International News

Taliban Erases Decades of Progress for Afghan Girls

By Engy Magdy, Special to The Tablet

CAIRO — Just as Afghani girls were ready to return to school for the first time in seven months on March 23, the Taliban — which seized ruling power in Afghanistan last summer — that morning reversed its decision to reopen girls’ secondary schools, citing a need for more time to draw up policies in line with the Islamic law Sharia.

A girl poses for a photo in the living room at her orphanage in Kabul, Afghanistan, Oct. 10, 2021. Researchers estimate that 5.2 million children have been orphaned during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the number of orphaned children jumped 90% during delta variant surge. (CNS photo/Jorge Silva, Reuters)

Since the Taliban took over the country in August 2021, they have banned girls from education beyond middle school, although the hardline Islamic group has promised repeatedly to reopen the schools. When that decision was reversed, the worst fears of Madeena — a 14-year-old girl from Kabul — had come true.

Before the Taliban takeover, Madeena said, she used to worry about an explosion somewhere that would affect her family or her school.

“Nevertheless, there was hope for the future and to realize my dream,” she said. “Now, these fears remain, but without hope for a better future. Everyone is now disappointed; girls are not to be able to continue their education,” Madeena told The Tablet on a phone call, her voice breaking as she began to cry.

Since seizing power amid the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban has erased two previous decades of gains for Afghan women. Women are now excluded from working, even in the media. They are also prevented from traveling more than 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) if they are not accompanied by a male guardian, and girls are no longer able to attend school.

Another atrocity was the killing of a pregnant policewoman in front of her husband and child in Ghor province in western Afghanistan. Also, members of the Taliban erased all pictures of women from the streets. Women themselves are rarely seen in the streets; if they want to go out they must wear full head-to-toe coverage, which some have  described as a “cage.”

The horrific stories of young girls in Kandahar who are taken into marriage after being denied an education are nothing short of nightmares for Madeena and her friends. Women and girls in Afghanistan often endure double injustices, because of the rulings of the extremist misogynist group, and because of poverty.

Madeena lives in Kabul with her family, where the phenomenon of underage marriage is not common. However, about 300 miles from her family’s home, the practice is much more frequent, something that terrifies girls across Afghanistan, especially dreamers like Madeena.

Madeena aspires to a career as a judge. “What I want for every Afghan woman is to have the right and freedom of choice. To be free to plan for her future and make her own decisions. When I grow up I want to have the opportunity to decide when to marry and what to do,” she said.

According to Amnesty International, since March 23, residents, students, and women’s rights activists in Kabul, Nangarhar, and Badakhshan have staged several protests demanding that the Taliban immediately open secondary schools for girls. Last week, several young women took to the streets in Kabul. In verified videos accessed by Amnesty International, women activists were seen warning that keeping girls’ schools closed will lead to the schoolgirls’ loss of talent, as well as to isolation, trauma and lack of a future.

Under the Taliban’s first rule, from 1996 to 2001, the group barred women and girls from school and most employment. However, in the past  few months, the group has pledged repeatedly it would govern the country differently this time.

“This is just propaganda,” said a female doctor from Kabul who spoke to The Tablet on the condition of anonymity out of concern for her safety, using a fake name,  “Lima.”

“Sometimes I hear the Western media talking about the ‘new’ Taliban, a new version of what it was in the 1990s [and how] the group itself is trying to present that image,” Lima said. “Every time I hear this, I say, ‘OK, maybe things are different, and I try to reassure myself. But no, that’s not the truth, the Taliban is the Taliban, the same version, the same horror we live in, the same oppression.

“They are like zombies who may devour any of your family, friends, while you have to live with them in the same place, and pretend that nothing happened.”

That was how  Lima, 30,  described the scene in Kabul when the Taliban took over the Afghani capital last August: “It looked like a scene from a dramatic Hollywood movie in which the screen suddenly turns from light to eerie darkness, with the entry of zombie monsters.”

The trauma of the Taliban’s brutality and the psychological anguish it brought was clear in the shaky voice heard over the telephone. During the conversation, Lima recounted her first shock, when she was just 6 years old. As she was playing on the balcony of her home in Kabul, she witnessed members of the Taliban assaulting a woman with a stick because she was not wearing the full black veil imposed by the group.

Lima described the Taliban’s veil as a “cage,” saying:  “It’s not related to the Islamic veil that I know. This brutality is still imprinted in my mind.

“When I go out of my house I wear this full veil, but I feel scared,” she said, her voice filled with tears and anger. “I can’t describe how terrifying this is.”

Lima graduated from the medical school, however, she does not practice her profession.

“Most of the female medical graduates are forced to specialize in gynecology and some other limited specialties. My dream is to be a psychiatrist,” she explained.

Despite the support of her father and her family, her career dream was crushed once the Taliban returned to power.

“Unfortunately, I knew that the Taliban would stop female doctors working in specialties other than gynecology,” Lima said. “We need female doctors in all specialties … but nobody can argue with them, their language is beating.”

Her only hope, she’s convinced, is to emigrate from Afghanistan. But Lima always gives herself reasons to hope.

“At least I’m lucky, still I can work as a doctor. You know that women who studied hard to become engineers, lawyers, or any other job are unfortunately now at home and are not allowed to work. Women either work as doctors in limited specialties or as teachers,” she said.

Lima talked about the girls in her family and their feeling that they have no future or hope for a career. 

“The future has become very uncertain for everyone, but even more turbulent for students who go to university, who do not know their fate. Universities and public schools are suspended. Students are so frustrated, they cry and pray to God,” she said. 

“Denying girls the right to education will have a far-reaching impact on Afghanistan’s prospects of social rebuilding and economic growth,” Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director warned in a statement by Amnesty International.

Nawida Khorasani, a women’s rights activist, called on the international community to seek accountability from the Taliban, and to urge it to follow through on the assurances it has been making on women’s rights.