetting to previous norms as parents seek to marry off their teenage girls to men who can financially support them rather than provide for their daughters’ education. It is parents’ goal to reinstall women’s “dignity, rights, and status at home.” [4] These circumstances would essentially backfire—if women can in no way participate in social and governmental institutions, half of the population is simply absent from decision-making.

The reaction: Reaction of the international community or lack thereof

Days after the closure of schools for girls above sixth grade, dozens of girls took to the streets of Kabul in protest. [5] “Education is our fundamental right, not a political plan,” banners claimed. [6] But perhaps these girls were expecting a more profound reaction from the international community rather than weak condemnation; the US cancelled a meeting in Qatar with Taliban leaders concerning key economic issues, yet this small act of protest led to nothing. [7] The UN Security Council keeps discussing whether it is high time to get involved. [8]

Multiple women’s rights activists have spoken before the UN, highlighting just how devastating the situation is. Fawzia Koofi, former Deputy Speaker of the Afghan Parliament, had an even greater emotional impact: “people of Afghanistan feel betrayed because the world is still not vocal about the current gender apartheid in Afghanistan under the Taliban.” [9] To that extent, activists consistently speak up over the years but are not heard. Women are not silent—they are silenced.

The history: US as global police

Perhaps no change can be achieved without the mingling of the international community within the internal affairs of Afghanistan. A natural question arises of what the US—the leading global power—can do to aid it. During the Cold War, its position was clear: a defender of humanity worldwide even if that meant overwhelming military involvement abroad. Henry Kissinger as a young soldier in the 1950s paints in a romantic light the US as an emerging force on the international stage: “a large, permanent peacetime military force to police distant lands,” [10] for at that time in American foreign policy there was a clear ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy.’ This can’t be said in the modern world, where foreign affairs are so nuanced. The US itself has changed since the Cold War. With Biden’s presidency came the decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan as if their mission was already accomplished. Biden himself said on August 31, 2021: “No nation — no nation has ever done anything like it in all of history. Only the United States had the capacity and the will and the ability to do it, and we did it today.” [11]

The US president depicts his administration’s policy in a typical saviour light, but it could be said that this framing completely ignores the negative consequences of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan—the ban on education for women, to name one. Female literacy had reached 30% when the US was involved [12]; it is impossible to avoid the question of what will happen to literacy rates once the US has left Afghanistan. This sudden decision to stop acting as global police did more harm than good for marginalized communities, who face the greatest threat from the Taliban after decades of depending on US intervention and control. It made women in Afghanistan invisible.

On November 16, 2001, Laura Bush herself warned on national radio of “the severe repression against women in Afghanistan.” [13] While this concern is almost heroic, it fails to acknowledge the true varied needs of Afghan women. Fighting for their dignity—as far as the Bush administration describes it—means nothing more than women abroad being mere “symbols and pawns.” [14] The claim of Laura Bush and the approach to women of the Bush administration as a whole is based on misrepresentation of Afghan women. This is what makes them invisible, not just the Taliban policies. While it is certainly unrealistic to think that women will suddenly speak up under such a repressive regime, it would help to have local reporters listen to the true needs and fears of these women.

The solution: potential UN involvement

Is there a solution to such high-end threats to diplomatic relations and civil rights to begin with? For certainly the U.S. decision is justifiable—one nation cannot and should not be responsible for all global issues; it must be a collective effort before all else. The UN’s involvement in Afghanistan seems to be surprisingly meagre. Apart from public remarks, on-site action seems to be deficient.

September 18, 2022 marked a year since the ban on middle-school education for Afghan girls took place, and indeed the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addressed the issue in a grave manner: “A year of lost knowledge and opportunity that they will never get back. Girls belong in school. The Taliban must let them back in.” [15] Nevertheless, an unaddressed potential remains; UN organs must ensure dialogue continues between Taliban and local scholars so that the former understand the importance of having both sexes in schools. The fact that the Taliban follow their own interpretation of Islam does not help, but the UN must facilitate dialogue from within by giving organisations and activists the chance to speak up. This will essentially lead to internal distress in addition to the fact that it is inevitable to ‘live long and prosper’ with half the population excluded from schools.

Can the Taliban refuse the UN-facilitated dialogue on a local level? Certainly, it seems like they have autonomy in their own country, but the UN has more influence than expected. Alongside travel bans, sanctions, and weapons embargoes imposed on the Taliban by the UN before 2001, there is a true risk of international isolation. [16] In 2019 Taliban leaders were exempt from the travel ban in order to promote peace and diplomacy abroad, but there is nothing to indicate they made such attempts. Following this, Ireland opposed these exemptions, supported by at least two other countries in the UN Security Council that wished to remain anonymous; China and Russia disagreed with Ireland, claiming that it is crucial for the Taliban to continue travelling to Beijing and Moscow. Should the UN reach a conclusion on travel bans for the Taliban, international isolation for Afghanistan will become a real issue and the Taliban will not be able to refuse local dialogues with scholars and activists facilitated by the UN.

The end: Taliban contradictions

In continuation of the flaws in Taliban policies that have already been stated, there seems to be no internal coherence between their officials, which leads to a serious discrepancy in public claims made. Otherwise said, Taliban leaders contradict one another. For instance, Mohammad Tariq, an administrator at a private school in Kabul, said for the New York Times: “Change will come in the books, in the Islamic books. Certain subjects will be eliminated for girls: engineering, government studies, cooking, vocational education. The main subjects will remain.” [17] This statement was later contradicted by Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman and Deputy Minister of Information and Culture, who denied that any specific subjects would be removed from schools’ curriculum. [18] So the real question is how long this government can sustain itself if women are excluded from all essential positions and higher education; there seems to be great imbalance between the leaders, inaccuracy in public claims, and contradictions between what the Taliban say and do. If this pace is maintained, they will not be able to keep the facade of strength before the rest of the world; nevertheless, how can the world help? Is there really something it can do?

By staying engaged with the matter, the international community should not allow a minute of rest for the Taliban; constant pressure by the global community will inevitably ensure women’s access to education. It can be said that the logistics of the Taliban policy on women’s access to education will not hold for long; the decision that men will no longer be permitted to teach women [19] is in reality difficult to implement and more disadvantageous—diversity in education ensures progress, however difficult this may be to approach and resolve. It once again proves the point that only a collective power can influence the turn of events, but the delicacy of the situation must also be considered—therefore, the best action would be undertaken by the UN, facilitating dialogue on a local level.


References

[1] Qazizai, Fazelminallah, and Diaa Hadid. “Taliban Reverses Decision, barring Afghan Girls from Attending School beyond 6th Grade.” NPR, NPR, 23 Mar. 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/03/23/1088202759/taliban-afghanistan-girls-school.

[2] Blue, Victor J., and David Zucchino. “A Harsh New Reality for Afghan Women and Girls in Taliban-Run Schools.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Sept. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/20/world/asia/afghan-girls-schools-taliban.html.

[3] “Afghanistan | Malala Fund.” Malala Fund, https://malala.org/countries/afghanistan#:~:text=Afghanistan%20is%20the%20only%20country,girls%20from%20attending%20secondary%20school. Accessed 24 Oct. 2022.

[4] Ahmadi, Belquis. “Taliban’s Ban on Girls’ Education in Afghanistan | United States Institute of Peace.” United States Institute of Peace, https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/04/talibans-ban-girls-education-afghanistan. Accessed 24 Oct. 2022.

[5] Al Jazeera. “Afghan Girls Stage Protest, Demand Taliban Reopen Schools | Taliban News | Al Jazeera.” Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 26 Mar. 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/26/afghan-girls-protest-demanding-taliban-to-reopen-schools.

[6] Al Jazeera. “Afghan Girls Stage Protest, Demand Taliban Reopen Schools | Taliban News | Al Jazeera.” Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 26 Mar. 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/26/afghan-girls-protest-demanding-taliban-to-reopen-schools.

[7] Greenfield, Charlotte, and Jonathan Landay. “Exclusive: U.S. Cancels Talks with Taliban over U-Turn on Girls’ Education | Reuters.” Reuters, Reuters, 27 Mar. 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/exclusive-us-officials-cancel-talks-with-taliban-over-bar-girls-education-state-2022-03-25/.

[8] “The Situation in Afghanistan – Security Council, 9137th Meeting | UN Web TV.” UN Web TV, 2022, https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1l/k1lilgb3lk.

[9] “The Situation in Afghanistan – Security Council, 9137th Meeting | UN Web TV.” UN Web TV, 2022, https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1l/k1lilgb3lk.

[10] “Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy | AP US History Study Guide from The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, https://ap.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/seventies/essays/henry-kissinger-and-american-foreign-policy. Accessed 24 Oct. 2022.

[11] The White House. “Remarks by President Biden on the End of the War in Afghanistan – The White House.” The White House, 31 Aug. 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/08/31/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-end-of-the-war-in-afghanistan/.

[12] UNESCO. “UNESCO Stands with All Afghans to Ensure Youth and Adults in Afghanistan, Especially Women and Girls, Achieve Literacy and Numeracy by 2030 | UNESCO.” UNESCO, https://www.unesco.org/en/articles/unesco-stands-all-afghans-ensure-youth-and-adults-afghanistan-especially-women-and-girls-achieve. Accessed 4 Dec. 2022.

[13] Berry, Kim. “THE SYMBOLIC USE OF AFGHAN WOMEN IN THE WAR ON TERROR.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, vol. 27, no. 2, 2003, pp. 137–60. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23524156. Accessed 9 Dec. 2022.

[14] Berry, Kim. “THE SYMBOLIC USE OF AFGHAN WOMEN IN THE WAR ON TERROR.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, vol. 27, no. 2, 2003, pp. 137–60. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23524156. Accessed 9 Dec. 2022.

[15] “Afghanistan: UN Repeats Call for Taliban to Allow Girls Full Access to School | | 1UN News.” UN News, 19 Sept. 2022, https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/09/1126991.

[16] O’Donnell, Lynne. “A U.N. Travel Ban Could Bring the Taliban to Heel.” Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, 18 Aug. 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/08/18/taliban-afghanistan-united-nations-travel-ban-terrorism/.

[17] Blue, Victor J., and David Zucchino. “A Harsh New Reality for Afghan Women and Girls in Taliban-Run Schools.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Sept. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/20/world/asia/afghan-girls-schools-taliban.html.

[18] Blue, Victor J., and David Zucchino. “A Harsh New Reality for Afghan Women and Girls in Taliban-Run Schools.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Sept. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/20/world/asia/afghan-girls-schools-taliban.html.

[19] Blue, Victor J., and David Zucchino. “A Harsh New Reality for Afghan Women and Girls in Taliban-Run Schools.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Sept. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/20/world/asia/afghan-girls-schools-taliban.html.

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