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The Consequences of Closing Girls’ Schools

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Girls at school in Gereshk, Helmand province, 2010. Picture taken from Wikimedia.
Girls at school in Gereshk, Helmand province, 2010. Picture taken from Wikimedia.
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Guest contributor Abdulhakim Allahdad, PhD in Political and Social Sciences at Marmara University, examines potential reasons and consequences to keep girls’ secondary schools in Afghanistan closed. 

Much changed when the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan came back to power on 15th August 2021. One such change was the sudden closing of all educational institutions in Afghanistan. After roughly two months, though, public and private education institutions slowly started to open once more. Primary and secondary schools were opened for boys in all provinces, but only up to the 6th grade for girls. In other provinces, secondary schools were opened for girls as well. In September 2021, after much controversy over the closure of secondary schools for girls, the newly instituted Ministry of Education announced that girls’ secondary and high schools would remain closed until March 2022 on religious, cultural, and technical grounds. Once these had been addressed, the schools would open.

The Ministry of Education followed up on this announcement on 21st March 2022. It declared that boy’ and girls’ schools would open, as scheduled, on 23rd March. The morning of the 23rd March arrived and, unexpectedly, the Ministry of Education announced spontaneously that girls’ secondary and high schools would remain temporarily closed. The announcement added that this decision had been taken by the leadership of the Islamic Emirate, not by the Ministry.

The leadership of the Islamic Emirate and other official sources have not yet disclosed the reasons for the decision. Currently, public and private universities in Afghanistan are open to boys and girls in all provinces, and only secondary and high schools for girls are closed.

The fact that the Islamic Emirate did not reveal the reasons behind the decision indicates that it was not due to religious, cultural, financial, or technical reasons. If these were one of the reasons, it would not have officially announced that schools would soon open on 21st March 2022. Moreover, if the Islamic Emirate had policies against girls’ education, it would prohibit female students from going to universities as well. Yet again, this decision looks like a pre-planned political decision.

With the closure of girls’ schools, the Islamic Emirate may have aimed to signal to Western countries that it is not open to radical and multiple changes in future, and that such expectations should not be held of it. The Islamic Emirate may have hoped that Western officials would settle for and content themselves merely with the opening of girls’ schools and would thus initiate full diplomatic relations. In other words, Kabul may have intended to use the opening of girls’ schools as a trump card in the political bargaining table with Western states.

Another possible reason could be the Islamic Emirate making a calculation of diverting the international attention from Ukraine back to Afghanistan and its ongoing economic crisis, with girls’ schools being closed on the day they were promised to open. As it is known, with Russia’s attack on Ukraine on February 24th 2022, Western states, international humanitarian organisations, and media organs have had their focus squarely on Eastern Europe. Afghanistan’s financial, economic, political, and humanitarian crises were thus pushed into the background. Therefore, the Islamic Emirate may have aimed, by closing the girls’ schools on the day they promised to open, to draw attention to the financial and economic crises that Western states left in Afghanistan.

Whatever the reasoning behind the latest decision of the Islamic Emirate, the wrong decision was made in terms of political prudence; the profit-loss analysis was not calculated well. The Islamic Emirate could pay a heavy price for this decision, both domestically and externally.

Domestic Ramifications of the Closing of Girls’ Schools

The closure of girls’ schools will continue to affect two important areas within the country: social unrest and security. The trauma of this decision, much of it emotion, will be felt most keenly by girls and their families, many of whom have waited for months for schools to re-open, who eagerly went to school on the promised day, only to be turned back. Simply put, this decision will not be easily forgotten, especially as it seemingly proves the accusations against the Taliban to have been right. Many schoolgirls, now accustomed to school as a reality, will be unlikely to forget the fact it was the Islamic Emirate that denied of them of school. Neither will Afghans abroad forget this decision, placing their country of origin once more at the peak of international notoriety.

Secondly, the closure of girls’ schools could lead to civil unrest and turmoil. The closure of girls’ schools has inadvertently reinforced the claims of opponents of the Islamic Emirate both at home and abroad.

As it stands, the Islamic Emirate mostly prides itself on the achievement of providing security. This is no small feat and it does, indeed, deserve praise. There is no military conflict, there is thus no bloodshed. The Islamic Emirate has undoubtedly succeeded in reining in its internal political and military opponents.

Yet the Islamic Emirate should be careful to not fall into the 2001 delusions of former Afghan political leaders and the United States. They too, in the aftermath of victory, had the illusion that the Taliban had completely perished and disappeared from the society, and that they would never be revived. Their biggest mistake was ignoring social, cultural, and political realities, and believing in their own material power and the dreams they had in their minds. The Taliban ultimately regrouped within two to three years and started resistance; a resistance lasted for twenty years and ended in resounding victory

The leadership should be consciously aware of the fact that current security and peace boils down to three fundamental pillars. Firstly, there is existence of a strong politico-military unity amongst the leaders of the Islamic Emirate. There is secondly the widespread disdain for foreign occupation and its installed regime and almost unanimous fatigue after 43 years of war. Third, and perhaps most important is the fact foreign states, both regional and global, are not providing any meaningful political, financial, and military support to internal opposition groups.

The existence and provision of current security are based on these three essential factors.

If any one of these elements change, it could herald the beginning of a new, turmoil ridden chapter. If such a thing were to happen, the experience of the 1990s being relived would not be a far-fetched prospect.

Foreign Ramifications of the Closing of Girls’ Schools

The closure of girls’ schools has likewise undermined the international standing of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. It has also further slowed the process of official recognition. As is evident, the Taliban have suffered from a trust deficit with other states, especially Western states, for twenty years. This mutual trust slowly blossomed with the commencement of peace negotiation in 2018 that resulted in the February 2021 Doha Agreement that paved the way for the complete withdrawal of foreign powers from the country on 31st August 2021.

It is a fact that states do not fully trust each other. They can, however, reduce mutual suspicion, inversely increasing mutual trust. The suspicion with which the Islamic Emirate was held by Western states was indeed at one point high. The Doha Agreement and the measured policies pursued by the Islamic Emirate over the last seven months reduced this suspicion and instead established an atmosphere of growing mutual trust. The closure of girls’ schools, however, has once again has increased the fears of Western states.

The closure of girls’ schools has furthermore slowed down engagement with the current government. This resultantly prolongs, or may even derail, the process of official recognition of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan by Western states and the larger international community. Ruling parties and leaders in democratic states are constrained by and account for their institutional norms and public opinion when making vital decisions in foreign policy. The reality is that public opinion in the West increasingly views Islam as negatively in general, and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in particular. Islam is perceived across the West as misogynistic and as not respecting human rights and women’s rights, especially educational and political. The rise of Islamophobia in the West is a clear reflection of this reality. The Islamic Emirate’s decision, therefore, has only has vindicated this perception and the pre-existing prejudices prevalent in public opinion, much of which is rooted in hostility to religion itself.

This, in turn, will have a detrimental effect on bilateral relations between Western states and the current Afghan government. Such policies will isolate the Islamic Emirate from the international community, slowing down and prolonging the process of normalisation and official recognition. The negative effects of the latest decision regarding schools were seen immediately as both Islamic and Western states condemned the decision swiftly. The USA, for its part, cancelled its scheduled negotiations with the Islamic Emirate on economic and financial issues.

Conclusion

The Islamic Emirate’s foremost duty is to use political foresight and prudence to preserve the state and thereby keep its citizens safe from threats, internal and external alike. In this, there are lessons to be taken from both its own civilisational heritage as well as  those from contemporary Western leaders. These leaders, in times of crisis, endeavoured to not incite social unrest with provocative domestic policies, and established good relations with their external enemies, attempting to increase trust, not suspicion. The Islamic Emirate is, after all, in its political, economic and military infancy. During this period, it should learn to stand, walk on its own feet, and struggle to survive in the jungle of the international arena.

The leaders of the Islamic Emirate should not endanger once again the survival of its state which is inextricably tied to the welfare of Afghans. The surest way to achieve this is with person-oriented, miscalculated and risky domestic and foreign policy.

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