Can the US force Taliban to lift ban on girls’ education?

WEB DESK: The United States has imposed sanctions on two Taliban ministers, Sheikh Mohammad Khalid Hanafi and Sheikh Fariduddin Mahmood, over their stance on girls’ education. But will they make any difference?

The recent decision by the United States to impose sanctions on two key Taliban leaders believed to influence Haibatullah Akhundzada in prohibiting secondary and higher education for girls, is seen as a part of global efforts to compel the Afghan administration to lift the ban.

On December 8, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Department of the Treasury designated Sheikh Mohammad Khalid Hanafi and Sheikh Fariduddin Mahmood for their involvement in “serious human rights abuse related to the repression of women and girls, including through the restriction of access to secondary education for women and girls in Afghanistan solely based on gender.”

Male-only cabinet

Hanafi and Mahmood hold influential positions within the all-male cabinet of the Taliban administration.

Hanafi heads the Taliban’s Vice and Virtue Ministry, responsible for implementing their interpretation of Islamic laws, while Mahmood serves as a minister and led the Afghanistan Academy of Sciences. Both individuals are believed to have played a significant role in encouraging Taliban Supreme Leader Akhundzada to issue a controversial decree restricting girls’ education, according to educationists and officials in the Taliban’s administration in Kabul.

Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, they have barred girls from school beyond the sixth grade because they said it didn’t comply with their interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah.

Afghanistan only country in the world to impose such restrictions
The Taliban’s move marked Afghanistan as the only country globally with restrictions on female education, impacting over one million girls, according to the UN children’s agency UNICEF.

Despite global outcry, the Taliban have shown little sign of relenting. In December 2022, they further extended the restrictions, barring women and girls from attending universities, even in segregated settings with face coverings. This move drew further criticism from human rights groups, scholars, and even Muslim organizations like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which sent a delegation to Kabul to urge the Taliban to reconsider.

Activists said that the justifications offered by the Taliban for the ban — concerns about religious and cultural norms, security and infrastructure — closely mirror those used in the 1990s.

“The Taliban have a strong rulebook they follow, and one of the rules is that girls don’t get education, mixing their own interpretation of religious and cultural norms,” said Ahmed, a Kabul-based development professional with a focus on health and education. He used his single name for security reasons.

Uncertain about the immediate impact of US sanctions on key Taliban leaders, Ali expressed hope that persistent international pressure, coupled with engagement with moderate voices within the Taliban, could contribute to progress on issues such as girls’ education.

The Taliban condemned the US sanctions on its ministers. “Imposing pressure and restriction is not the solution to any problem,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief Taliban spokesman, said on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

Possible cracks could spark change

Interviews with Taliban officials in Kabul, however, suggest internal divisions within the administration on various issues, particularly the ban on girls’ education.

Speaking anonymously for security reasons, a mid-level Taliban official told DW that Taliban Supreme Leader Akhundzada, surrounded by rigid hardliners like Hanafi and Mahmood, advocates for the strict implementation of Shariah and opposes moderate voices within the Taliban’s ranks.

The recent removal of Sheikh Abdul Bari Haqqani, the higher education minister in the Taliban administration, who had allowed girls to attend universities in separate classes until December 2022, exemplifies their rigid stance on this issue.

While internal divisions within the Taliban remain, Akhundzada has emerged with a stronger hold on power, according to experts.

“Besides a strong-armed security force that reports to Akhundzada directly, his network of conservative rural clerics is also more organized,” said Hassan Abbas, an international relations professor at the National Defense University, Washington, DC and author of “The Return of the Taliban.”

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“All things in the Shariah law domain and major policy matters, including girls’ education, are now solidly in the hands of the junta in Kandahar led by Haibatullah,” Abbas told DW.

There are no immediate plans for opening schools for girls.

“I miss my school, teachers, and friends,” said 15-year-old student Fatima (name changed) in Kabul, who has been unable to attend school since the ban’s announcement in September 2021. “Without getting an education, our future is dark,” she told DW.

The ban not only exacerbates existing gender inequalities but also poses a threat to the gains made in women’s empowerment over the past two decades.

US accused of putting up a ‘facade’

Maryam (name changed), a former school teacher in Kabul, said that despite corruption, bad governance, and the law and order situation over the past two decades, Afghanistan has seen a rise in women’s empowerment in education, jobs, and other fields during that time.

And Maryam accuses the global community of not being genuine in its disdain for the Taliban’s attitude toward girls.

“After handing Afghanistan over to the Taliban, the international community has regrettably turned into silent spectators, seeing Afghan women’s miseries,” Maryam told DW. “By imposing purported sanctions on Taliban leaders, they seek to present a facade of concern for girls’ education.”

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