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Education and Freedom Come First

Women are facing oppression everywhere, as our world remains plagued by patriarchy even in its most advanced corners. Women do not have equal access to social, economic, political, and cultural privileges. The West, which has made significant advancements in gender equality, is still only halfway there. There continue to be significant pay and opportunity gaps between men and women, who occupy lower numbers of critical public and private leadership positions. Despite formal and legal equality, women face real material, class, and gender inequality. 

Social inequality and injustices continue to be the main sources of so many crises of our time. Although, as societies become more socially equal, they become more prosperous, tranquil, and dynamic. 

Our story in Afghanistan is far behind that of the global average. We have not been able to cross the most primitive barriers, and therefore the level of our discussions is outdated. For example, for today’s humans the importance of women’s literacy is no longer a topic of discussion. They do not have to wage a struggle for it. But for us, it is not like that. To deal with the Taliban’s brutal gender segregation in the country is the most important question of our time. 

In the Taliban system, gender segregation is the most important part of both religion and politics. In their three years in power, the Taliban have meticulously removed women from the social realm. They claim that the mingling of men and women in society causes moral corruption. 

Those opposed to the Taliban see several reasons behind their behaviour. Some say that Taliban ideology is the result of years in jihadi schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The main breeding grounds of Taliban leaders were madrasas in Pakistan, which were subsidized by the West, which saw Islamists as their proxies in the war against Soviet ideology and occupation in Afghanistan. Those who see anti-modern jihadist ideology as the main reason for the Taliban’s behaviour do not believe that they will change in the short term without pressure. 

Others believe that those ideological reasons are not as important as political ones. They think that the Taliban’s anti-education and anti-women policies are tactical, and they will remove some of the current restrictions if the international community accommodates and recognizes them. 

Some think that political and religious reasons alone are not enough to explain Taliban behaviour, and that the main reason for its actions lies in its cultural origins. They come largely from a part of Afghan society that rely on agriculture production, and the smuggling of drugs and other commodities. Those male-centric livelihoods mean that they do not understand the importance and necessity of female education and participation in the workforce. Instead, they see women as maidservants, sex objects, and the bearers of the next generation.  

None of those three arguments can alone fully explain the Taliban’s behavior, yet, if we put them together, we can better understand their anti-human policies better. Hoping the Taliban will change its policies under external pressure or inducement will fail. Taliban leaders have repeatedly stated that they are not willing to compromise on the issue of women and education. In his last speech, Mullah Haibatullah emphasized that nothing will stop the implementation of hudud punishments. 

Some claim that Sirajuddin Haqqani and other Taliban leaders are against the ban on education and other inhumane restrictions against women and that they may be able to force senior Taliban leaders to change their position. However, no serious disagreement from within the Taliban has emerged in the past three years to indicate any differing approach toward the questions of women’s education. Rather, influential Taliban leaders all chant slogans of obedience to their supreme leader and implement his orders. 

Recently, Sirajuddin Haqqani said that the Taliban are more sympathetic to the country’s children than foreigners and that they know how and when to educate them. At the same time, the Taliban are closing modern schools, they are rapidly opening religious and jihadi madrasas. At the same time women and girls are banned from schools, universities, gymnasiums, bathhouses, parks, and private schools, while families are encouraged to send their daughters to jihadi madrasas. When Sirajuddin Haqqani talks about how and when to educate the children of Afghanistan, he means these alternative forms to modern education. 

The United Nations has reported that the newly established jihadi madrasas are very conservative with any curriculum involving modern education reduced to a bare minimum. The Taliban’s educational and cultural policies are not tactical, but strategic and uncompromisable. Their investments in building madrasas, their rewriting of the curriculum, and their costly restrictions on women’s education and work, should be enough evidence to remove any doubt in this regard. 

Nor is it helpful to tie these Taliban behaviours solely to religion. Religious reasoning cannot prevent the Taliban’s anti-education and misogynist policies. So far, many fatwas have been issued against the Taliban’s terrorism, school burnings, and suicide attacks. In the final years of the republic period, several Islamic conferences declared that Taliban violence and carnage are illegitimate, according to Sharia. 

Waiting for gradual cultural and economic transformation is not a solution. Such a transformation will not happen automatically and could take several generations to appear. In the meantime, the right to education and civil liberties should not be conditional upon any cultural, political, or religious considerations. Our demands in all meetings, negotiations, and demonstrations should be the unconditional opening of schools and the provision of civil liberties. 

Education and freedom are the twin bases for all development. Education and freedom are more important than homeland and religion. The country’s survival and territorial integrity cannot be used as excuses to suspend education and freedom because, for an uneducated and unfree person, the existence of a nation is of no practical use. A country that is a collective prison is no place to live and plan for the future. Throughout history, people have always fled from such a country. If a child is educated and acquires modern skills and education, they will still retain options for living a dignified life, even if their citizenship and passport are taken away. But, by depriving a generation of education and skills development, a homeland into nothing more than a place of suffering. The concept of homeland and national identity will not provide them with bread, freedom, or happiness. In such a country, girls and women inevitably become playthings of men, mullahs, and merchants, and are bought and sold like commodities in the market.   

Education and freedom are more important than religion. We should not search in holy books or texts for reasons to justify our right to education and freedom. An unfree and uneducated human is incomplete. A faith that is limited to imitation and parrot-like performance of rituals may be intoxicating to some minds, but it hijacks society.

Education and freedom are more important than social needs. It is not necessary to provide statistics about the worsening shortage of midwives, doctors, and teachers in order to make the argument for the modern education of children. Education and freedom are inalienable rights of every human being, whether or not that education benefits society. The flourishing of human capacity boosts the social and economic welfare of society. 

Let us strive for the right to education and freedom, without any conditions.

Younus Negah is a researcher and writer from Afghanistan who is currently in exile in Turkey.