Why the Taliban View Education as a Weapon

More than seven months after the end of the war, girls’ schools are still closed in Afghanistan and divisions within the government are starting to open up

Why the Taliban View Education as a Weapon
Girls arrive at their school in Kabul on March 23, 2022 / Ahmad Sahel Arman / AFP via Getty Images

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The morning of March 23 was bright and clear, and for the first time in months there was a sense of optimism in the air. A lot of people here in Kabul had just finished celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and after a long, hard winter the start of spring felt like the change we desperately needed. The celebrations were quieter than usual as the Taliban decided it should not be an official holiday, but children had still been out on the streets playing with their presents: kites, balloons, toy guns. Behind closed doors, people had been able to visit friends and neighbors to wish them well over a bowl of noodle soup or dried fruit and a cup of tea. These small acts of joy and kindness may not have been much, but they were something.

The Taliban have never held Nowruz in any great regard as it is not based on the Islamic calendar, and a lot of other conservative Afghans also prefer to let the occasion slip by unnoticed. There was, though, no ban on celebrating the new year in private, and that in itself felt like it could be a gesture of conciliation from the government at a time when we all need to come together and take the country forward. Kabul is a multiethnic, cosmopolitan city, and those of us who have lived here long enough know that we are better off respecting each other’s cultural differences than letting them divide us. Families are mixed between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks, and that is a strength not a weakness.

One thing we could all agree on this year was that Nowruz was a prelude to a far more important event: the reopening of girls’ schools. Everyone I know, regardless of their ethnic background or political views, had been waiting for March 23 so that their daughters, sisters and nieces could restart their education as the government had promised. The Taliban had always insisted that the decision to close girls’ schools was a temporary measure introduced on the basis of unspecified security concerns. They were now set to show they were true to their word on this key issue. As someone with a degree in Islamic law, I certainly couldn’t think of a single legitimate reason to continue denying millions of Afghans an education on religious grounds; on the contrary, I have always regarded it as our duty as Muslims to ensure that girls across the country have the opportunity to learn subjects they will not be taught in madrassas.

I felt happy as I left home that morning to cover the reopening, but by the time I reached a school in the north of the city, it was clear that something was wrong. At first I thought the students were upset because they had missed so much studying and were struggling to readjust to class. But then I heard that all schools were being ordered to close again, just hours after they had reopened. The principal, teachers and students were in the yard trying to make sense of the situation; there was shouting and crying. Some girls hurried to leave as if they had just witnessed a crime and were desperate to escape the scene before the trauma hit. Most stayed, however, hoping the news was a misunderstanding. Only at around 10.30 a.m., four hours after the school opened, did everyone accept the nightmare was true.

As a journalist I have covered a lot of horrendous events in recent years: suicide attacks, air strikes, kidnappings, shootings, rapes, house raids, roadside bombings, armed robberies. And like all Afghans, I lost friends and relatives to the war. But I can honestly say that the reclosure of girls’ schools on March 23, a day of peace, was one of the worst moments I have experienced. Acts of violence can be explained, if not always excused; this was a piece of self-sabotage on a national scale, the strangulation of all our futures. I am still trying to figure out the real reasons behind it.

Education has, of course, always been used as a weapon in conflict. In the 1980s the University of Nebraska Omaha produced schoolbooks that were distributed to Afghan refugees in Pakistan as part of U.S. aid efforts in support of the mujahedeen’s anti-Soviet resistance. The books openly glorified war by associating letters of the alphabet with terms like “jihad” and “mujahed.” At the same time, the Afghan communist regime used schools to spread its own political agenda while the U.S.-backed insurgents burnt them down. In the civil war of the 1990s that followed the Soviet withdrawal, the mujahedeen government kept girls’ schools open in Kabul, but most people were too scared to let their children attend class. Armed militias roamed the streets, and we had all heard how they kidnapped young girls and boys to sexually abuse. The situation changed again under the first Taliban regime. Boys were allowed to attend school to study subjects including Pashto and Dari literature, the English language, math, geography, history, biology, chemistry, physics and calligraphy. In primary school they were required to wear a white hat and in secondary school a black turban as part of their uniform. Girls were officially banned from all schools, but some continued to be educated in secret or in areas beyond the government’s close control.

There is no doubt that our education system improved considerably during the U.S. occupation. Afghans across the country benefited from being able to attend public and private schools, as well as universities. The problem is that these improvements also came at an enormous human cost. We may be paying the price for that now. If the war educated us and made us more progressive, it also traumatized us and made us more reactionary. It made some of us nurses and doctors, and others widows and orphans. Now the U.S. has frozen the assets of our central bank in part, it says, because of the Taliban’s intransigence on girls’ education. That, too, is likely to produce more tragic results in the months and years to come.

The Taliban government has explained its decision to keep girls’ schools closed by claiming it has concerns over the style of the current uniforms. No one I know, including many Talibs, believes that is the real reason. The uniform — a baggy black top and pants and a white head scarf — may be left over from the U.S. occupation, but it was designed in keeping with Hanafi jurisprudence and is clearly Islamic. After all, women who perform the hajj pilgrimage at the holy site of Mecca are allowed to show their face and keep their hands and some of their legs visible. Our girls are behaving no differently.

A center for Hanafi scholars in Herat, western Afghanistan, has issued a fatwa in reaction to the Taliban’s decision, stressing the need for girls’ education, and here in Kabul women have been out in the city protesting against the continued ban. Online and in person, Talibs are now arguing among themselves about whether it was right to keep girls’ schools closed.

Throughout the U.S. occupation, we were always told that the Taliban would never win because they were factionalized. No real evidence was produced to support these claims and, in the end, it was the Americans and their Afghan allies who were humiliated. Now for the first time even Taliban loyalists are wondering if the movement is in danger of splitting. The cabinet’s decision to reopen schools on March 23 was, it seems, canceled out by an unwritten order emanating from Kandahar. This apparently happened after a meeting between senior Taliban officials chaired by the supreme leader, Haibatuallh Akhundzada, but who exactly had the final say is unclear.

Let’s not forget that Afghanistan has been in a state of war or political turmoil since at least 1978. Entire generations have come of age in this environment. For some, like the girls who went to school over the last 20 years, education was a way out of our national tragedy. But for others it was the cause of this mess. Although we should be saddened by the Taliban’s decision, perhaps we should not be shocked.

A source of mine who knows Akhundzada well told me about a time he was with him before he became supreme leader, when he was just a senior member of the Taliban. Akhundzada, who has a background as a scholar and a judge, was speaking on the value of education at a mosque in Kuchlak, in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. “A mujahed will graduate from a madrassa,” he told the audience. “A Karzai will graduate from a school.” As far as a lot of the Taliban are still concerned, education led to occupation, it did not lead to independence. Freedom was won by the Quran and the gun, nothing else.

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